Strategies from the Experts
Your children are in high school, and you suddenly realize that college is actually on the horizon. Where do you begin? The process is daunting, but luckily, you’re not alone. We asked some North Shore college placement experts to share their strategies and tips to help guide the whole family through the college application maze.
Harriet Gershman is a certified educational planner and founder of Academic Counseling Services Inc. in Evanston; Jacquie Berkshire is a post-high school counselor for Lake Forest High School, and independent college counselor; Jennifer Sparrow is an independent college counselor and owner of JSS College Counseling in Lake Bluff.
How do students decide which schools to apply to?
Harriet Gershman: Students should do some self-searching in three broad categories: personal, academics, and social. What gives them the greatest pleasure and where are they most content in their current academic world? If close relationships with teachers are important, for example, the student may want to focus on smaller schools or those with smaller class size. What kind of academic student are they? Students and parents need to be honest and realistic about this so that the student applies for schools that offer realistic acceptance and college success rates once they are enrolled. What type of social climate do they want? Factors such as whether or not there is a Greek system, competitive sports teams and events, and an active social scene are just as important as academics.
Jacquie Berkshire: “Know thyself.” Early in the process, cast a wide net of potential schools, and don’t narrow the choices too soon. Shoot for the best of all possible worlds—academics, social, and geographical. Students should think about the experiences they have in high school that they feel they must maintain in college. Consider the breadth of offerings at each school. Will the college allow you to study all that you are interested in, even if it may not be your major? Some schools offer “3–2 programs,” where a student takes three years of liberal arts, for example, and then continues to complete a two-year career-specific program, such as engineering.
Jennifer Sparrow: Students should think about their personalities, interests, and values. Have they already demonstrated interest in a particular field? For example, are they adept and challenged by working with data and figures, or are they more socially inclined? After that, they can move onto types of schools. They might develop a checklist that covers anything from class size to geographic location and weather. Once the student begins to visit campuses, they can expand on the checklist to really compare and contrast different schools.
What matters most—GPA or test scores? And how does the depth of the course load, including advanced classes, affect the likelihood of acceptance?
HG: Grades first and scores second. The depth of course load is important. How many four-year sequences did the student carry in all five disciplines—math, history, English, language, and science? How many honors and AP courses did they take?
JB: Grades and the rigor of the academic program are most important. What does their high school offer and to what extent did the student take advantage of it? This includes honors and AP classes, stellar programs in the arts and sciences, rarely offered foreign languages.
JS: Grades are the greater predictors of admission. But colleges are looking holistically more and more. So if a student is borderline for acceptance, also known as “on the bubble,” the admissions office may ask for an essay or letter of recommendation that could tip the scale. The college wants to be sure that if they admit the student, he or she will be successful over four years, because every year is increasingly difficult.
Do extracurricular activities help a student get accepted?
HG: The smaller the school, the more important the whole person becomes. It is important for a school of only 2,000 students to select diverse and enriched student classes where students bring something more besides grades to the community—students who reach out of the box and show leadership, creativity, passion, dedication.
JB: Schools look at to what extent students take advantage of extracurricular offerings. How did they organize their time outside of the classroom? The type of activity and percentage of student’s time dedicated are also factors. If the student has a job, work experience demonstrates responsibility, especially if they worked at the same job over their high school years.
JS: The activities must mean something to the student. The National Merit Society, for example, requires a substantial level of involvement. Demonstrated leadership is also very important, more than simply being a member of a club. Anybody can be a leader. Kids can teach CCD, organize their own babysitting service, or serve on a student leadership board. Adult mentors involved in these activities will also serve as excellent sources for letters of recommendation.
Do summer programs make a difference? If so, what kinds of programs?
HG: Summer programs, such as paid-for work trips to disadvantaged countries, can be interesting for students, but they do not necessarily tilt the application in their favor. Some highly regarded academic summer programs, such as the Cherub National High School Institute program at Northwestern University, will give students an excellent introduction to the college world and may influence acceptance at some colleges.
JB: Summer programs probably won’t make much of a difference, unless a student does something like travel to the University of St. Andrews for its elite Creative Writing Summer Programme, or attend the Tanglewood Music Center music academy in Lennox, Massachusetts, designed to provide an intense training and networking experience. For some students who have never been away from home, summer-away programs can be very important in their developmental preparation for going away to college. Students need time to daydream, too—to think about what they want to do with their lives.
What are the pros and cons of applying for early decision(ED)?
HG: Schools typically accept a much higher percentage of ED applicants than standard admission applicants. But is this the student’s dream school? Do they fit the profile, or is it a stretch? ED applications do hold tremendous weight with the admissions office.
JB: One benefit is that if a student is accepted for early decision, the college application process is over early in their senior year. On the other hand, it depends on the institution. Careful research is critical in weighing whether or not to apply for ED. What percentage of applicants does each school take? Some accept only a third, while others take over 50 percent. And, ED is not usually a good idea for students requiring financial aid.
What role do letters of recommendation play?
HG: Letters of recommendation can be really meaningful, and the smaller the school, the more important they become. Recommendations, from teachers in particular, give insight into the student in a way that nothing else can. But too many letters in a student’s file can be an indication to admissions counselors that the student is lacking in other areas.
JS: Recommendations from teachers, advisors, and organization mentors are very important. Most colleges look to teacher recommendations to see what that student is really like in the classroom.
What role do alumni (legacy) connections play?
HG: The student still needs to be qualified. They’ll have to perform when they get into the school. The admissions process at schools runs very well—they know who will succeed and care about the class of students they select.
How can we make the most of college fairs and campus visits?
HG: Campus visits are especially important if the student is contemplating an early decision application. In general, students don’t have to visit every school they are considering, but they will want to visit every type of campus so they can zero in on the type of school they want—large or small, state or private, rural, suburban, or urban.
JS: Campus visits are so important to making a final decision. But it doesn’t have to be an early campus visit. A good time to begin college visits is before spring break of junior year.
While visiting, students should make an effort to get the scoop. To really find out what is going on around the school and campus, they should meet with an individual outside the admission office, sit in a classroom, and ideally stay overnight in a dorm. They can visit the kiosks and activity listings to see what social and other events are coming up. Talking to current students working at the campus bookstore or around campus can reveal a lot of valuable information about what it’s like to be a student at that school. They want to have a gut feeling when they leave: Do they see themselves living and going to school on that campus?
About how many applications should a student submit?
JS: There is no point in submitting too many applications. The more schools a student applies to, the harder it will be to choose one school when acceptances come in.
What additional tips do you have?
HG: There is a school for everyone—students will find the right school, and a campus they love, wherever they fall on the learning curve.
JB: To senior parents: When anxiety starts to rise, keep perspective! You and your child have done your homework, selected your list, and submitted those applications. As stakeholders and caregivers in their lives, the most important thing is to give your children a consistent message that wherever they land, they will be okay and able to succeed.
JS: Have students create a separate email account they’ll only use for their college search— something more descriptive such as their name and nothing inappropriate.