The college search process is complex. The many moving parts are daunting and it’s important to stay focused on what lies ahead. When launching into the throes of the college search, the following tips can help ease families into this exciting time.
What Matters Most in College Applications
So, what really matters in a student’s college application? Is it the number of community service hours completed? How about the fact that they’ve traversed Machu Picchu? Near-perfect SAT scores?
According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s (NACAC) recent State of College Admission Survey, a student’s high school grades have been, and remain, the most important factor in admission decisions. What they’ve done day in and day out in the classroom is what colleges are focused on when reviewing an applicant’s file.
Does that mean those hours spent writing admission essays will be wasted? Will the glowing recommendations from teachers be disregarded? Absolutely not. What this means is that supplemental pieces can’t replace, nor cover up, how the student has performed in the classroom. Their grades, and the types of courses they’ve taken, are a reflection on them as a student…the very things colleges are looking for in this process.
Shakespeare or Seinfeld? Finding Their Essay Voice
When students begin their college applications, there is one piece that elicits sighs, groans and general angst: the essay. The purpose of the essay is often misunderstood and many students approach it wielding their “5 Paragraph English Essay” sword. The reality is that admission officers are trying to get to know applicants via their writing and this is an opportunity to show the depth and breadth of their interests and experiences. So how can students make their essay stand out in a sea of “meh”? Here are a few general rules:
Write as one would speak: If a student is not sure how to do that, they should read it out loud and ask themselves “Would I actually say that?”
Tell their story: This is about them…the real them. Not about the person that someone tells them they should be. Students should be genuine and authentic.
Share something new: If the essay is about something that’s already outlined in another part of the student’s application, they should choose a new topic. This is an opportunity to share something new; don’t waste it.
Don’t try the “shock and awe” tactic: The essay isn’t the best place for students to test out their comedy act or tell their best gross-out story. Yes, they should be authentic, but they shouldn’t use this as a venue to be over the top. You never know who on the admission staff will be reading the essay, and while offending them may leave an impression, it’s probably not the one a student would like to make.
On the Road and In the Gymnasium: Getting the Inside Scoop
Though some students feel comfortable choosing a college sight-unseen, there are many reasons to be wary of this plan. Have you ever seen a college brochure emblazoned with photos taken during a New England winter storm? How about images of homesick students eating cereal for dinner in their pajamas? Of course not. Will families see these scenes during campus visits, Absolutely.
When scheduling visits families should know that most schools offer set group tour times that are generally coupled with an information session. This means families should plan to spend at least two to three hours per visit. While tempting, it is risky to try and squeeze more than two college visits into a single day, even if the schools are in the same city or general area. Traffic, parking delays, meals and bookstore visits can easily extend the length of visits.
Students should take many pictures during visits since visual triggers will make it easier to differentiate between schools once the family returns home. Here’s a helpful hint: taking photos of flyers hung up around campus will help students remember what types of clubs and social/weekend offerings are available at the school.
While on-campus visits are important, families should take advantage of opportunities to meet with admission counselors visiting their high school and attending local college fairs. Students should have an open mind and be prepared to learn about schools whose names may not be familiar. With more than 4,000 colleges in the U.S. alone, there are options for every type of student with any kind of interest. To make time spent at fairs more efficient, students should come with a few sheets of printed mailing labels that include information such as their name, high school, graduation year and contact information. This will eliminate time wasted filling in information request cards at each table and allow more time for valuable conversations with representatives.
Kristina Dooley is a Certified Educational Planner and Founder of Estrela Consulting. For more info,