10 Tips for College Admissions

By John Thurston (director of college counseling)

Every year, like clockwork, a host of publications tap into a particular vein of national anxiety: getting your child into college. From September through November, flurries of articles appear decrying the increasing selectivity of college admissions. Hardworking, gifted, and accomplished high school seniors are, it would seem, unable to garner offers of acceptance, which tends to send parent anxiety skyward. In my experience, the tone of these articles is the same every fall, and yet, students somehow manage to navigate the process and find themselves with choices to consider come spring.

After almost 30 years in college admissions, I know some degree of stress and anxiety is inevitable. That said, I can offer ten suggestions to give families a bit more confidence regarding the college selection process:

1. Understand the Timeline

A great deal of growth and maturation tends to take place between the start of high school and a student’s junior year. In fact, significant growth happens through the summer between junior and senior years and even into the fall of the senior year. College and university representatives recognize this. I caution families against rushing the college selection process and attempting to jump-start students in their freshman or sophomore years.

Yes, most colleges and universities do consider a student’s entire four-year high school experience, but placing everything in the context of “looking good for college” is a tried-and-true recipe for academic burnout and student cynicism. Families should take advantage of a school’s advising system and the knowledge and expertise of individual teachers to ensure that the student puts together a challenging—yet appropriate—four-year curriculum. There is no benefit to a student setting their sights on calculus accelerated if doing so results in a trail of mediocre grades.

2. Read. Read. Read.

I cannot underscore enough the benefits of independent reading. Multiple studies indicate that independent reading correlates to higher results on standardized testing, and not just on the reading and writing portions of the tests. And I find that students who read are better prepared for completing the actual application.

Avid readers are not only more comfortable writing college essays, but more adept at doing so. Readers typically understand how to organize their thoughts in essay form. They are able to stay on topic, vary their sentence structure, and employ a vocabulary that sounds natural and genuine as opposed to the forced “app speak” that is the bane of so many application reviewers.

3. Know That Personal Reflections Rarely Receive the Attention They Deserve

Students often start with a few schools they know by name or where they can pursue a particular major or degree program. Far fewer dig further to think about how they learn or in what settings they are most likely to grow socially.

I start this process by asking students to think about their favorite, most exciting high school class and to identify what made it the best. Do they thrive in classes that emphasize collaboration? Are they drawn to material that seems to have direct, real-world applications? Or do they like the opportunity to ponder unanswerable questions?

Since most of my students are looking for a residential college experience, I want them to think about their lives beyond the classroom. In what venues are they most comfortable? How would they describe their friends? In the end, a college list created with a degree of self-awareness is more likely to result in the student ending up on a campus that feels like a good “fit.”

4. Beware the Tyranny of “Fit”

Too often, students and families approach this process with a romanticized idea that there is a single school out there that will fulfill the student’s every last desire. In truth, I think there are multiple schools for every student. A “good fit” is often the combination of a variety of factors, some of which the student may not have identified yet. I encourage students to write down their impressions of a school following a campus visit or even after perusing an institution’s website. Physically writing things down helps students remember what they found intriguing or off-putting. Plus, many schools ask applicants to explain their decision to apply.

5. Take Standardized Tests a Maximum of Three Times

For many students, standardized testing is an especially stressful part of applying to college. Taking the SAT over and over again rarely results in a significant improvement. I generally advise students that after a maximum of three attempts, they have probably achieved their best score combination and will likely be far better served focusing on their current classes and activities. Waynflete sophomores take both the Pre-ACT and the PSAT 10 in the spring to practice taking standardized tests and as an introduction to the content and format of the two most common college entrance exams, the ACT and the SAT. Juniors also have the opportunity to practice with the PSAT and an online ACT so that we have a stronger idea of which test makes the most sense for them to take in the winter/spring of their junior year. We then have ample time to consider whether there are any benefits to retaking either test over the summer or in the fall of their senior year.

6. Be Open to Schools That May Seem Obscure

Many universities are household names because of the success of a few key Division I sports teams. While attending a tailgate party with a cast of thousands may be a fantastic communal experience, it probably reveals very little about a student’s daily life on campus. A much smaller school without the same popular name recognition may be highly regarded within academic circles for its commitment to undergraduate teaching, for providing proportionally greater opportunities for student research, and for sending more of its students on to competitive PhD and professional degree programs.

7. When Visiting a School, Give Yourself Time

When students have an opportunity to visit a campus, I always encourage them to sign in at the admissions office and to take advantage of official campus tours and information sessions. While on tour, ask questions. Tour guides appreciate the opportunity to share their own experiences and are often great resources for putting prospective students in touch with friends and classmates who might share the visiting students’ interests.

During the visit, reserve time to explore the campus beyond the official tour. I encourage my students to approach young people they see on campus and engage them in conversation. Try to connect with alumni from your high school, as they will be able to put the school in a more personal context. Doing so is a wonderful way to find out more about a school and often serves to reassure families that they received an “unscripted” take on campus life. Two college visits in a day is the most a prospective student should schedule.

As colleges have restricted in-person visits to campus due to COVID-19, they have increased online opportunities. Students can participate in a host of activities, including virtual tours, information sessions, and student chats. Colleges increasingly monitor this level of engagement by applicants. Admissions officers have reported that for some students, online opportunities provide greater comfort (at least during the initial stages of the search process), with prospective students asking more questions and participating in activities more freely.

8. Remember—Not All Colleges Do Things the Same Way

When I was working in college admissions, my colleagues and I frequently bemoaned the rise in the number of inquiries from parents of ninth or tenth graders requesting on-campus interviews with an admissions officer. The sense was that these requests were again fueled by a desire to “get out ahead” of the perceived competition. In general, interviews are reserved for students in the spring of their junior year through the fall of the senior year, with many happening on campus over the summer between eleventh and twelfth grades. Interviews are a perfect example of how not all colleges do things the same way. What one institution may advise, or even encourage, may be frowned upon by another. Students should pay attention to the directions on a school’s admissions website and heed the instructions they encounter.

9. Realize That College Admission Is Not a Reward System Set Up to Recognize the “Best”

While students should expect admissions offices to winnow the applicant pool somewhat based on high school course selection, grades, and scores, a host of additional factors are likely to determine the composition of the admitted class. An institution may have a particular set of priorities that the admissions office is tasked to address, and these priorities may shift from year to year.

Remember, colleges and universities have bills to pay, departments to support, teams to field, and organizations to populate. Admissions officers are looking for students who will be successful academically and enrich the community. On the other hand, not receiving an offer of admission from a particular school does not diminish or invalidate a student’s merits or accomplishments. Admissions officers are usually the first to admit that there were many, many students they would have been happy to welcome to campus were there more spaces in the class.

10. Live in the Present and Make the Most of High School

Students who do this tend to thrive during their high school years. They are happy and look forward to going to school and interacting with their teachers and peers. For some, focusing on the present results in a stellar classroom performance. For others, it may mean notable accomplishments in co-curricular activities. Regardless of their individual achievements, students who are genuinely committed to making the most of high school are able to approach the college selection process with greater self-awareness and confidence. When asked to reflect upon their activities or to identify why a college may resonate with them, these students prove impressive in formulating a mature, sincere, and compelling response. Happily, embracing the present turns out to be the best preparation for the future.

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