What Colleges Really Want

Getting ready to apply? Don't stress. Here's what's important in today's competitive landscape. And what's not.

Tutors and Coaches

Is it worthwhile to hire a tutor, essay coach or private college counselor? Such experts can charge anywhere from $75 to $300 per hour.

Some teens do benefit by having people on their “team” who aren’t parents (with all the associated baggage and perceived nagging). A third-party mentor may help build confidence, which often translates into stronger essays, improved interviewing skills and better performance on tests.

“The most important part of the process for [my second daughter] was the ACT tutor,” says Ellice Halpern, who lives in Arlington’s Crescent Hills neighborhood. “She loved her warm-and-fuzzy ACT tutor, and her score went way up. It was all about that one-on-one bond.”

Michelle Laino, a mom in East Falls Church, remembers feeling worried that she couldn’t provide all of the support her daughter Isabella needed. A guidance counselor had told Isabella her grades likely weren’t high enough to gain acceptance to her top-choice school, which nearly crushed her.

“If I didn’t get help [with the application and essay] from the private counselor, I don’t think I would have gotten into the college I did,” says Isabella, who applied early decision to Virginia Tech, where she is now. “My mom said it was the best money she ever spent because she saw how much stress it relieved for me.”

Private tutors can provide support when a student has learning differences, adds Joyce Draper of Draper College Consulting, which serves students in the greater D.C. area. She also helps match students to out-of-state schools that offer significant financial aid.

But outside help may not be necessary for every kid. Many students find “exactly what they need [from their high school counseling staff] without paying a lot of money,” Stansbery says. Plus, there are plenty of free online resources, like practice SAT and ACT tests and advice, on respected websites such as Khan Academy.

Campus Visits

Casual college visits can occur anytime, but when it comes to formal scouting missions, Oligmueller, formerly with The Potomac School, recommends planning visits during spring break of junior year. This allows high-schoolers to experience a campus while classes are in session and get a feeling for its overall culture—something they might not get in summertime.

Admissions offices take note of (and sometimes track) prospective students who show a “demonstrated interest” by visiting. “[Colleges] are looking for signals to see how serious a student might be about attending,” says Hawkins of NACAC, particularly as yield rates (the percentage of students who enroll at a school once they are accepted) have dropped drastically in recent years.

During campus visits, it’s important for parents to maintain a low profile, advises Rebekah LaPlante, associate director of undergraduate admissions at Virginia Tech. “It takes away the opportunity for us to connect with the student when the parent gets in front of the student,” she says. And students—not parents—should always be the ones to call or email the admissions office with follow-up questions. Doing so is an important step toward becoming independent adults who can advocate for themselves.

What is helpful, according to Carter,* a Washington-Lee graduate who is now at UVA, is for moms and dads to take notes during campus tours so their kids can focus on the bigger picture and “get the feel of the school.”

Don’t underestimate the value of an overnight stay, says Kate Karstenf, a George Mason High School grad, now at the University of North Carolina. She remembers a high school friend who visited one of her top-choice schools, only to discover that everyone went home on the weekends, which she didn’t want.

One strategy that’s not advisable? Applying first and then visiting only the schools you get into. “A huge mistake we made [with our youngest child] is that we did not see all the schools before the decisions came out,” says Shannon Hynds, a McLean mom. A flurry of acceptance letters in early spring left her family scrambling to visit four campuses before the May 1 deadline when her daughter had to make a decision about where to enroll.

Categories: Education