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College Admissions Online 101: Defeating the Hysteria

Jun 18, 2007 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 0 Comments

The urban legend goes like this: college admissions are more competitive now than ever.  The media is full of accounts of colleges taking only a tiny fraction of their most qualified applicants; tearful straight-A students with stacks of rejection letters; dazed-looking professors admitting they’d never get into their exclusive alma mater if they applied today; and parents rushing their kids from soccer practice to student council to youth leadership summits in an attempt to give them an edge. 

But is the situation really as bleak as it seems?

The Myth of Heightened Competition

Not really.  Yes, it’s true that more high school students are applying to colleges than in years past—so competition seems stiffer.  But kids apply to more colleges today than they did in years past.  Only 2% of students applied to six or more colleges in the 70’s—today, many kids apply to 11 or more.

Here are a few common misunderstandings that cause unneeded stress to college applicants and their parents.

You’ll never get into your top school; the competition is too fierce

Many students believe it’s virtually impossible to stand out in today’s competitive climate.  But we’re seeing a significant demographic swell in the age group graduating from high school right now.  There are simply more kids—and more people applying for college.

That doesn’t mean every applicant is better qualified than in years past, or that it’s necessarily harder to stand out. It simply means there are more of them.  A qualified student should still apply to those top schools; he may stand out more than he realizes.

If you don’t have perfect SAT’s, forget about it

Believe it or not, a perfect SAT score isn’t necessarily a free ticket to Harvard.  Onine colleges and universities like to see students who’ve taken challenging courses in high school; it says they can handle tough college courses.  If you’re taking AP classes in a variety of subjects, don’t worry if your SAT scores aren’t stratospheric. 

You have to be super-involved to get into top schools

This myth has led ambitious students to pack their free time with activities in the hopes of standing out from the crowd.  But most students take on more than they can handle at some point—and their grades suffer.  Colleges would rather see you taking challenging courses than filling your homework time with activities and seeing your grades slip as a result.  It’s good to show you’re involved, but don’t worry if you’re not filling every minute of your day with some resume-building activity.

Don’t take an honors course if you don’t think you can get a perfect score

Most colleges would rather see a B in advanced chemistry than an A+ in basket weaving.  It’s all about showing colleges you’ve been working to prepare yourself for their rigorous classes.  If you’re not in the top 10% of your class, but you have a lot of AP courses on your transcript, you’re still in a good position. 

You messed up your interview—so kiss that school goodbye

Nowadays, the college interview process is more about getting the kids to the campus than it is about evaluating them.  If you feel you did poorly in your interview, this may not hurt your chances as much as you think.   On the flip side, if you aced the interview, it may not make as much difference as it should.   So prepare for the interview the best you can, and go in relaxed and calm.  In most cases, it isn’t the deciding factor.

The Common Application hurts your chances

Not true.  If a college doesn’t want you to use the common college application, it won’t accept it.  If it does accept the Common Application, that’s because it makes no difference to their application process. 

Applying for financial aid hurts your chances

Again, not true in most cases.  Many schools, including top ivy-league institutions, are needs-blind.  That means the admissions officers don’t look at your financial application.  The two sides are kept separate so the school can’t be accused of bias.  A few colleges aren’t needs-blind, and in these cases your financial situation may make a difference.

If you’re not a prep school graduate, you’re less competitive

Actually, it can be the opposite.  Every school wants to claim diversity, and that’s why they accept students from a variety of backgrounds.  In many cases, you’ll have a leg up if you’re from a disadvantaged urban school district.  If your high school didn’t offer a lot of advanced courses and extracurriculars, you may still have an edge if you come from one of these districts.

Making the Admissions Process Easier

There’s no question that the college admission process is stressful, both for students and their parents.  But it doesn’t have to be.  Here are a few things you can do during Senior Year to beat the hysteria.

Line up your references early

There’s nothing worse than asking teachers to write letters of recommendation just days before the deadline.  The simple truth is that your teachers are busy, and chances are a lot of kids have asked them to write recommendations.  Get this done early, and you’ll give them more time to write you a thoughtful one.

You should also try to make the process easier for them in other ways.  Give them self-addressed, stamped envelopes to all your colleges, so they don’t have to look up the addresses themselves.  They should also have a copy of the recommendation form for each school, plus a copy of your transcript and resume for easy reference.  Anything you can do to make the process easier will be greatly appreciated.

Last, be sure to pick the right teacher: one who knows you well.  Look for someone who has taught several of your classes or worked extensively with you on an extracurricular, if possible.

Put time and effort into your essay

Your transcript, test scores, and resume tell admissions officers about your skills and achievements.  Your essay shows them that you’re a real person—not just a listing of scores and activities.  It’s a critical part of your application, and in many cases it can be the deciding factor.

Your essay should give applications officers insight into who you are.  Be sure it tells a story about you: your thoughts, opinions, passions, moral sense, or anything else that can give them a peek into your heart.  Good essays tell stories about how you’ve overcome adversity, learned a lesson, or changed a long-held opinion.

Don’t worry too much about “sounding smart” in your essay—colleges aren’t counting the multi-syllable words.  But it’s important to proofread carefully.  Your essay should be completely free of spelling and grammar mistakes.  Put time into editing, re-read it several times over days or weeks, and show it to friends, family, and teachers for feedback.  Most students go through three or more drafts before sending it out.

Pick the right schools

Don’t think for a minute that you can’t get a good education outside of the top Ivy League schools.  While networking and reputation do matter in the work world, the cream always rises to the top.  There are Harvard graduates who don’t achieve their career goals, and there are community college grads who go on to have fabulous careers.  In every college, you get out of it what you put in.

Most admissions counselors will tell you to apply to at least six schools: two “dream schools” you don’t think you’ll get into; two realistic but respectable schools; and two back-ups.  Make sure you apply to at least one “safety school” to ensure you’ll have choices when the response letters come back.

Use the Common Application when you can

Make it easier on yourself.  There’s no reason to do slightly different applications over and over when you can do just one. 

Apply online when you can

It’s quicker, easier, and cheaper—while most schools charge an application fee, it’s sometimes waived for online applications.  Check to see if your schools have an online application process.  If so, there’s no reason not to use it.

Don’t procrastinate

One of the biggest reasons people get stressed out about college admissions is the procrastination factor.  Don’t wait until the postmark deadline to get your applications out.  Have them ready to roll far in advance.  That way, you can sit back and relax while your friends scramble to get everything out in time.

By the time Senior Year comes around, most students have already done all they can with  grades, transcripts, and extracurriculars.  But if you’ve still got time, here are the two most important pieces of advice you’ll get about preparing yourself for the admissions process:

Make your classes your top priority

Take as many advanced placement classes as you can.  Colleges love to see that you’re seeking out academic challenge, and you aren’t afraid of rigorous classes and heavy homework loads.  They see AP students as more academically prepared for academic life on campus than students who take average-level classes.

When it comes to extracurriculars, follow your passions

Your transcript is more important than your resume.  No matter what, make sure you leave enough time to study and get decent grades in challenging classes.  It often looks better to show long-term involvement in a few select activities than a long list of extracurriculars you tried briefly.

With all the media hype surrounding the admissions process, it’s no wonder students and parents are apprehensive about it.  But it doesn’t have to be a nightmare.  Follow these tips and avoid procrastination, and you should be well prepared to beat the college admissions monster into submission.

If you are thinking about apply to a college online? Use our online tools to find the right online college for you.


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