8 Tips for Surviving the College Application Process

Applying to college can be a source of stress for many families…here are a few tips to make the process more bearable.

1. Start early

Keep early in perspective; we’re not talking preschool here. Freshman and sophomore year you should focus on excelling academically and finding hobbies you’ll stick with. Junior year you should get to know your guidance counselor if you haven’t already. Then senior year finalize that list of schools you want to apply to!

2. Test drive schools to determine whether they will be a good fit

Make the experience authentic. All colleges look beautiful in their brochures and the guides are expected to say certain things. After the formal tour, take your own tour. Eat in the dining hall; visit the main green or quad area; and talk to students and professors. Be open to schools you (or your friends) have never heard of. Think about fit! Is the campus right for YOU? We all have sort of visceral reactions to different campuses. Listen to your instincts because colleges have a certain vibe or culture that is usually easily discerned. Find out if you feel comfortable with that vibe.

3. Have a range of schools to which you plan to apply and consider your application strategy

Applying to four ivies doesn’t improve your odds. The schools you consider should have a range of competitiveness in terms of admission standards. If there are certain qualities about a highly competitive school that you like look for similar features in schools that aren’t so competitive. See if you can identify some schools of interest which have Early Action or rolling admission, so you’ll know early on in the process whether you’ve been admitted.

4. Use the college essay as a true differentiator

The essay is not a miracle worker. Likely it won’t get the C student into Columbia, but it can make you stand out. Use this opportunity to leave a lasting impression. As you write the essay, you should be asking yourself: could anyone else have written this? The answer should be no. That’s how personal the essay should be.

5. Focus on things that are mutable (school selection, essays, interview)

Going into senior year, you’ve hopefully taken challenging courses; participated in meaningful extracurricular activities; and have a clear list of schools. At this point, GPA, SAT scores, class rank- these things are now essentially fixed. Now you need to focus your energy and effort on the things over which you have control. Like, for example, picking schools that will be a great fit; crafting a vivid and well thought out essay; or preparing for a campus or alumni interview.

6. Don’t let sticker shock deter you from applying to a particular college

Often, two colleges that start off with vastly different sticker prices can end up costing families almost the same amount. Many smaller liberal arts colleges and other schools with sizable endowments are able to offer much more generous financial aid packages, so make sure that you’re comparing actual cost when sizing schools up financially.

7. Pay close attention to outcome variables and not just input

So often schools are defined and categorized according to how hard it is to get in. The higher the GPA, standardized test scores and the lower the admission rate, the more competitive the ranking. But what do output variables say about that same school? Graduation and retention rates? What percentage of students are going on to graduate school five years out? What percentage of the alumni give back? These are all telling statistics.

8. Be mindful of what happens during the four years you are in college (internship and research opportunities; strength of relationships between students and faculty; study abroad opportunities)

An equally important factor to consider is what is happening during the four years. How many students are able to do research on the undergraduate level? Internships? Study abroad? What do the relationships between the students and faculty look like? Do the professors get to know their students? Do they hold their students accountable? Are the kids having fun while attending?

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  • Eric Allen

    Eric is the founder of www.admitadvantage.com, a leading admissions consultancy, and www.admit.me, a free admissions social network with the goal of leveling the admissions playing field. He is a proud graduate of Brown University and University of Pennsylvania, where he served on the admissions committee at UPenn’s Wharton School of Business.

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