I talk with students regularly looking for a “magic-plan”. This plan will somehow transform mediocre work into something amazing and these “C” students will somehow be admitted into Yale. The reality is far from that. Do you know who gets into Yale? Smart people. This is most often reflected in their grades and test scores; that is why they get into Yale. But with an acceptance rate (according to College Board) of 8%, being smart isn’t good enough- you also have to be wise. Wisdom is a word that isn’t used much in America today, but it really is needed in order to get really bright students where they ought to be. This short article is about “packaging yourself” for the college admissions process.
The truth about the Ivy’s is that they are great universities, but equal in truth is the reality that there are hundreds of great universities around the country and you need to open yourself- it’s just about getting into the best school, it’s about getting into the right school. It is about getting into the school that will help you to fulfill your dreams and hopes and aspirations.
These days getting into any school has become a challenge and with budget cuts, increases in class sizes and reduction in counseling departments, finding good help can be difficult, and even pricey! College Life Planning hopes to bring some light into the college guidance world, give you some solid information you can run with, and save you money.
Back to packaging yourself. When it comes time to apply to college, you are a senior and you have been busting your behind to get everything in the right order. You have taken the right classes, you’ve been dedicated to the homeless ministry at your church, you studied for the SAT and got a great score, you even have a recommendation from a federal judge- you are ready! But the reality is that there are literally 40,000 other students who look exactly the same on paper. Great grades, good test scores, and involved. So how do you stand out?
There is a phrase that goes something like this, “it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” This is very true, especially when it comes to your admissions applications! You have got to let your application come alive, this is not just a piece of paper that determines your future- it is your story.
Here is a silly video you may enjoy:
It is a bit long, so I’m not offended if you just jumped right back into where I was going with all this (I know you’re riveted by my writing and style)…
Here are the top four things you must include in your admissions application:
- All the normal stuff: This is your transcripts with the most rigorous courses your school offered (or the most rigorous you could stand) with the grades to show your dedication and commitment. Your SAT or ACT scores would be sent to the colleges directly from College Board and these are critical. Study for this test, and take it at least two times. etc etc. You get the point; you apply to the schools that are within a range of your abilities with some obvious shoe-ins (for you) on one hand and on the other, some reach schools that would be difficult for you to get into.
- The recommendations: These are often very important int he admissions process. Who recommends you and what they say about you is vital! So with this in mind, choose people you know and more importantly, who know you (well). In addition, be sure to get recommendations from people whoa re in a field of study that you hope to continue into college. If you want to pursue biology, but your recommendations are from your AutoShop class and Spanish… there might be a disconnect there- and colleges can see it. One other point, ask your recommender to review their recommendation of you. They may say “no”, and that settles it, but they will probably be willing to show you what they wrote, and then you can ask for clarification and even give some coaching.
- Your extracurricular activities: These will NOT get you into college. But they sure help! When you are working with a pool of potential college applicants as big as Lake Michigan you need to go above the pack. Mike Moyer over at http://www.collegepeas.com says one way to set yourself apart is with an NTA, or a non-teenager activity. He defines this as, “quite simply, any activity that other teenagers don’t typically do. By choosing an NTA you will differentiate yourself in a way that will have a very positive impact on your chances of getting into college.” Need some ideas? Contact us.
- Your personal Statement: This is a key component because it is your chance to tell your story. The truth is that the entire application for admission is telling your story, but the personal statement/essays might be a way to share the more personal side. This is a chance to demonstrate that it’s not just a number on an application, this is YOUR life. And you are living and breathing and your life matters. And with this life you have you are going to make a difference no matter the odds, no matter the circumstances, good or bad; you will be a difference maker, in your own way. You are saying to the admissions officer, “you already have my grades, activities, clubs, jobs, passions; you know all the facts about my life; no let me introduce myself to you.”
At the end of the day you are “selling” yourself. Don’t get me wrong, the colleges need you too! That is an entirely different post. But you are showcasing your achievements, your passions, your values, and you are pleading your case on why you not only deserve to go the school you are applying to, they would be remiss if they didn’t accept you, leaving a gaping hole in their university. So choose which school you are going to attend, and then package yourself well.
- Recognize that gaining admission to college is merely one step in a process of education that will include your student attending a college where she or he can maximize talents and growth. Emphasize the education.
- Resist doing for your students what they are capable of doing for themselves.
- Allow your child to take responsibility for his or her own part of the college application process. Be involved in the process, but do not try to control it.
- Resist relying on rankings and college selectivity to determine the most suitable colleges for your child.
- Realize that researching, selecting, and applying to colleges does not have to be an expensive process.
- Resist attempts to turn the process into a status competition. Develop a healthy, educationally based, and family-appropriate approach to college admissions.
- Consider that gaming the system may not only diminish your child’s self-confidence, it may also jeopardize desired admission outcomes.
- Listen to, encourage, and believe in your child. Do not use the term “we” as in “we are applying to…”
- Discuss the idea of education as an ongoing process, and how selecting a college might be different from buying a product.
- Love them enough to let them demonstrate the independence you have instilled in them.
- Keep this process in perspective. Remember that student skills, self-confidence, curiosity, and desire to learn are some of the most important ingredients in a quality education and successful college admissions. Do not sacrifice these by overemphasizing getting into the “best” college.
Chapter 1: Getting Organized
By: College Life Planning
Getting organized for college is the most important step before applying. In order to get organized, you need to establish a college checklist. There are a handful of tests, registration dates, requires courses, extracurricular activities and meetings which should be done during your sophomore and junior year of high school.
For those who are sophomores and in the 10th grade, the first step is to take challenging courses in the areas of English, history, geography, foreign languages, government, economics, math, science, and the arts. The next item on your checklist is to speak with your counselors and locate adults willing to talk to you about their profession. Ask them what they like and dislike about their jobs and what level of education is needed for each profession. The third thing on your college prep and college checklist is to get involved in extracurricular activities which interest you or which help you to explore which kind of career you are looking for. Make sure to use your summer wisely in this regard and incorporate a summer course at a local community college, a summer job for experience, or volunteer work. The next item on your checklist is to meet with your counselors to discuss the requirements of each college you are considering. Take the practice SAT tests as well as National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. Register early for these and speak with your counselor for fee waivers if you cannot pay the registration fee. Make sure to continue saving for college at this point and visit colleges if you can. Part of saving for college requires an understanding of financial aid. You should learn the difference between college loans, grants, work study, and scholarships. This can be done at www.college.gov. Talk to other college students you know about their experiences to gain insight. They can recommend career paths for summer employment as well as colleges which might match your interests.
You aren’t the only one who has a checklist to create. Your parents should be part of your checklist. Their roles include helping you balance a part time job with school, helping you take night courses at a local college or contributing to financial aid. They should help you learn about the required standardized tests and read an overview of financial aid options and scholarship options for you at www.ed.gov/parents.
For those in their junior year of high school, the college checklist which should be created expounds upon the initial checklist for the 10th grade. You should continue taking challenging courses such as AP courses in the areas of English, history, geography, foreign languages, government, economics, math, science, and the arts. After this you should continue to meet with your counselor or career advisor to discuss the colleges you are interested in and what their individual requirements are. The third item on the checklist is continuing with your participation in extracurricular activities through your school and/or your local community. At this point you should begin to decide which colleges are of the most interest to you. Add to your checklist that you should contact each of the most interesting colleges and request additional information as well as the admission application. Speak with them about any special admissions requirements, deadlines for admissions, as well as financial aid. The next check point is to attend college fairs and speak with the college representatives about admissions information. After this, visit the colleges you find most interesting and speak with current students to get a first-hand perspective. Now you begin considering people who would write letters of recommendation for you. Consider people such as teachers, employers, or counselors. When you consider your field of study, consider which jobs you want. Exploring careers as well as their potential for earnings can be done through www.bls.gov/oco.
The next step is investigating financial aid from federal sources, state sources, local and private sources. Counselors can offer information pertaining to this. On the same note, add to your check list the investigation of scholarships. These are offered by credit unions, religious groups, labor unions, corporations, professional associations, as well as private parties. Libraries will help you locate scholarship directories for females, minorities, and people who are disabled. The next step is to register for the SAT I, SAT II, ACT, and any AP tests and then take them. For those who have difficulty paying the registration fee, your counselor can help direct you to fee waivers. During the fall of your junior year is when you have to take the PSAT and the NMSQT in order to qualify for scholarships. In the spring is when you register and take the SAT and ACT. Lastly, you should continue to save for college.
By this time you will be ready to discuss your college plans in detail, complete all of the financial aid forms on time, write to your colleges, take all necessary entrance exams, prepare your application, and visit those colleges you truly wish to pursue. Helpful websites for this stage include:
The “college admissions resume”—often called a “brag sheet”—lets you show colleges what you’ve been doing during high school. Additionally, the resume also serves as a valuable resource for the people writing your recommendations. You should include a resume with your application if a college requests one, or if the application itself doesn’t offer enough room to describe all your involvements.
To create a resume, follow the basic recipe below. After your “Heading” and “Education,” feel free to rearrange, rename, combine, or omit categories so that they make the most sense with your unique background. For example, you can leave out “Special Projects” if you have none, or create two categories from “Experience” into “Work Experience” and “Volunteer Experience” if you have a lot of both.
At the top of your “brag sheet”, include your name, address, phone number, and email address (professional email only). Include any tracking numbers (i.e. SSN, Student ID number etc) that the college may have requested be placed on all incoming documents as well.
List your high school(s), including location and years attended. Consider specifying your GPA and class rank (only if you rank in the upper 3/4 of your class. You should include academic awards here too.
Think about everything you’re involved in: clubs, sports, art, music, drama, journalism, religious groups, and so on. Then list these extracurriculars, with the most significant or most recent at the top. (If this list seems overwhelming, consider grouping it into sub-categories like “Music” or “Sports” first.)
For each item on your list, do the following:
- Briefly describe
- Specify the time of involvement (e.g., Fall 2009) and the amount of time spent (e.g., 4 hours per week).
- Mention any leadership roles. You can also include awards here, or list them in a separate “Awards” section.
- Put your achievements in perspective whenever possible. For example, write, “This team is ranked in the top 10 for California” or “Only three students at Liberty High School received this award.”
This category is optional and gives you a way to include one-time activities, like a science fair project or a weekend working for Habitat for Humanity.
Describe both work and volunteer experience. Don’t forget non-traditional work- and don’t be afraid to think outside the box, such as babysitting or helping out with the family business your mom tried to start in 2nd grade but it didn’t go anywhere. For each item, include:
- job title
- name of organization
- and your job description.
You are free to mention any special skills (Ham Radio Operator), trips (mission trip with church for philanthropic support), interests (17th century art), or hobbies (surfing) that are important to you.
- Keep the resume to one page if at all possible- less is more.
- Don’t include activities from before high school unless you’re still doing them or you have received exceptional recognition.
- Ask your parentals if you’ve forgotten anything- they know you better than anyone.
- Be sure to include a professional email address.
For many students, writing their college essay is one of the most challenging parts of applying to college. Here are some tips to help you get started with your college essays.
Think of your essay as your chance to have a personal conversation with the admissions committee. Use it to convey information that does not appear elsewhere in your application and remember that the primary purpose of your essay is to give them a reason to take you.
Your essay should reflect who you are: your personality, your goals, your passion for learning, and your level of maturity. Focus your essay on a specific event which has had a major impact on your life, rather than trying to provide a broad rehash of all of your accomplishments. Admissions officers want your essay to “resonate,” so that who you are comes across consistently in the various parts of your application. They want your essay to be thoughtful, persuasive, and tie into your academic and extracurricular passions.
Writing your college essays will probably be unlike anything else you’ve written! Nearly everything assigned in your English classes is geared to keeping the author out of the writing, while the focus on your college essays is totally YOU, putting across some of your core values, personality traits, important experiences, etc. It’s a sea change, but when you “get it,” you’ll be able to take off and write those essays!
When writing a college essay, it’s the execution, not the topic, that matters. There are some topics best avoided: death of a pet or the tour of Mongolia are two, but keep the following in mind: Write about what interests you; forget about what might or might not interest the reader. Trust that your enthusiasm will be reflected on the page. Engage and entertain your audience – make him or her want more. Know your topic thoroughly. If it has to do with cars, for instance, know the difference between the transmission, alternator, and manifold. Keep it loose and relaxed, and always entertaining.
If you can say something that will make the reader say, “Me too!” as he finishes reading your essay, you have succeeded. Don’t fear your audience. The reader of your essays is probably not some crusty old gatekeeper looking for a reason to deny your application, but a fairly recent college graduate who is looking for a lively, interesting essay written by a person they would like to invite to attend their college. Be your lively, interesting self!
One method to find essay inspiration is to create a list of little known facts, facts only you would know. Brainstorm a list of your favorites; your likes and dislikes; unusual events you have experienced; issues, images, or stories that affect your mood; etc. Review your list and see if you can weave your insider information into a portrait of who you are. Or find one fact/event you can build on to reveal a new aspect of yourself. Remember to keep the essay positive and do not repeat information given in your application
For the next few weeks, get a small notebook you can easily carry around. Every day, act as a reporter and make free form notes on what you see, smell, feel and think about. Chances are, you’ll find at least one good essay idea in your notes!
When brainstorming topics for personal statements, look for the unexpected, something that someone who knows you would be surprised to learn about you. Use the first paragraph to describe a moment, creating through words a visual that draws the reader in. The following paragraphs can roll back in time and explain that image, the photographic moment. Try to write an essay that is multidimensional in what it reveals about you. When all of the above can be woven together, it’s usually a home run for the student – something they are proud of, a story that’s a blueprint for who they are now and how they will live their life.
You may have your essay completely figured out in your head—or an idea or even (gulp) nothing at all. But you just can’t get started. That’s because the part of your brain that’s saying, “I hate essays! I need a perfect first line! My idea is stupid!” is working overtime. Try this trick: If you usually write on screen, switch to pen and paper. If you use a notebook, switch to your computer. Write your name or “no clue what to write” or whatever comes to mind, over and over. Before you know it, you’ll be writing that essay!
Still haven’t hit your theme? Here’s the question I ask my stumped students: If I took everything away from you, everything – stuff, family, personality traits, your dog – what ONE thing would you never allow me to rip from your life? Why? Happy writing!
Nothing screams, “I wrote my essay the night before!” to an admissions committee more than glaring typos and grammar mistakes. But if you’ve rewritten and read through your essay a zillion times on screen, your eyes may trick you. For better focus, try this tip from professional editors: Print out your essay and read it backward, placing the eraser tip of a pencil under each word. Then read through your work from the beginning for sense and style. Finally, ask someone you trust—a parent, teacher, counselor, or friend– to proof your essay, too. Now you’re ready to hit “Send”!