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.
Besides good grades and test scores, what are top colleges looking for when they select their freshman class? Students and parents often get it wrong. Unsurprisingly, they have trouble cutting through the myths. That’s why it pays to ask.
At the Fourth Annual NYC Directors of Admission Panel this week, senior admissions staff from some of New York’s most selective colleges answered questions about what they want. Two, in particular, impressed me with their clarity and candor.
Cooper Union, long known for its high-quality programs in art, architecture and engineering, as well as its appealingly low cost, had an acceptance rate of just 13% last year. That’s partly because tuition is subsidized, making it one of the most affordable and coveted schools in New York. It’s also because it offers a fine technical education, right in the heart of one of the great cities of the world.
You probably know it’s important to visit colleges before applying. But do you know the best time to make those college visits or what to do when you get there? Do you even know why you should visit? It’s not as simple as you might think. Here’s what you need to know to make your college visits count.
One reason to visit a college is, of course, to check it out and see if you like it. But there are other important reasons too. One is to allow the college admissions staff to check you out and see if they like you. Another is simply to let the college know you are interested…interested enough to make the trip. Many colleges will only take your candidacy seriously if they believe you are serious about them. Be sure to let them know you are.
When to go
If you’re visiting colleges during your freshman or sophomore year of high school, there’s no harm in stopping by unannounced during summer vacation. Assuming you like the college enough to apply, you’ll be wise to return again during junior or senior year.
When you’re visiting as a high school junior or senior, you should view it as a mutual introduction—while you’re meeting the college, the college will be meeting you. At this stage, you should plan your visits carefully.
Every year in October, as the days turn chilly, I get a flood of calls and emails from high school seniors and their parents. Each one begins something like this: Tyler or Samantha has written their college essay, and they’d like an expert to read it (and maybe tweak it) before they send it off to the colleges on their list.
Of course, I’m always happy to assist, no matter what the timing. When it comes to teenagers, I don’t believe it’s ever too late to lend a hand. But nine times out of ten, after reading the essay in question, I look at the calendar and sigh. October of senior year is very late in the college admissions process.
It’s rare—extremely rare—for a high school student to produce an effective college essay on the first go-round. That’s even true of students who have straight As in English to their credit. One reason is that few high schools devote much time to teaching the personal essay. It’s a unique form that requires special insight and lots of practice.
But there’s a larger problem: few students understand that an essay must be an integral part of a well-focused admission strategy. That strategy should reflect your accomplishments, strengths and sense of who you are and where you’re going, as well as an understanding of the colleges on your list.
Are you a rising senior in high school? If so, now’s the time to write your personal essay. College applications may seem far away at the moment. But you’ll be there before you know it—it’s just a matter of months.
The best way to minimize the stress of applications is to complete your main essay this summer. Here are some tips for writing a great one. First, read essays other students have written. You can find collections of them online or in the library. After reading each one, ask yourself: if I ran a college, would I admit this person to my school? Why, or why not? Later, you can use these questions to measure the effectiveness of your own essay.
Ever since Malia Obama announced she’d take a gap year before starting at Harvard in 2017, people have been fiercely debating gap years. Will taking time off cause you to quit school altogether? Is it just another perk for spoiled rich kids? What position should parents take if their offspring suggests such a plan?
Before answering these questions, it’s important to know that there are different kinds of gap year scenarios. The most common one involves a student who’s already been accepted to a college, then requests permission to take a year off to pursue non-academic interests before enrolling. The student might spend the year traveling, doing an internship, volunteering, working at a job, or some combination of these activities. A growing number of colleges, including Middlebury, Tufts, Reed, MIT, Harvard and all the other Ivy League schools now encourage their admitted freshmen to consider this option.
Will you be a high school junior this coming September? If so, you’re getting closer to the college search. Soon you’ll be visiting campuses, prepping for the SAT or ACT. You’ll also be pondering whether you should apply for early admission–the deadline is in November–or regular admission–the deadline is January 1.
Before things become too hectic, get an overview of what’s ahead. Here are some things to plan for.
Sign up for challenging classes
College admissions officials look for students who’ve consistently risen to the academic challenges offered them in high school. That means you should sign up for the most challenging classes you can handle. If your school offers honors classes or AP classes, take them. But if your school doesn’t offer such classes, don’t worry. You can find other ways to distinguish yourself.
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’m revisiting the topic this year.
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 wreck havoc with a school’s yield. To protect their yields, more colleges are turning to longer waiting lists.