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This is the second part of a four-part series of articles providing basic information about the college admissions process, designed to help you feel confident as you approach that phase of education with your child. Read part one about what you should be doing and when.
This week I’ll be discussing what’s on a college application, the different types of applications, and what colleges are looking for.
WHAT’S ON A COLLEGE APPLICATION?
The internet has made the college application process much simpler in most respects but also harder in way. It’s easier because by this point, online applications have been honed and tweaked so they’re very user-friendly.
For example, each page/screen asks for one specific type of information (personal information like name and birthday, or home address, etc.) that should be easy to answer. When you click “next,” another simple and straightforward page will come up. It’s really that basic.
There are many of these simple pages, don’t get me wrong, but I can usually guide a student through entering all of their non-essay information into the form in two hours or less, depending on the system—if they follow directions. (That’s an issue in itself.) Without experienced, professional guidance it might take twice as long, but four hours for a college application is not really a big deal, right?
There is generally a menu along the left side of the screen or along the top, with subheadings for individual sections (pages) within that heading/category.
And most systems now give visual indicators for whether a page has been completed, like a little green check when all information has been filled in satisfactorily. See, user-friendly.
Here are the typical pieces of information that will be requested on any college application. The order might be different, but these are the data points they’re going to ask for:
- Personal and demographic: Name, address, phone number, birthday, ethnicity, citizenship, gender, foster youth status, military experience, and sometimes SSN.
- Family: Parents’ and siblings’ information as above, plus their educational and work backgrounds. There’s often a question about family finances here. There will be a determination of whether they qualify as dependent or independent student. They will also use this information to determine the state of residency.
- Education: Some systems require a student to enter their entire high school transcript into the online form, while some only ask for the current and planned coursework that doesn’t show up on a transcript yet (because those schools will be expecting that information to be uploaded by the counselor instead of having it self-reported by the student). If the student has attended any community college classes, that information will be listed as well. Generally a student will be asked to self-report their standardized testing results (SAT/ACT) but remember, the official results must also come from the test source.
- Activities: This includes all extracurricular activities, volunteer work, paid work, awards, honors, etc.
- School specific: What major are you applying for? In what semester do you plan to start? Are you going to live on or off campus? Are you going to apply for financial aid? What is your entry status (freshman or transfer)?
- Counselor report and/or teacher recommendations: For systems that require these, a student will usually have to enter the name and email of the counselor or teacher, and that person will receive an email requesting particular information. They will upload forms or type their responses directly online; they will not be providing anything to the student.
- Waiving rights: Systems will ask whether the student waives their right to see their letters of recommendation. The right answer to this is “yes.” As much as a student might want to see what teachers wrote about them, it raises a red flag if the student doesn’t feel comfortable submitting their recommendations sight unseen. It suggests that the student couldn’t find anyone they trusted to write something nice about them! So have them click “yes” to that question.
- Essay(s): Not all applications require an essay, some require multiple essays. (See below.)
Like I said in Part 1, students should be entering all of this data themselves and only asking for your assistance in making sure the less-familiar information they’ve entered is correct. The exception is the family section, where you can enter your own details without overstepping boundaries.
Many state colleges don’t require an essay, but almost all private colleges do. Most of the time, the “essay” is really a “personal statement,” meaning students are given writing prompts that relate to themselves in some way. There is usually a specified word limit.
Admissions officers are reading the essays both for quality of technical writing ability and for content. That first part is obvious and students generally get a parent or teacher to help them edit before submitting. What causes so much anxiety is deciding what to write about.
Here are some common essay prompts:
- Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.
- The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
- Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
Most application essays follow this pattern of asking the student to consider something significant and tell their story about it. Yes, story. Note that the word is used specifically in the first example (all of these are options on the Common App, which I’ll discuss in the next section on Application Systems).
“Essay” is a misnomer because that brings to mind an introduction, supporting paragraphs, a conclusion that reiterates what was said in the intro, etc. This is NOT what colleges are looking for. The “essay” is really a narrative. It has more in common with creative writing than academic writing (though it needs to be based on true events!).
I suggest you have your son or daughter look up examples online before getting started. There are sites dedicated to posting good application essays and sometimes that can be really helpful.
Should your child use a disability or hardship as the topic of their personal statement? Lots of people do this. Many of my special ed clients have used their disabilities as the focus, for example.
But be careful about playing the sympathy card, though. Consider what colleges are looking for. They want freshmen who are independent and resilient. They want students who are going to contribute to the campus community instead of being part of the problem. Therefore, they don’t want to hear any excuses.
“I had to drop out of my college statistics class because the professor never helped anyone…”
Yikes! They should never say anything like that (even if there’s some kernel of truth to it). One of the surest ways to turn off an admissions rep is to not take responsibility. Remember, they’re not just looking for the students who best match their academic profile, but also the ones that are going to make their school run the smoothest. This kind of statement is a big turnoff.
If the student can use a hardship as the starting point for their story but the real theme is about how they successfully overcame a meaningful challenge, then it’s a safe topic for the essay.
Finally, it’s very important that the essay be truly reflective of the student’s writing ability. The admissions committee is using it as one barometer of their academics, and that’s a critical piece of information for them to make a decision about whether your child is up to the task of handling their freshman workload.
OK, I’ve talked about why applications are easier. Now, what’s harder about applying these days isn’t the actual forms themselves but rather, the fact that online submission is so easy, it has created a cycle where the number of applications each student submits has become ridiculous.
It starts with students submitting more applications because it’s so easy. For all the Cal State Universities, for example, fill out the application once, check all the campuses of interest, and click “send.” You do have to pay an application fee for each school separately, but there’s almost no additional time investment to apply to 17 campuses instead of just one. This in turn means colleges are receiving significantly more applications to fill the same number of spots, and many of those from students who have little or no actual intention of attending even if they are admitted.
Colleges are in a panic over this. They may not tell you that but it’s true. They are in a state of perpetual anxiety about how to select not just the “right” kids, but the ones that will actually come if given the chance. What if they only fill 50% of their freshman class? That means 50% of the freshman tuition income they were relying on to meet their proposed budget for the upcoming year evaporated into thin air. So how many students do they have to accept to ensure they fill their class but don’t overfill it? Schools are designed to serve only a certain number of kids. Before online apps, they used to have a relatively easy time gauging who and how many to accept. But they haven’t yet figured out how to do this confidently in the digital age.
I mentioned the Cal State Universities and how you can fill out one application and send to as many campuses as you like. Almost every state’s university system is like that now.
When considered for a state school, your child is more likely to be evaluated as “just a number” instead of as a whole person. Private colleges tend to tout their use of “holistic admissions,” which means they care about the extracurricular activities and the essay and the aspirations. But a large state system doesn’t have that luxury. They’re a machine. Admissions will often be decided solely on GPA and test scores, assuming students have met all of the A-G requirements. (More on “what colleges are looking for” below.)
Aside from the online systems of state colleges and universities, there is another major player you’ll need to know about: The Common App.
Several years ago, small private colleges got sick of playing second fiddle in the admissions game compared to the big-name and state schools. After completing the main apps, students didn’t have the energy to fill out another five, seven, ten practically identical applications, one for each of the small schools they might actually like to attend but who had got bumped to lower priority on their list because of the work involved. So those colleges banded together to create their own system, The Common App.
Currently, over 750 colleges and universities accept The Common App, almost all private. So just like I was talking about before, now to apply to a dozen different liberal arts schools, a student just has to fill out one main application (plus each school’s “supplement,” which can range anywhere from “nothing” to additional essays). But all that main data entry about themselves and their parents and their transcripts and activities only has to be entered once.
This is easier, right? Yes. And the online form is very easy. But easy leads to that cycle I mentioned earlier of students applying to a relatively absurd number of colleges just because they can. And now they feel compelled to because they know their colleges of interest are getting more applications than ever, so they feel like they have to hedge their bets by applying to more and more colleges. The wheel goes ‘round and ‘round.
TYPES OF ADMISSIONS DEADLINES
When filling out apps, students will often be given a choice of the type of application they’d like to submit. Not all colleges offer all of these choices, but it’s good to know what they all mean.
- Regular: Nothing special here. They give you a deadline, you don’t miss it. Most often, they will evaluate all applicants after the deadline is over, or at least will hold off on making final decisions. Some of these colleges don’t give students an answer until the spring.
- Rolling: These colleges will review an application as soon as it comes in complete. Sometimes you’ll get a response within two weeks, but a month is standard. The benefit of this is obvious. If you can know by the beginning of November whether you’ve gotten in somewhere, it takes a lot of pressure off because you have solid options on the table and you have that much more time to decide before the May 1st commitment deadline.
- Early Decision: You can only apply to one college Early Decision. Yes, many of them share names (though I think the Department of Justice is currently investigating whether that’s really legal). EARLY DECISION ACCEPTANCE IS BINDING, meaning that part of the ED application is a contract the parents sign saying they are financially obligated to pay the tuition of that college if their child is accepted. Early Decision admittance percentages are much higher than for regular deadline, sometimes double, but if you’re caught applying ED to more than one college they might all reject you. This actually happens. And yes, it’s binding, financially. Don’t play around with ED.
- Early action: This is an almost useless category that has sprung up recently. It’s pretty much just an earlier deadline so you can hear back earlier than “regular decision” students do, but it is not
WHAT ARE COLLEGES ACTUALLY LOOKING FOR?
I know people feel like “what colleges want” is a big mystery. As if college admissions officers get together at some big annual pow-wow and set out their secret criteria for the application cycle. People ask professionals like myself, “What’s the hot sport/activity for college acceptance this year?” and similar misguide questions all the time.
But for the most part, it’s no mystery at all. It’s actually pretty pragmatic and logical, if you think about the situation from their perspective and not from the perspective of a hopeful student.
One part of the answer is: Colleges are looking for students who will actually attend if accepted. (Remember their anxiety over figuring out who to admit?) That’s why “demonstrated interest” matters. Your son or daughter can demonstrate interest by taking an official campus tour, scheduling an interview, or if you live too far away from the college, establishing a paper trail (aka email or phone trail) of contacting the admissions office to ask intelligent, germane questions. All of these things are noted, and schools figure that a student who makes several contacts with them is more likely to register, so those unofficial bonus points really do help.
Notice that I said the student should be contacting the admissions department. You can look over their shoulder and help, but all contact should come from them. Which relates to item number two.
Another part of the answer is: Colleges are looking for students who seem like they’ll impact their fellow students a positive way, and they also want students who seem to be able to function independently and who probably won’t require more than their “fair” share of resources to stay on track.
They determine this through the non-academic parts of the application. Three years on the lacrosse team? The assumptions there are that you a) can establish positive relationships with peers, b) can follow directions from a mentor, c) aren’t afraid of hard work above and beyond the minimum required of you, d) are a successful part of systems outside of the family and classroom. Likely to make a “positive contribution to campus”? Check. The same box can be checked by volunteer tutoring at the local library, earning one’s Eagle Scout, or holding down a long-term job at Taco Bell. I know people are confused about this but it doesn’t matter what the activity is, it matters what the activity demonstrates about the student’s character. And that the student seems highly engaged in it, not just going through the motions.
Here’s an easy one: Colleges are looking for students who have met or exceeded the A-G requirements–the proper amount of English, math, science, social studies, fine/performing arts, and foreign language. Specifics about these courses are easy to find online.
And then the part of the answer that the most people rail against is: Colleges are looking for students who are a good match for their academic program. A GOOD MATCH. You’ve probably heard this term before. I have clients all the time who complain that it’s “not fair” that their academically average son or daughter can’t get into Stanford or MIT. “Why can’t they just give them a chance?”
In the same way you wouldn’t expect to be hired for a job you’re thoroughly unqualified for, families shouldn’t expect their kids to get into schools where their qualifications don’t meet the established standards. And maybe that feels elitist or something but it’s really not. Colleges are looking for students who have demonstrated a level of academic achievement commensurate with the rigor that will be expected of them at that school. Period.
If a student has a B in regular English, not even Honors or AP English, then they’re probably not ready to start out writing 10-page, properly APA-cited research papers on the first day of freshman year. There are students who are ready to do that, and there are colleges that will require it. That’s a good match.
Accepting students who aren’t prepared for their rigor out of pity would actually set those students up for failure. It doesn’t do anyone any favors.
Consequently, you need to help your child figure out their “good match” schools. You can apply to a couple “reach” schools if you want. It’s not unusual. But the majority of applications should be to colleges where:
- They’re likely to be accepted because they match the school’s published criteria, and
- They’re likely to feel successful because the level of work is appropriate for them.
Anything else is a waste of time and money and even worse, will cause your child to experience an unnecessary blow to their self-esteem that could follow them through the rest of their life.
That might sound over-dramatic but I’ve been doing this job for a long time. Just trust me on this. Find the GOOD MATCH schools and whatever they are, have a positive attitude about them. Don’t show any disappointment to your child that they probably won’t get into a “better” school. They are undoubtedly already being hard enough on themselves. They need you to set the example of having a positive attitude and letting them know they are good enough, no matter what.
This is the second article in a multi-part series. Please be on the lookout for future parts for information about standardized testing, financial aid, accommodations for students with disabilities, and college admissions considerations specifically for homeschoolers.
Crystal Hope Reed has been taking the drama out of college admissions since 2003. In addition to general admissions she also has extensive experience with homeschooled and special needs students. She works in the West Los Angeles area (or via phone, email, or Skype with students who live elsewhere). Contact her through her website: NoDramaCollegeCounseling.com.