General guidance for high schoolers
Always take the most rigorous classes you can, while keeping a balanced life. Colleges like to see that you’re challenging yourself. When considering whether to take an easier class for a better grade vs. a harder one for a potentially lower grade, go the more rigorous route.
Try things out early in high school. Quit something if you aren’t interested. Take risks, and keep exploring!
Focus on strengths: What things make you tick? Hone in on your interests and figure out how to emphasize them both in and out of class.
Ignore the idea of the “well-rounded student.” Generally, you should be taking a course in English, history, math, science, and a language, but don’t feel like you have to exert equal energy in each area. Look to establish depth above breadth: Follow up on the things that interest you and show an ongoing thread of commitment in those areas.
A note on standardized testing. If you feel like you can do well on standardized tests like the SAT and ACT, then prep for them and take them; however, don’t feel like it’s mandatory. Many colleges are test-optional, and some don’t accept test scores at all.
A note on summer planning. Many people feel like they have to have a jam-packed summer leading up to college applications, but it’s also important to recharge and prepare for the new school year. Over the summer, learn and move forward with the things that interest you, but also take time to relax.
What are colleges looking for?
Academics. You want to be able to show you’re ready for the college—that you’ll be able to participate in class and handle the workload. You can show them you’re ready by taking rigorous classes and doing well in them. Testing is also considered by some colleges when they’re evaluating whether you’ll be able to keep up academically.
Extracurriculars. Colleges want to see student engagement, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be a PASSION. If you know what you love, that’s great, but it’s also great to be exploring various options. Ultimately, colleges want to build dynamic, engaged student communities.
Yield. Yield rate refers to the percentage of accepted students who end up enrolling, and colleges want to feel confident that you’ll be one of those students. You can help by showing demonstrated interest. Some ways to do this include applying early decision; reaching out to college reps and meeting with them (virtually or in person); taking part with school visits and info sessions; and following up with any emails that the school may send you.
Essays. Start working on your essay during the summer before senior year if possible.
Recommendations. Most schools ask for one to two teacher recommendations, and they may also ask for a college counselor recommendation. Your recs should come from your junior year if possible.
Interviews. Some colleges offer informational interviews, and some offer evaluative interviews, which are considered in the application process. In an interview, it’s most important to know why the college is a good fit for you and be able to communicate that.
Building a Balanced College List
You’ll want to consider a range of factors when building your college list. Start doing your research early, and focus on what makes you tick. Try to think beyond the name brand of each college—you’re looking for a place where you can thrive, and not every college on your list can be a reach. There are many great colleges with less competitive admissions processes. Leading up to the application period, visit lots of schools, read the Fiske Guide, and know that it’s okay not to have all the answers yet.
Factors to consider include...
Location (Urban? Suburban? Rural?)
Size (Large vs. small college)
Curriculum (Rigid vs. flexible)
Experiential learning programs
Changes during Covid
The pandemic has transformed all aspects of life, with college applications and decisions being no exception. Shifts to be aware of include:
More stress and anxiety. The college process can already be a source of stress, and Covid has amplified that.
Colleges are looking for resilience as a result of isolation and online classes.
More of a focus on demonstrated interest, which may take the form of remote engagement.
ED and EA admission rates have risen, despite the fact that many students could not visit campus.
Many colleges have become test-optional.
It’s okay to not be perfect! This has been a long, difficult haul for many families. Be easy on yourself, and know that you don’t have to have been a shining star during Covid. Admissions officers are people too, and they understand the challenges students have experienced.
Sorting through Test-Optional
Test-optional vs. test-free (test-blind). The distinction here is that some schools don’t require tests but will still consider them if they’re submitted, while some schools are not considering them at all. Test-blind schools include the University of California system, Cal State, Catholic University, and Reed College.
Visit FairTest to find test-optional and test-free colleges.
Should I take the SAT, ACT, or both? Students do better on one test than the other in about 20 percent of cases, so it’s good to practice both and find out if one test is better for you.
How many times should I take the test? Try not to take either test more than three times. It’s time-consuming and stressful for you, so try to wait until you feel like you’re really ready before taking the test officially.
Sorting through college admission processes
Colleges may offer a variety of different admission plans, including:
Non-restrictive application plans
-Regular Decision. Students submit an application by a specific date and receive a decision in a specified period of time.
-Rolling Admission. Schools review applications as they are submitted and make decisions throughout the application period. This application plan is typically seen in the South. If you’re applying to a school with rolling admissions, try to get your application in toward the beginning of the application period rather than later on when the class is already more full.
-Early Action. Students apply early and receive a decision before the school’s regular decision date.
Restrictive application plans
-Early Decision. Students apply early to a school and make a commitment to attend if they are accepted. Early Decision acceptance rates are often the highest because colleges can be assured that the student will accept the offer.
-Restrictive Early Action. Students apply to a school and receive a decision early. They may be restricted from putting in early decision or early action applications to other schools.
Words of comfort for parents
This may be the biggest milestone since you gave birth or adopted your child. Recognize that fact, and ask for support from your community when you need it.
This is only one of many decisions your child will be making with your support. There’s special significance attached to this decision, but take a step back and know that there are many paths for young people to find success and happiness.
Some of the process of college admissions is out of your control, so take control where you can and remember the places you can’t.
Be an administrative assistant, not a CEO. Let your child take the lead in the process and support them when you can.
Be good to yourself and come up with good strategies for answering the questions you’ll get from others.
Q: Should my student apply for outside scholarships?
A: Applying to lots and lots of outside scholarships is not necessarily the best use of time. There may be larger loans and merit-based aid available directly from the college, so connect with the financial aid office to learn more before prioritizing outside scholarships.
Q: How many extracurriculars/what types of extracurriculars should a successful applicant have?
A: It’s okay not to have a laundry list of extracurriculars. The key is depth rather than breadth. Further, it’s less about the specific activity and more about what the student gets from that activity and how they convey it. Students should avoid getting overwhelmed, keep a balanced life, and explore authentic interests.
Q: What differences in the application process should athletes be aware of?
A: This can vary depending on the student and the schools they’re interested in. Reach out to your coach to get guidance and understand the recruiting process—for instance, there are differences in the process for D1 vs. D3 recruiting. The earlier you find out about the process, the better.
Q: What differences in the application process should homeschooled students be aware of?
A: The application process can be a bit different for homeschoolers; for instance, there may be different standardized testing requirements. This will vary depending on the college, so check each school’s admission webpage for guidance.
Q: Where can I learn more about lesser-known colleges that still provide a high-quality education?
Q: What should students be doing to prep during junior year?
A: Junior year is a great time to refine interests, determine academic strengths, figure out your standardized testing plan, and think about how to connect your extracurriculars to your larger narrative. You can also be making college visits as early as the beginning of your junior year. Beyond that, research your own criteria for colleges and figure out what’s important to you. It’s okay to start small—even looking at one college can help you get a sense of what you do and don’t like, and that can lead you to the next college of interest.
Q: What should students be doing to prep during sophomore year?
A: Sophomore year is a great time to refine interests and strengths, but it’s too early to worry about testing or establishing a college list. Exploring and visiting colleges is fine, but don’t feel pressured to narrow things down just yet.
Q: What should students be aware of if they’re planning to apply to a college overseas?
A: Going to college in Europe or other countries outside of the United States is definitely becoming more common for U.S. students. Application processes will vary, so take time to research. Also, be aware that colleges in the U.K. and Europe at large tend to be more traditional in terms of the curriculum; they’ll want you to know what you’ll be studying from the beginning, so if you’re looking to explore, a European school may not be ideal. That said, they are often more affordable than U.S. colleges.
Q: What should students be aware of if they have an IEP or learn in an ICT?
A: There are many colleges out there for students who need learning support. College Supports is a great place to research schools that offer quality learning resources. You also should not hesitate to call the disability support office at colleges you’re interested in; this office is typically very separate from admissions, so they won’t be reporting back and affecting a student’s application.
Q: How do colleges view students with learning differences? Do they have an equal shot?
A: Yes, they do. It’s completely up to the student whether they wish to disclose a learning difference during the application process, and it’s beneficial to find out what learning supports each college has before considering whether or not there’s a reason to disclose. For many students, their college of choice has no idea about their learning differences during the application period; it’s a very individualized piece of the process.
Q: How important is it to attend events (virtual and in-person) such as concerts, lectures, and panels? Are colleges tracking attendance to show demonstrated interest?
A: Some colleges track attendance and interest in a close way; some do not. It’s not possible to attend all of the events of every school you’re interested in, so it’s beneficial to narrow down the colleges you’re interested in and respond to those invitations in a more targeted manner.
Q: Have high schools become less challenging because of Covid, and how are colleges considering this?
A: Colleges are taking into consideration all the limitations of Covid. Schools really do understand what students have been going through, and they will not punish applicants for things beyond their control—for instance, if their school stopped assigning grades during the pandemic.
Q: How many colleges should students apply to?
A: It really depends on the student, how comfortable they are with applications, and whether they’re feeling overwhelmed by the process. That said, Deena encourages her clients not to apply to more than 10 colleges.
Q: What should students be aware of in terms of weighted vs. unweighted GPA?
A: Many colleges will look at the rigor of the classes applicants took, not GPA alone. Typically, you can see GPA averages and ranges for accepted students, but take that with a grain of salt, since colleges recalculate this data based on rigor.
Q: Does a strong college applicant have to have taken AP or IB classes? Do rigorous classes still count in the student’s favor if they’re not AP/IB?
A: Colleges have information about how rigorous schools are, so you won’t be penalized for your school offering or not offering APs, IBs, or higher-level courses. It’s all about you as a student using the advantages you have in your school to push yourself.
Q: I’m looking to hire a college counselor. What should I expect?
A: Specifics of the relationship depend on what you’re looking for, what year the student is in, and the agreement you have with the person you hire—for instance, you might purchase a package vs. paying for hourly support. Freshmen and sophomores will meet with a counselor less frequently, while seniors might meet as often as once a week.
Q: When is the right time to take standardized tests?
A: The right time is when the student is really ready. That could be during the end of their junior year, the summer before senior year, or early senior year. Most important is whether they’re prepared and whether they have a sense of the score range that they want to fall within. If they’re making that score range in practice tests, then it’s a good time to take the test for real.
Q: Can a student still be successful if they attend a less competitive college?
A: Absolutely! A great resource to check out is Challenge Success, which can help you focus in on the parts of the college experience that lead to career success and happiness. Spoiler alert: A full and balanced college and post-grad life does not depend on attending a highly selective college. In fact, some of Deena’s favorite schools accept more than 50 percent of applicants.
Special thanks to Deena Maerowitz!
Deena Maerowitz, J.D., M.S.W., has had a multifaceted career, including experience in graduate admissions and working in the public policy arena around education. As an educational consultant, Deena advises students through the entire college admissions process, planning both undergraduate and graduate educations. She has helped hundreds of students throughout the country and internationally to navigate the college application process.
Deena graduated magna cum laude from Mount Holyoke College and received her law degree and Master’s Degree in Social Work from the University of Connecticut. She has served as a Counsel in the U.S. Congress, where she focused on education issues, and in the private sector for national public interest organizations, such as the Children's Defense Fund. Prior to becoming an educational consultant, Deena was Associate Director of Admissions at Columbia University Business School, where she reviewed hundreds of applications and gained keen insights into what makes a candidate stand out.
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