Attention seniors! The 2014-2015 Common Application has launched. That means you can start filing your college applications now… if you’re ready.
The Common Application (known as the Common App) is a portal for more than 500 colleges and universities, that allows students to complete multiple applications electronically. Not every college uses the Common App, but many—including some of the most selective schools—do.
A few colleges use alternatives, such as the Universal College Application or their own websites. And some schools, including Harvard and Princeton, allow students to apply using either the Common App or the Universal.
So you think you know what it takes to get into Harvard? There’s the perfect 4.0 GPA, the 800 SAT scores, the long list of AP and honors classes and the resume packed with leadership positions such as head of the debate team, the lacrosse team and the school newspaper. To top it off, there’s that classic crowning achievement…being named the class valedictorian.
That’s more-or-less what it takes, right? Well, not exactly.
As a college admissions counselor and the mother of a Harvard student, I am here to tell you that gaining admission to Harvard—or any number of other highly selective colleges—is at once easier and harder than you might think.
It’s easier because a 4.0 GPA and perfect SAT scores are not required. (Although, if you have them, it certainly doesn’t hurt.) Nor must you flaunt a five-page resume with an array of stunning achievements, covering the gambit from mental gymnastics to third world philanthropy to impressive sports. The truth is you really don’t have to be superhuman. You just have to be an excellent student and … interesting.
A high school counselor speaks with a student in school
Why would a parent hire a private counselor to help their teenager through the college admissions process? Many are puzzled by this question. I once wondered the same thing. After all, every high school worth its salt has a college counselor on staff—sometimes several of them. Can’t these professionals help their students ace the process without outside assistance? In theory, yes. In reality, it’s not that simple.
A high school counselor—whether at a private or public school—must represent the interests of the entire school, not just those of an individual student. That means getting the largest possible number of graduating seniors into college. The school’s success or failure is judged in the aggregate, not by one, two or even a handful of seniors.
Playing the numbers game
In part, it’s a numbers game—a matter of probabilities. To succeed, a high school counselor needs to prod each student toward the schools where he or she is most likely to be admitted. And that depends in part on where their classmates are applying. Colleges try to build a freshman class with regional diversity. Even at the best private schools, there’s a limit to how many qualified applicants can be accepted at each college. That means the counselor must distribute their student applicants over a large number of colleges. It won’t do to encourage 25 seniors to apply to Yale, as qualified as every one of those students might be. That would set up too many teenagers and their parents for disappointment. And that’s bad for a school’s reputation. Better to manage expectations by lowering them at the beginning.