Janelle Holmboe: Vice President for Enrollment, McDaniel College

by Kym Byrnes, photography by Walter P. Calahan

Everyone knows college is a lot of work, but until they are going through it, not everyone realizes that getting into college is also a lot of work. Parents and students alike stress over the application process. However, Janelle Holmboe says there are ways to manage the process in a reasonable and effective way. Holmboe oversees the admissions, financial aid and marketing and communication departments at McDaniel College. She has been at McDaniel for just over a year, following roles as the chief enrollment officer at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C., and at American International College in Springfield, Mass. Her advice to students who want to go to college? Get involved in school activities, pay attention to details, and the student, rather than the parent, should take charge of the application process.

What do students need to be focused on and thinking about as they are preparing to go to college and during the application process?
Students should forge a relationship with their college admissions counselors. Most people who work in admissions do so for two reasons: 1) they love working with young people; and 2) they believe in the transformational power of higher education and want to help as many students as possible achieve that goal. Students who get to know the admissions counselors at the schools they are applying to will benefit by having someone who will help keep the student on track with deadlines and requirements, as well as will keep them informed about special opportunities like scholarships, honors programs and more.

I also encourage students to create a new email address to use on their college applications, and then check it regularly to ensure that important reminders don’t get lost.

What are the top 3 things admissions is looking for in an applicant?
Obviously, the ability to be academically successful is paramount, and a strong track record in high school, both in terms of overall grades and course selection, is the best way to demonstrate that to an admissions office. But we are also looking for students who have a sense of who they are — this shows up in the types of activities that a student is involved in, the tone of their personal statement, and how they interact when they visit campus. An application only provides a very small window into each candidate, so students should share who they really are, not who they think the admissions office wants them to be.

Finally, we are looking for students who will thrive in a diverse environment where they will encounter beliefs and opinions that they may not have encountered before. And by thrive, I don’t mean this will be easy for them, but that they are open to the experience and the dialogue that happens in a liberal arts environment where we ask you to question yourself and be open to others’ experiences.

Does social media play any role in a student being accepted to college, i.e. do colleges really look at social media to learn more about a candidate?
I can’t speak to other institutions, but at McDaniel College, we do not routinely check every applicant’s social media accounts as a standard part of our review process. However, once a student decides to enroll, it is quite common for students to engage with other incoming students on social media platforms, including official McDaniel College accounts that we do monitor. It really is important for students to use social media responsibly and represent themselves professionally at all times.

Describe one cringe-worthy mistake that folks make when applying to college?
In my experience, attention to detail counts. For instance, it is really hard to overlook when a student names the wrong college in their application. Careless mistakes like this also communicate to the college that it is not ranked very high on the student’s list. I would also encourage students not to submit a letter of recommendation written by a parent, even if the parent works at the high school.

Although the parent might do their best to remain objective, I have never found letters of recommendation from parents to be useful. It really is best for the letter of recommendation to come from a teacher, coach or other mentor who can speak honestly and positively about the student.

What do parents need to be focused on and thinking about as they are preparing their kids to potentially attend college and/or during the application process? 
I hope parents focus on de-escalating the pressure students are feeling during the application process and empower their children to manage the process themselves. Many parents do not realize that once a student applies to college, all communication, including financial aid, billing and even grades once the student enrolls, will only be shared with the student. It is up to each student to decide to give their parents access. So, beginning to give the student ownership during the application process is critically important to future success. I would also add that forging a relationship with the student’s school counselor that is based on mutual respect and appreciation will go a long way toward making the process less stressful for both the parent and student.

How has applying to college and what colleges are looking for evolved over the past 10 or 20 years? What is different now than it might have been for the parents of today’s applicants?
I think the most significant change that has occurred over the past 20 years is the level of pressure and intensity that the admissions process has put on young people. College decisions are much more public than they used to be, with students sharing their acceptances or scholarship offers on social media. This has led to a culture where too many young people believe that their future success is defined by where they go to college, which has brought unprecedented levels of anxiety to a deeply personal process.

In your opinion, what is the most challenging part of the application process?
I think for applicants today, balancing all of the admission requirements that need to be completed by specific deadlines over many months while still juggling schoolwork, extracurricular activities and other responsibilities during their senior year, is the most challenging aspect of applying to college. One way for students to minimize this is to limit the number of colleges that they apply to. We frequently see students applying to more than a dozen colleges, but students really should be able to narrow that list down to no more than eight institutions that really pique their interest.

What is one of the top reasons applicants are denied?
Ultimately, we are looking for students who will fit into our college community and be academically successful. In admissions, we are very sensitive to the fact that our goal is not just to get a student to enroll, but to watch them walk across the stage at commencement in four years. That said, students who are denied admission should not take the decision personally. First, we’re not always right! And second, students should use this decision to reassess and determine how to demonstrate their academic ability in a different or more persuasive way. This could mean taking classes at a community college and then transferring to a four-year college or it could mean working hard to finish up their senior year with significant improvement and then reapplying. Students should remember that there are many pathways to success.