November Checklist: Seniors

Assess Your Progress Toward a Strong Finish

Finish your first semester on a strong note in the classroom. Colleges know that you often start your academic career at their institution in the same way you finished at your high school.

You should also continue to show teachers and other adults in your life that you make wise choices in and out of school and demonstrate that you are ready for the independence that you will have as a college student.

Next, place yourself into one of the following two categories:

Not There Yet: You have procrastinated or need more time to prove yourself to colleges; it is important to recognize that college admission is within your reach.

In the Waiting Room: You have written and rewritten essays, requested transcripts and teacher recommendations, sent scores and perhaps completed your interviews.

Checklist for Seniors Who Are ‘Not There Yet’

It’s not too late, and you’re not alone. Students move through this process at different speeds, and there is not one definitive deadline for all colleges.

Please note that the only definitive deadlines are for financial aid, and you and your parents must meet these deadlines to qualify for money. If you put yourself in the camp of “not there yet,” please follow these basic instructions to complete the process:

Take Standardized Tests, Before It’s Too Late

Register for the SAT or ACT before the late registration deadline passes. (Please note that some SAT test dates and deadlines have changed for students in areas affected by Hurricane Sandy.)

Request Supplemental Materials for Your Application

Request teacher recommendations and transcripts from your counselor as soon as possible. Most schools require three to four weeks advance notice to process these materials.

Complete Your College Applications

Nearly 500 colleges and universities accept the Common Application, which students can use to apply to a number of colleges and universities. You may also use your prospective college’s online application by going directly to the school’s Web site.

If you need help paying for applications or standardized test registration fees, ask your school counselor if your family qualifies for fee waivers.

Checklist for Seniors ‘In the Waiting Room’

You have handled the process part of the college application very well, which in so many ways shows that you are ready for the independence you will have next year. Take a moment to celebrate the work you’ve done. This is a milestone, and you should be proud of yourself.

If you’ve already hit the submit button and applications are out of your hands, this time can be wrought with anxiety as you wait to hear your fate. No matter how much you want to know the answer, you cannot speed up time; you will not know until the college releases their decisions. Some things to consider:

Keep Your Options Open

It’s not too late to make last-minute additions and revisit and reaffirm the choices you’ve made. Now is the time to make sure you have applied to an appropriate list of colleges that will afford you choice.

Prepare Next Steps After Early Decision

If you have applied under an early decision plan, use the next few weeks to work on the applications you will file if you are deferred or denied in the early decision round. Do not submit these applications yet (you do not want to pay the fees at this point) but have them ready to go. Do not lose time because of poor planning.

Mind the Deadlines

Be aware that some colleges use Jan. 1 as a deadline. If fireworks are bringing in the New Year outside, it is really too late to be working on these applications.

Follow Up With Teachers and Counselors

Here’s a well-kept secret: teachers and counselors like school vacations, too. Most of them have been working tirelessly all semester to support your application process. Let them know before winter break if you have additional applications you’d like to submit.

Now is also a great time to thank your teachers for their support. A kind word or a note goes a long way.



The Top 10 Myths of College Admission

Updated: More on myths. I tend to agree with 1, 4, and 5 – but feel they are all worth reading into further here.

The myths he spells out give hope to the less-than-perfect student. Mathew’s wrong ideas:

1. Colleges are impressed by a lot of extracurricular activities.

2. The more Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes and tests, the better.

3. Every high school grade counts.

4. A student has little chance to get into a top school without an SAT prep course.

5. The harder a college is to get into, the more it will ensure a bright future.

Original Post:

Great article by Steve Cohen, a contributor at and author of the book Getting In!. Familiarize yourself with the myths below. As Steve notes, the college admission process is stressful and difficult.  Separating the myths from the realities will help you to navigate it more successfully and with less angst.

Myth #1: College are looking for the well-rounded kid. Sorry, no; they’re looking for the well-rounded class.  Colleges put together their entering class as a mosaic: a few great scholars for each academic department; a handful of athletes; some musicians, dancers, and theater stars; a few for racial and economic diversity; some potential club leaders, etc.  colleges want a kid who is devoted to – and excels at – something.  The word they most often use is passion.

Myth #2: It is a seller’s market. Believe it or not, you are in a better position than you realize.  That doesn’t mean you can play off Yale against Princeton, unless you are a phenomenal applicant; or USC against UCLA, if you are a very good one.  But only about 65 colleges nationwide reject more applicants than they accept.  Among the remainder, there are still many excellent and well-regarded institutions.   And this is the group you want to focus on in terms of your “possible” choices (vs. your “reaches”).

Myth # 3: Essays don’t really matter. The essay is an incredibly opportunity to say something positive and memorable about yourself.  Your grades are already pretty much set.  Your SAT or ACT scores are what they’re probably going to be. And yet most kids waste the opportunity of the essay.

We know that many kids wait until the last minute to write their application essays.  That is only part of the problem. Even those students who get started early – whether self-motivated or nagged to near-death by their parents – never leave enough time to re-write the essay.  Writing is easy; re-writing is hard. And essays deserve to be re-written several times.

Lots of kids think the objective is to write about something that will “impress” the admission office. In part that is true. But what impresses an admission officer is an essay that conveys something positive about the applicant; that allows the committee to get to know the kid just a bit from those few pieces of paper. The essay is an opportunity to provide a different perspective about the applicant, a reason to accept a kid.  It is an opportunity not to be wasted.

Myth #4: Interviews don’t really count. Most large colleges – and all the Ivy League schools – have done away with on-campus interviews.  (Many do, however, offer alumni interviews.)  If a college offers the opportunity for an interview, it is not really “optional.”   It is a must do.

Failure to take advantage of an interview sends a message to the college that you’re not really that interested in the school.  And because there are lots of kids with credentials similar to yours, colleges will absolutely prefer a student who does an interview over someone who doesn’t.  Similarly, colleges will react more positively to a student who has spent some time thinking about why a particular college interests them and why they are right for that school.  Which means: do some homework and practice for the interview.  You don’t want to sound robotic, but you also don’t want to suggest that you haven’t given  real thought to why you want to attend that college.

Myth #5: Asking for financial aid always hurts. At some colleges, asking for financial aid has no impact on the admission decision.  These are called need-blind schools.  At other schools, the need for financial aid can impact an admission decision- positively or negatively. Schools will tell you which process they use.  Know too that there is more money available – in grants and subsidized loans –than you probably realize, even for middle class families.  But you have to apply for it.

Myth #6: Early decision is only for legacies and kids who are absolutely sure where they want to attend. Early decision – where you apply early to just one school and are legally bound to attend if you are accepted – can double or even triple your chances of admission.  It is also a strategy used by most of the top prep school and private college counselors.

The kids who use the early admission option typically aren’t any more certain about the “perfect fit” of a particular place.  But they know that their odds of getting in are way better and are advised to suck it up and make a decision about where to apply.  If a college turns out to be a poor fit, you can always transfer.

One important caveat: although the odds of admission are much better for kids who apply early decision it is a not a strategy to employ for a “reach” college.

Myth #7: You better have an impressive list of extracurricular activities and community service. Kids – often egged on by their parents – think that they need a laundry list of extracurricular activities, sports, and a summer experience volunteering as a latrine-builder in Belize in order to get into a top college.  Absolutely not true.  Colleges, in putting together that well-rounded class, want to see passion and commitment.  One or two activities which you’ve dedicated yourself to and where you’ve achieved a leadership position is far more impressive than a laundry-list of activities where you’ve just dabbled.

In terms of community service, most high school require some sort of community service.  And many middle and upper-middle class families think that it will impress admission officers if junior has volunteered at a local hospital or participated in some summer program abroad.  Sorry, neither typically has much impact on an admission office – unless it is a multi-year or “above-and-beyond” commitment that shows passion and leadership.

Myth #8: Admission officers are never going to check my Facebook page. Don’t  bet on it!  Some colleges have an admission offices dedicated to checking out applicants’ Facebook pages.   In an admission pool of a gazillion kids with terrific credentials, colleges typically look for reasons to reject a kid.  Having a Facebook page with “inappropriate” photos is an easy reason to reject someone.  A simple rule: if your grandmother would be embarrassed by you Facebook posting, make sure it comes down.

Myth #9: Get those VIP Recommendations in Early. There is a well-established saying in the admission world: the thicker the folder, the thicker the kid.  Do not ask VIP’s – Congressmen, corporate CEO’s, members of the college’s board of trustees – to write recommendations for your kid.  Unless your child has actually worked for that person in a real and substantive context.  Colleges want teacher recommendations. – teachers who can provide insight into the student’s interests, strengths and growth.

Myth #10: Forget the “top” colleges; they’re way too expensive.  Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Princeton all have sticker prices in excess of $60,000 a year.  They also have healthy endowments and strong commitments to helping students afford their colleges.  Students who attend these – and many other “top” colleges – find that they receive more financial aid and graduate with little or no student debt.  In fact, well-known “expensive” colleges are often less costly to attend than “second tier” or even state colleges.


Admissions Factors: What Matters, What Doesn’t

In conducting the survey, NACAC asked schools to rate what admission factors were of “considerable importance.” Here is the percentage of schools that placed the highest value on these factors:

  1. Grades in college prep courses 83.4%
  2. Strength of curriculum 65.7%
  3. SAT or ACT scores 59.3%
  4. Grades in all courses 46.2%
  5. Essay or writing sample 26.6%
  6. Student’s demonstrated interest in the college 23.0%
  7. Class rank 21.8%
  8. Counselor recommendation 19.4%
  9. Teacher recommendation 19.0%
  10. Subject test score (AP, IB) 9.6%
  11. Interview 9.2%
  12. Extracurricular activities 7.4%
  13. Student portfolio 5.9%
  14. SAT II subject test scores 5.3%
  15. State graduation exam scores 4.2%
  16. Work 1.9%

Equally helpful is what percentage of schools said the following admission factors were of “no importance.”

  1. SAT II subject test scores 58.0%
  2. State graduation exam scores 53.4%
  3. Portfolio 48.2%
  4. Interview 35.2%
  5. Work 30.6%
  6. Subject test scores (AP, IB) 25.3%
  7. Student’s demonstrated interest in school 19.5%
  8. Essay or writing sample 17.6%
  9. Extracurricular activities 15.2%
  10. Class rank 15.0%
  11. Counselor recommendation 12.4%
  12. Teacher recommendation 12.3%
  13. SAT and ACT scores 4.3%
  14. Strength of curriculum 3.9%
  15. Grades in all courses 1.6%
  16. Grades in college prep classes 1.6%


More (Basic) Admissions Questions Answered

Robin Mamlet, former admissions director at Stanford University and Swarthmore College has a new book out (she is a co-author) titled, College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step. The book  is written for students and parents from different backgrounds: those applying to the most highly selective schools, and those looking to stay near their homes; families with financial need and those without; kids who are the first in their family to attend college.

Read through her Q&A with Valerie Strauss via The Answer Sheet.

Supplemental Essays Over SAT/ACT Scores

There is much more to an applicant’s admission profile than their standardized test scores. Though most schools do require either SAT or ACT scores be submitted, there are a number that are no longer requiring them (yet many still do submit), and an even greater number that are placing less emphasis on this aspect of student’s application.

According to Jim Miller, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling,  hundreds of schools have gone test optional successfully. He doesn’t see a day, though, where the majority of schools won’t require a standardized score. “I think the folks that have done it have felt tests can be one tool with which to assess students, but that it’s not the best tool for all students,” Miller said. Other tools include admission essays and interviews,  internship and work experience during high school, the breadth and depth of extracurriculars, and most predictive of student success in college, GPA.

Read this article to learn more about how one Chicago school has now gone SAT/ACT requirement free.