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.
The Short List
“Fit” is the buzzword in college admissions these days. One common mistake that families make, says Brad McAdam, a counselor at George Mason High School in Falls Church, is focusing on published college rankings more than the student’s individual priorities. “People are attracted to the name of a school rather than taking the time to consider whether that is a place where that student belongs and can do well,” he says. “They don’t always take the time to dig a little deeper and find a place that would have meaning for them.”
UVA’s Lalond recommends that students devise their own personal ranking system: “What are my non-negotiable things that I need to be a happy person? It may be a way to [pursue a passion for] dance, a way to change my major, or a way to get home without flying.” Other deal-breakers could be related to school size, the setting (rural or urban), the weather or cultural activities. Some students picture themselves cheering in the stands of a Big Ten school. Others want to spend four years on a leafy campus with beautiful architecture.
Arlington mom Terry Abdoo King notes that her two kids, both Washington-Lee grads, benefited from attending summer academic programs on college campuses. (Sports camps may provide similar opportunities.) Each experience provided a little taste of college life and a chance to dip their toes into a possible major. In her son’s case, those weeks also helped him figure out what he didn’t want. His summer experience at a small college near Boston made him realize he’d be happier on a larger campus. He’s now at Penn State.
How many colleges should a student apply to? Experts say seven to 10 is a manageable number that allows students to really do their homework about each prospective school.
Nancy Benton, owner of the Arlington-based college counseling firm Admissions Edge, notes, however, that some students mistakenly set their priorities backward. “[They] have an easy time coming up with ‘reach’ colleges—often not very realistic ones—and then throw in a few ‘safeties’ that they haven’t thought about too much. Then they end up with a poor college list that really misses the mark.”
Rising tuition costs also mean that families must consider what they can afford, including the average time it takes to graduate and the possibility of transferring, says consultant Draper. Most schools now calculate graduation rates based on both four- and six-year plans. (At Virginia Commonwealth University, for example, 36 percent of undergrad students graduate in four years, while 62 percent take six to earn their degree.) “Look at the retention rate from freshman and sophomore year,” she says. “They are an indicator of whether the students there are happy.”
To keep things civil on the homefront, try limiting conversations about college to a designated day and time each week.
“Lots of times I hear that every conversation is about the college admissions process, and that’s probably the worst mistake that parents make,” says Melissa Yakabouski, director of undergraduate admissions at Mary Washington. “It adds so much stress to relationships and the year. It ends up being white noise for the student and they tune out and cease to engage in productive conversations.”
Application deadlines for most schools fall on Dec. 31 or Jan. 1. Waiting until late November to get started? Bad idea. As recent veterans of the process, most of the college students interviewed for this story recommended tackling at least some of the preliminary work the summer before senior year—such as filling out the time-consuming Common Application (which a majority of colleges and universities now use) and brainstorming ideas for college essays. First semester of senior year is just as academically grueling as junior year, they warn, with the added demands of juggling college applications while trying to enjoy that last year of high school. Pace yourself.
At this stage, it’s imperative for parents to be supportive, but not hands-on, stresses Mary Washington’s Yakabouski. “We see parents filling out applications, and that’s awful. We can tell.” Particularly when the essay sounds too formal, rings false or does not convey a teen’s voice, she says.
Admissions officers can also sense when an application was rushed. “Students need to put their best foot forward and make sure each application is fully developed and thoughtful,” says LaPlante of Virginia Tech. Sloppy or inconsistent information may send the message that this college isn’t a top choice.
Essays are a crucial part of the package, and admittedly they can be daunting, says Nishita Barua, a Wakefield High School graduate who now attends American University. A certain amount of introspection is involved: “You think that you’re a good writer, and then you question yourself. I had to figure out a lot about who I was. What are the things that I care about? Why am I going to college?”
In the end, Barua recruited a friend’s parent—a professional writer—for help with ideas, grammar and editing.
How can students who’ve never written a first-person piece find their voice? Ethan Sawyer, a California-based consultant known as the “College Essay Guy,” advises students to “act like you’re in conversation with a smart friend” and not to dismiss their own lives as ordinary. “Everybody has got something fascinating about their life,” he says.
As deadlines approach, triple-checking each school’s requirements is smart, even for the supremely organized. Madison Manor resident Tara Claeys remembers how her daughter Erin, now a freshman at Northwestern University, made spreadsheets for all of her target schools—and still found another required essay “hidden in the application details” just before the deadline.
Speaking of deadlines: Waiting until the last minute to click “submit” can hurt students’ chances of having their applications read with fresh eyes. “Admissions folks tell me that they look at the time stamp,” says college consultant Draper. “Those applications are read last a lot of the time.” Procrastinators also run the risk of encountering technical glitches that won’t let them upload their materials in time.
Students who are confident in their first choice do have the option of applying early decision (ED) to a single college or university. In doing so, the student commits to attending that school if accepted, and is restricted from applying early decision to other schools. The application deadline for ED is usually in October or November, with acceptances announced in mid-December. Some schools, such as the University of Michigan and Christopher Newport University, also offer early action (EA), which gives the student an earlier but unbinding admission decision. And some colleges now offer a second early decision option (ED2) once the first round of ED decisions has been released.
Still others, such as Mary Washington, have started offering “onsite early action” admissions in the fall when admissions officers visit high schools. During these visits, a highly qualified student may be accepted on the spot, while others may be offered advice on how to strengthen their applications for a later decision.
A Note About References
Think colleges will only be impressed by recommendations that come from a department head, top coach or four-star general? Not necessarily. A recent piece in The New York Times recounted how Dartmouth College accepted a student, in part, because he had a strong recommendation from a school custodian. That testimonial showed that the student was genuinely kind and engaged everyone in his immediate community. “Who knows you well and can advocate effectively for you?” asks Harlan, an assistant dean at William & Mary. “Get letters from them no matter what their title.”