This season I asked three of my graduating seniors what they learned during the college admissions process. Do they have any sage advice to pass on to juniors, sophomores or even freshmen?
Yes, it turns out, they do. But each one reached a different conclusion, which I might have predicted, based on how very different and wonderfully unique these kids are.
Here, then, are the words of wisdom from three triumphant seniors, each headed to a highly-selective, top-flight college or university. Take from their experiences what you will.
Philip: Targeted writing can really make an essay stand out
On the subject of those famously challenging college essays, Philip, who’s headed to Columbia in the fall, said, “It’s important to edit and re-edit your essays. I went through multiple drafts but found that perseverance, attention to detail and targeted writing can really make a piece stand out in the admissions process.”
Well said, Philip, and very true. Targeting is one of the keys to a successful college application package, and a well-focused essay is an essential part of it. (Note to the uninitiated: to avoid panic, you should complete your personal college essay before September of senior year.)
It’s as predictable as the budding trees. Each spring the percentage of students accepted to top colleges drops lower. And each year a new crop of students and parents is shocked by the admissions outcomes. This season, Brown University, which has been “highly selective” forever, announced that it had accepted just 5.5% of the applicants who applied during its regular decision round.
Not to be outdone, Harvard and Princeton announced they’d only accepted 5%, while Stanford claimed an even lower 4%. To put that number in perspective, out of the 47,450 hopeful students who applied to Stanford, only 2,040 were offered spots in the class of 2022.
With odds that low, why even bother trying? It’s a valid question and many students are raising it. Yet, despite the odds, I have students each year who do get admitted to these highly selective schools.
Are you a high school freshman or sophomore, or the parent of someone who is? If so, you’re probably wondering about college visits. When’s the best time to start? And where to begin?
On the one hand, you don’t need to hit the road just yet. On the other, it is time to start planning. Time you invest now will save you lots of time and stress later. If you don’t plan ahead, it won’t be a pretty picture. I’ve seen it many times.
Every fall, I hear from panicky seniors, scrambling to complete their college applications. Just as they’re writing their essays, many are still trying to firm up their college lists. Some add and drop colleges on a daily basis. By the time December rolls around, the colleges they end up applying to are often ones they haven’t visited, while colleges they did visit have been scratched from the list.
This leaves the students, as well as the moms and dads, playing a frantic game of catch-up, as they try to figure out how to schedule last-minute college visits and interviews during late-fall weekends and winter breaks. At this point, there is never enough time to get it all done. Sometimes, even favored schools fall by the wayside amidst the chaos.
Seniors, have you written your supplemental essays yet? If not, it’s time to get going. Before you start writing, here are a few things to consider. The supplemental questions colleges ask may sound simple, but answering well is harder than you think.
It’s easy to rattle off a bunch of truisms—much more challenging to say something fresh that will hold your reader’s interest. To do a good job, you need to get out of your own head and into the heads of the folks in the admissions office. Ask yourself: Why are they asking me this? What are they trying to find out?
The short answer is they’re trying to find out if you and the college are a good fit. Schools use various questions to determine this. I’ll describe two common ones below. But first bear in mind that different schools and different questions require different kinds of responses.
High school has changed in the last few years—and not just because of technology. The college admissions process has become more intense, and the time frame has moved forward. Most students who want to attend selective colleges now apply for early admission in November of senior year.
That means juniors—and even sophomores—are visiting more campuses, doing so earlier and getting more serious about their college lists.
I’m urging juniors and their parents to heed this trend and get on board. It would be lovely to experience 11th grade without focusing much attention on college. But, if you’re hoping to attend one America’s top 50 schools, that’s no longer wise. With that in mind, you’ll need to juggle multiple steps of the process at the same time. You’ll be thinking about test prep while researching schools and planning your campus visits. Getting a head-start in junior year was once a luxury: now it’s pretty much a necessity. Here’s a rundown of what you’ll need to do.
For many high school students, the fall of senior year will be the busiest semester ever. But it doesn’t have to be your most stressful. You can minimize its challenges by planning the coming months carefully and putting all important dates on your calendar right now.
Choose your classes wisely
Make sure you’re on-track to complete all necessary classes this year. Check with the school counselor to be certain you’re not missing any requirements. Sign up for the most challenging classes you can handle. It goes without saying you’ll need to work hard and get solid grades to get into a good college.
Register and prep for any outstanding tests
If there are still tests—SAT, ACT or any others—you need to take at this point, register for them immediately and start prepping. Remember that many of the most selective colleges require the SAT Subject Tests (known as the SAT 2s) in addition to the other test scores!
Complete your personal essay
If you haven’t written your personal essay yet, block out the time and do so now. Start working on this project in early September, making sure you allow yourself enough time for several false starts. It’s not uncommon for students to write eight or ten drafts before they produce a compelling piece of writing. If you need help, don’t wait to seek it. After you have a strong draft, allow plenty of time for editing, copyediting and proofreading. See Essay Tips.
A good personal essay should present an aspect of your personality that is not obvious from the rest of your college application. The admissions officers will see your grades and test scores, a list of your extracurricular activities and your awards and achievements. They will also read the letters of recommendation your teachers have written for you. But they will not see the three-dimensional person you actually are. The purpose of your essay is to provide them with a deeper understanding of what makes you tick.
Selective colleges are looking for students who will bring creative energy and interesting thinking to their campus. Of course, they are also looking for evidence that a student is mature, socially conscious and will become a positive force in their community. The more your essay can convince the reader of these things, the more successful it will be.
Conflict is the engine of all good writing
To be successful, a personal essay must first hold the reader’s attention. To do that, you will need a bit of drama. You may have heard that every good piece of writing contains a conflict. Will Ahab avenge Moby Dick—or will the whale destroy him? Will Romeo and Juliet manage to come together, despite their families’ antipathies? If the writer presents a compelling problem or question, the reader will want to read on for the answer.
If you were wait-listed at your first-choice college, you’re not alone. Every year tens of thousands of hopeful high school seniors hear they’ve been wait-listed. It can be a rough experience. But it doesn’t have to feel that bad, if you have a strategy for dealing with it.
Wait-listing has become common, but many students and their families still don’t know how to handle the situation. That’s why I revisit the topic each year.
Most colleges use wait lists to manage what they call their yield. That’s the number of students who actually end up enrolling. The yield is always lower than the number of students offered admission. That’s because some students get accepted at more than one school and end up turning down several offers. Each year, as more students apply to longer lists of schools, the number of students who accept offers drops at even the most prestigious colleges. This phenomenon can wreak havoc with a school’s yield. To protect their yields, more colleges are turning to longer waiting lists.
Some schools also use wait lists for political purposes. They may be reluctant to insult an affluent or well-connected alumni by rejecting his or her child. To take some of the sting out of it, they’ll wait-list the applicant. If your local congressman’s trouble-making kid with a B- average gets wait listed, that may say more about the parent’s relationship with the school than about his kid’s chances of getting in.
When it comes to extracurricular activities, most high school students and parents think they know what’s required. To get into a good college, you need more than good grades and test scores. You must fill your schedule with extracurricular activities—the more, the better. If you can afford it, your summers should involve taking advanced academic classes on college campuses and “community service” trips to help poor people in remote corners of the globe. Right?
Actually, half right. But also half wrong. As so often happens, popular stereotypes based on just part of the picture are misleading. You really need to understand the whole picture to get it straight. But what is the whole picture?
There’s no doubt that top colleges emphasize high GPAs and test scores when making their admissions decisions. They also want to see that students have challenged themselves by taking honors or AP classes, if they were offered at their schools. Students and parents have that piece of college admissions race right. At selective colleges, these sorts of achievements are good. In fact, if you want to be in the running, they’re pretty much required.
It’s the other piece of the package that so many people don’t quite get. That’s the piece involving how you spend your time outside of class. Today most students talk about this in terms of “extracurricular activities.” It’s a convenient phrase but not always the best one. It encourages us to narrow our thinking, just when we should be expanding it.
Have you filed your FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) yet? If not, you’d be smart to do so soon. It’s the single most important filing for students seeking financial aid for college. Now’s the time to file the FAFSA. Here’s why:
This year the Department of Education has made the FAFSA available to students and their parents on October first, a full three months earlier than in previous years. They’ve announced that FAFSA filing will begin in October in coming years too.
For those hoping to get financial aid for college, that’s a big plus. It means students who file early may receive word of their financial aid packages in the late fall or early winter. That gives students plenty of time to consider their options before choosing which college they’ll attend.
I say “may” because the actual financial aid packages are put together by the individual colleges, not the Department of Education. Each college works according to its own deadlines. Some will move their timing up to complement the FAFSA’s early filing option. Others will not.