The annual college admissions cycle is gathering steam. High school juniors and their parents have been swept up in a veritable tsunami of test prepping, tutoring, college visiting, web-searching, guide-reading, gossip-repeating, and speculation. As the process gathers momentum, snowballing toward the fall application deadlines, the anxiety/stress levels in households with college-going teens is reaching the boiling point. So, in the interest of keeping the hostilities between juniors and their parents to a minimum, here are some helpful hints for a successful college search.
1) Get Organized. Don’t procrastinate. The college application timetable is inexorable: deadlines are fixed, test dates established. There are NO extensions in the college application process. Start by developing a list of criteria for colleges that would appeal to you: small, bucolic liberal arts college or large public university with big time sports? Technical school with specialized training? Nursing? Engineering? Architecture? Do you know what you want to study? Or are you undecided? Small school (fewer than 5000)? Medium university (5-10K)? Or a large, comprehensive school? Where do you want to spend the next four years? In a very urban environment? In the suburbs? Or are you ‘crunchy’ and want to be in the great outdoors, where the traditional weekend activity is cow-tipping? What about the learning environment of your college choices? Do you want structure (like Columbia) or do you prefer to cobble together your own course of study at a place that allows you a lot of freedom from too many required classes (like wide-open Brown)? When you’ve got some answers to these questions, explore the college and university options available to you from the over 2,500 four- year colleges and even more two-year schools in the US. Use college mailings, school websites, and suggestions from friends and relatives to winnow through the many options. Shoot for a tentative list of 10-20 schools that meet most of your criteria. Remember, there is no single, perfect college for you. Need some expert insight? Seek out your college counselor, whose job it is to be current on the college scene. Don’t hesitate to get a second or even third opinion.
2) Get Competitive. The top tier colleges now admit fewer than 20% of those who apply. Get the best grades you can in the hardest curriculum you can undertake without negatively affecting your GPA. The stronger your grades and test scores, the more options you will have when the admissions decisions are mailed.
3) Find yourself a Hook. The “hook” is a term the admissions profession uses to describe that activity or passion that differentiates you from other applicants with similar numbers, and tells the college what special something you bring to their freshman class. The hook can be sports, music, or theater. Or a passion for Civil War history. Or radio-controlled model planes. Or working with inner-city youth. Sustained commitment to a real passion is IN.U se spring vacations and three-day weekends to visit colleges. Plan to visit one ‘safety’ school for every ‘reach’ school on your list. If you don’t have the time, use the summer months. Talk to students who go there, preferably those from your high school or area, and those with majors you are considering.
4) Take the SAT or ACT before summer. That way you'll have a benchmark, and find any weak areas you want to strengthen. That gives you the summer to bone up with study guides or tutoring to push up the test numbers. The sooner you start taking the REAL tests, the better. The ‘practice’ tests are not that reliable as indicators of how you can/will do on the real McCoy.
5) Build relationships. Before junior year is over, identify two teachers, who know you well, and in whose courses you have excelled. Ask them to write recommendation letters for you. Give them a summary of your extracurriculars, a list of colleges you are considering, and your potential academic interests. Don’t assume they know these things.
6) Get brainstorming. Start thinking about your college essay topics before senior year. Visit the Common Application website to look at their required questions. They offer four essay options, and a fifth that is the ‘write about whatever you want’ option. Get essay-writing help from your college counselor, or the English teachers at your school. Do NOT ask your parents for help. They will want to edit and rewrite, based on their experience. Their experience is outdated. The college essay has changed. Take your essay to your college counselor—it’s a good excuse to get to know your counselor, and for them to get to know you. Very important. They write the School Letter to your colleges. If they don’t know you, they can’t make the best argument for your admission.
7) Avoid Stress. Stress is the enemy of a strong application and a successful outcome. Most college kids surveyed cite parents as the biggest stress-inducers during the college search and application process. So here are two very important pieces of advice for parents:
Don’t ‘helicopter’ your kids. You’ve raised them to stand on their own two feet: LET THEM. Stop managing your kids, and start becoming a consultant. Be there when they need help, but let them take the lead. The second very important item: NEVER talk about college over dinner, EVER. Set aside a time, once a week is good, when you and your child talk about the college application process. Parental ‘nagging’ about college tasks at the dinner table has alienated more kids than it has helped. Remember, over 96% of kids going to college end up loving their school and getting a great education!