Life On the Other Side

7 Things Parents Need to Know About Applying to College


You may remember applying for college back in the dark ages (before every home had internet). Back then you had to research schools, which often involved a library trip or the purchase of the thick and pricey college “Bible,” Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges (which I just learned now has an online version)or a similar guide. You then had to plow through to decipher which schools might be a good fit. The application process itself involved obtaining an application (requested either via letter or phone call), filling out the form (on a piece of paper) and mailing it (with a stamp or two) to each school. Then there was the wait, the worst part of the process.

Today things seem easier. Most schools accept applications online, and use the Common App, which allows you to complete your basic information once and then add information particular to that school before clicking “send.” However, important things are rarely “easy” and there are things you want to pay attention to.

Selecting colleges

There are thousands of good schools to choose from. While the temptation may be to apply to them all, since you only need to click, help your teen narrow it down to a few. While I know some high school students who have applied to more than a dozen schools, this is not necessary and can be costly. College applications today often range from $20 to $75 and possibly more. (Waivers are available for those with demonstrated need and some schools will waive application fees under certain circumstances for example if meeting a certain deadline, for family of alumni, etc.). Doing research in advance will help rule out schools that are not a good fit. High school guidance counselors will tell students to pick at least one “safety school,” one that they are reasonably assured will accept them.

Set realistic expectations

When it comes to the more elite schools, college admissions is a crapshoot. In recent years, the Ivies received almost 2000 applications for each available slot. Most of these applicants meet the qualifications. Other “top” schools also report record numbers of applicants. These schools try to put together a balanced class in every way imaginable. This means that many students who deserve to be admitted are rejected or put on a waiting list (which often requires a reply to be added) and can then be accepted if some admitted students choose other schools. (Keep this in mind when your child has made the final decision and make sure your teen lets schools know they have chosen to go elsewhere to open one of these spots to another student.)  Especially when you know your child deserves one of these spots, dealing with rejection can be difficult.

Filling out the Common App

Though it is natural to want your child to succeed, it is important to not take over this task. It is okay to be available to answer questions (the Common App has questions about parents’ education), but consider your role here to guide, not to do. Note that information about activities engaged in during the high school years may be relevant (in and out of school) and it is easy for active teens to leave something out, or to downplay any accomplishments. Encourage your child to brag a little here (the practice here can also help with future job applications).  It is crucial that your teen double check all information before hitting send. Make sure the college name is correct in all spots and that any supplements are complete. First impressions are always important and this is one case where there may not be an opportunity for a second one.

Highlight achievements

Extracurriculars matter, but focus on the dedication to one or a few. Colleges are not looking for the student who participated in the most activities, but for consistency and growth. Leadership and awards should be noted. If a job or family responsibilities did not allow any time for extracurricular activities, this can be noted and should not reduce the chance of admission. Academics should be consistent and demonstrate growth. Students should not be pushing beyond their limits, but should choose courses that cause them to think and learn, not for the easy A.

Community service is important

In today’s world, this seems to be expected of teens. Many high schools mandate a service project in order to graduate. Colleges also look at community service, but they are looking for a commitment to a cause, not simply the completion of a project to meet a goal. Of course not all teens are driven to do this on their own, some need the nudge provided by a mandated project. Schools recognize this; they are looking for continued involvement or a sign that a student believes this service makes a difference. Students are sometimes transformed by these experiences (and this can be a subject for that all-important application essay).

Strong essays are essential

Many colleges advise that the essay is one of the most important pieces of an application. The essay should tell about the student. The transcript and application gives information about grades and activities, the essay tells who he or she is as a person.  A college application essay needs to stand out. Several colleges, including Yale and Harvard have recently urged students to write about their sense of community. They are seeking to discover what a student is passionate about, in other words, in what way they seek to change the world? Make sure the essay has been carefully proofread and have at least one other person read it before submitting to make sure it conveys the right message.

The waiting is still the hardest part

After the applications are all in, the panic may set in. What if something was left out? What if the application is not strong enough? Then they results start trickling in. Remember that each school has its own timetable and acceptance letters (or more commonly emails) are sent out over the course of a few months. Check the college website to see when their letters go out. Some schools have set dates, some have rolling admissions (and reply as the applications come in) and many have vague dates (for example, mid-March). Even if others have been accepted to a school, don’t assume it is a “no.” It has become more common in recent years for students to be put on a waiting list which sometimes means an acceptance after the May deadline.

Having been through this process several times, I think it is one of the most difficult times to be a parent in the teen years. For likely the first time, your child is being judged based on how he or she looks on paper. You know how amazing your child is and there is no concrete way to convey that truth. It may also be the first time your child is faced with the possibility of rejection. The fear of this causes stress, and the reality hurts, no matter your age and how many times you have experienced it.  Fortunately, senior year brings a flurry of activity to distract and at some point, the waiting will be over and you can all breathe easy again.

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