The college admissions process is intimidating, complex, and full of anxiety. Few parents understand the process well, and most students hear misinformation and myths around their high schools. The following 10 points are intended to give valuable guidance to families with students approaching college.
The college application season starts when the senior year of high school starts. Applications are filed electronically and usually include one or more essays. In addition, students should have their transcripts sent to the colleges by their high schools and their test scores sent by the testing services. Public universities usually have their own online applications; private colleges usually allow use of the Common Application.
Colleges accept both the SAT and the ACT; they do not require both, nor do they care which test is taken. Highly-selective colleges often require additional testing (SAT Subject Tests), teacher recommendations, and interviews. Because the Subject Tests are similar to final exams, no additional preparation is necessary, but students should take the tests at the end of the high school course (May or June), not months later (October).
The SAT/ACT score is important, but it is not all-important. Although public universities rely heavily on this test score, private and highly-selective colleges use a holistic approach that considers all aspects of academic ability, achievements in out-of-class activities, and each applicant’s personal, human qualities. Nevertheless, students should prepare for the SAT/ACT seriously, using individual tutors if possible, but always spending at least 3 hours of practice for every 1 hour of training.
Teacher recommendations are the most underappreciated and overlooked pieces of the college admissions process. Students should get to know their junior-year teachers well and should approach some teachers to ask for a recommendation before the end of the junior year.
The main college essay – a personal statement – should be written and completed, if possible, during the summer before the senior year. The time requirements and pressures of high school distract students from completing essays timely and effectively.
Essays are not creative writing assignments. They are persuasive writing, intended to influence the reader to accept the applicant into a college. Style should follow content.
Interviews can be determining factors in the college application process. They often occur after students have been assigned initial grades by an admissions office, and thus they can distinguish between candidates who look similar on paper.
High school guidance counselors are very, very busy helping many students. Parents and students should not expect counselors to give significant personal attention to any one person’s college effort; there simply is not enough time to help students select colleges, write essays, prepare for interviews, and assist with financial aid and scholarships. Private college consultants have more time (and often more experience) to provide individual attention to students.
Touring colleges can be valuable, but it can also be time-consuming and fatiguing. Information sessions are not necessary; all of the information is available online. Guided tours are also not necessary; with a little research and a map, students and families can walk around a campus by themselves. Online tours that can be watched from home can provide valuable information quickly, and for free.
Selecting a college that has the right “fit” is more than looking at rankings and finding schools with a strong academic department. Any university with reasonable assets will likely be more than ample academically. However, college environments vary dramatically, and each students needs the right environment for optimal personal growth. There are a multitude of factor to consider, including curriculum, teaching method, academic flexibility, extracurricular opportunities, housing and campus design, off-campus assets and influences. Perhaps most importantly, finding a good fit requires knowing not just the college, but also the student. Because few teenagers truly understand their abilities, personalities, preferences and tendencies, self-reflection and professional assistance can help students understand how to make the first important decision of their lives: where to go to college.