This story was first published in our Paying for College 101 Facebook community. It’s been edited for clarity and flow.
Our Paying for College 101 Facebook group members are a generous source of reliable, practical knowledge about the college admission process. They regularly pay it forward by sharing what they’ve learned.
Here, a member of our group who is not only a college student herself, but also a college advisor, offers advice for sophomores and juniors.
College Admission Tips From an Advisor
I’d like to share some valuable tips for any juniors and parents of juniors preparing for college application season! I know it can be a very daunting and a tough process to wade through, so here are some helpful things I noticed from working with my students this year:
Starting early goes for juniors and sophomores beginning to navigate the college process. Whether this is preparing for the SAT/ACT, thinking about potential schools, or developing a list of extracurricular activities, time is your FRIEND.
The biggest regret my seniors expressed to me this year was not allotting enough time to truly spend on the writing process and/or process of raising their score while testing. For most teens, the level of self-reflection required for college application essay writing is new, and can take some time to get used to. Giving them time to work through this is essential. (Writing 15-20 essays in three months isn’t fun for anyone.)
July/August is a great time for giving them space (outside of school) to truly think about how they want to convey their story and begin to develop the themes for their application and what to build their Common Application essay around.
Selective Colleges Want More than Perfect Grades
For highly competitive schools, perfect grades are simply the beginning. I’m saying this as a Stanford student myself and I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to develop impact-driven activities for a student’s application profile. This doesn’t mean finding things that just “look good to colleges” but things a student actually enjoys.
I always tell my students – when you’re passionate about something – you will go so much farther than if you’re trying to do something to impress someone else. Colleges look for qualities of passion, ingenuity, creativity, leadership, and depth in a student’s activities. Cultivating these experiences now, over sophomore and junior year, will be essential so students can write about it in their applications senior year.
You can write and edit essays during the fall of senior year, but you cannot “create” activities to set yourself apart that late in the college process, so focusing on extracurricular development this year will be huge.
Ask for Help
Tell your student that it’s ok to ask for help! For many students, the college application process is the first time students will have to manage their time and mind at such a high level. Not only that, there are so many pitfalls to avoid which is why groups like Paying For College 101 are so amazing.
Don’t be afraid to get support and remind your student that there are always things they are in control of when the anxiety of the process becomes too much. We can always control our thoughts, our actions, and how we handle the challenges thrown at us. These are things that truly define success for any student (no matter where they go).
A Dream School Can Be a Goal
Finally, I have never met a student (including myself and my peers) who regretted going all in on themselves and their goals to get into their dream school. It is worth it and has completely changed my life.
Thank you for reading this and I hope this is valuable insight for you or your student! My goal is to provide as much help to everyone navigating this process as I can.
You’ve got this!
I’d love to hear any other advice from students and parents so we can create massive value for everyone.
Our Group Members Respond
This powerful and astute advice received a number of comments that were mostly positive and a few that challenged the author’s suggestions.
Here is some of the conversation, including the author’s responses:
I would add to make sure all applications are completed before Early Action notifications or the quality of their essays may suffer. – Ivan A.
Good list! I would also add to have a wide net – “top” schools are increasingly harder to get into even for the top students. There are so many schools out there for everyone with every GPA, level of extras, SATs/ACTs (if taking)… In my opinion, some of the “top” schools are not the best school for your student. The goal should be to find the best school for your student and your budget. – Kim F.
These are absolutely great pieces of advice. There are some essays you cannot get ready. With acceptance many times additional essays come along. Those are the ones you cannot work on ahead of time. Students need to know that the work isn’t always done just because they’ve applied to a school. If they are aware of it they can see that as an opportunity to get more merit rather than a hassle. – Monika O.
I try to find programs and scholarships for my daughter to apply to partly as a way for her to reflect on those essay questions and practice her writing and when it’s time to write those college essays she already has a collection of references to work with. – Luna W.
Not everyone has the money, time or family ability to have their child spend hours and hours every week fulfilling their passion. A family with multiple kids with competing needs only has X amount of money with Y amount of time. It’s just not possible in many situations. – Alex E.
#2 is such an oversimplification of so many kids’ experiences. I understand why it makes a difference, but I really hate it. Too many great kids who are hard workers don’t have a passion or anything that excites them because they haven’t had the chance to see what’s out there. Too many can’t access these passions because of financial or familial constraints. And many are just busy being kids and would be ideal Stanford students at 20 or 21 years old with a little more maturity under their belts, but that doesn’t matter.
This kind of advice just always reeks of privilege and a lack of awareness of the stark realities many children experience. And it can make a parent who hasn’t been able to give their kid this gift or inspire their child to find their passion feel like a failure in preparing them. – Steph F.
The author responds:
To clarify, my advice in my 2nd point is not meant to shame any students. Every student has their own path and growth timeline. However, I see a lot of advice on focusing on cultivating activities that “look” good to colleges and that is in my opinion harmful advice. My point was that if a student has a current interest in something, exploring that passion with their activities early on can create valuable experiences and impact. It’s 100% true that it is a privilege to be able to do this and many students do not have the luxury of doing so. I work with students from low-income backgrounds and underrepresented communities every year – and am a member of one myself – so I know how much this impacts students. It’s also 100% true that not every student knows what they want to do at 16/17 and will STILL be successful in the future. My purpose in what I said about activities was to re-center our focus in guiding kids to taking action when they feel ready doing what they feel passionate about. This will look different for everyone and that’s the beautiful thing about it. Whether that’s speaking up about something that they feel isn’t right at their school or spending a Saturday exploring something they find to be cool, these experiences don’t have to be outlandish – but can give students deeper insight into their interests – which they can communicate later on as they share their story.
And thank you for bringing light to this! It’s important.
The best advice a college counselor gave me was “be sure you apply to a school that will work academically, financially and socially where your chances of admission are very, very high.” In a test-blind school, or even test-optional, this is a lot harder to assess.
Beyond that, students need to be very aware of institutional priorities, and where they fit.Take the number of students in the entering class and if the school recruits nationally, divide the number of entering first years by the number of students your state would have with equal proportion. That provides a reality check of just how few slots are really up for grabs at any given school that is national and highly selective.
Another institutional need is majors.
And beyond that is lack of transparency about what the cost is going to be. Merit awards are really often just a way to adjust the price to the level where a student is likely to enroll. But also impacting cost is the number of years it really takes to graduate, the cost of housing (off-campus may be much higher than limited on-campus housing), and renewability of scholarships.
Culture is very hard to assess, and it can change from what it has been in the past. Sometimes there are aspects one can pick up on a visit, or on blogs. But other elements may not be knowable until enrollment. Or, try to walk around at unusual times and locations. Don’t look just at getting into a school, look at what it takes to major in a program. Some state schools have very high hurdles for specific majors, and students may not find these out until they are enrolled and have finished a year or two. But private schools may also do this.
I think the bottom line on admissions into any place is you have to look at the institutional priorities, be very aware of finances, and not take admissions decisions personally. Look to members of the Colleges that Change Lives programs, look at regional state universities, don’t get suckered by expensive schools that are selling a mirage. – Stuart J.
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