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As I present to various groups around the country (virtually of course!), I am frequently asked a few of the same questions. Hopefully, my answers below can also help more students and families who may be wondering similar things:
“I’ve got the GPA, difficult classes, and high test scores to be admitted to my top choice, super selective college…now what? What else can I do?”
There are certainly many, many students who have the academic profile to be admitted to a top selective institution, and therein lies the rub. There are literally hundreds of top students (many valedictorians!) who are denied acceptance each year. So, what makes the difference between “You’re In” and “You’re Not”? If you think of an application like building a house, the GPA + curriculum + test scores are merely the foundation; without a strong foundation, the house would fall down. The foundation is the necessary starting point and then what is built upon it is what sways someone into purchasing it. And the same goes for college acceptance. Once a student has the foundation (the academic profile), now we must decide what can or should be added in order to help move this student from the “maybe” column to the “yes” column. A couple of things I would suggest to help increase a student’s chances of admission:
a) diving deeper into one of their activities and take it to the next level. For example, let’s say a student is very interested in economics and is thinking of taking AP Economics in their senior year. While this is obviously a strong candidate, what I might ask this student to do is begin working with a local college Economics Professor – get engaged with the research he or she is doing and hopefully show a true understanding of the kind of work the student might do in college. Can this student begin to do his or her own academic research (or at least attempt to?)
b) spending quality time on the application & essay(s) (don’t mail it in just because you “have the stats” to be admitted!). This includes spending more time on the supplemental essay(s) which, even though they are shorter, may actually be more important to a college. Many colleges use supplemental essays to suss out whether or not you are truly a candidate for their school which is why many will ask “Why do you want to attend X College?” What they are looking for is students who have an understanding of what their college/university is all about – what the community is like and also what the student believes they will add to that environment. It is not enough to say “I want to attend a top-tier research university with world-renowned professors and take study abroad. Blah, Blah, blah. If you write your essay and upon re-reading it, you are able to substitute any number of schools into your essay, you have not been detailed or focused enough. Make sure you do your homework before writing this ultra-important essay. It is helpful to begin working on your college essay (especially the Personal Statement) in the summer when you have more time to concentrate on it before the tidal wave of senior year hits!
-A great resource to check out it The College Essay Guy.
c) choosing wisely on who they request for their letters of recommendation. Sometimes the teachers who will write you the strongest L.O.R. may not be the class you had the strongest grade in. Often, I have seen compelling letters from teachers where the student may not have received a top grade but was impressed by a student’s work ethic, curiosity, and contribution in class. If your college is requiring 2 letters of rec, I would encourage you to ask one Math or Science teacher and one English or History teacher. All of these “extra parts” of the college application “house” are going to truly make or break a decision. Lastly, understand that even if you have the "basics" of the academic profile to be admitted to a "super selective" college rarely means you will be admitted. This is not about YOU, but more about THEM and what they need. Understanding that an institution with a 5% acceptance rate means it is UNLIKELY you will be admitted even if you "check all the boxes." If I told you that you could have an elective surgery that had a 5% success rate, how would you feel about doing this? Shoot for the stars, BUT be realistic about the outcomes.
“I had a rough freshman year, but since then, my grades have improved significantly. Will colleges see that? Will they care?”
Colleges will certainly value seeing an upward trend in grades, especially if they can see a marked improvement. To be very honest though, a very rough year that brings down the overall GPA significantly would typically take a student out of the running at a top school (unless some other “hook” was strong enough to pull them over, but these instances are few and far between). No matter what, continuing to shoot high and work hard to improve and learn is always something ALL colleges will respond to. It might also be worth noting in the application’s “Additional Information” section if there was a specific cause for the decline in grades, such as a poor semester resulting from a concussion or a big injury that required surgery/missed time from school, or any other family issues (e.g. death in the family, loss of home, etc.). Those are significant reasons for a downgrade in grades and admissions officers will be much kinder in taking those lower grades into account.
“I have taken my ACT and scored pretty well. Should I also take the SAT?”
Usually, I would say no. Most students do better on one or the other test and there is no significant reason why I would tell a student they MUST take the SAT (or vice versa). The only reason you might wish to take the other test is simply that you are curious about how you would do. In that instance, I would advise you to take a Mock Test/Diagnostic Test and compare those scores – no reason to pay for an official test for the same end result. ArborBridge does a great job administering free Diagnostic Tests as well as detailed breakdowns to help you decide which test is best for you. I would highly encourage you to try that route first. The bottom line, is if you scored well on one test, it might be a better use of your time to focus your prep efforts and re-take the same test in the future. Good luck!
“You talk a lot about finding the right “fit” for college. How do I know if a college is the right fit for me?”
One of the best ways to begin thinking about what attributes will make for a good fit for a student is to take a few official college tours. You do not have to fly all over the country to get this done – you can simply register to do a walking tour at a number of your local colleges, ideally, a few that are different from each other (e.g. one large public research university and one small liberal arts college). The reason I think this is important is that up until you step onto a campus, most students simply don’t know what they don’t know. It is hard for me to ask questions such as “what size school are you thinking about?” or “what type of learning environment do you learn best in?” if you have not yet even seen the difference between attending a school that has 2000 undergraduate enrollment compared to one that has 30,000 undergrads. The right fit for each student is completely personalized to that person. Some students may find the most important factor of their fit is the academic program (e.g. Mechanical engineering), while others find the location is most important (e.g. close to home). A student must reflect on what things are critical for a college to provide that will ultimately support the student and help s/he thrive there for 4 years. Last but not least, I would shy away from the thinking that there is a “Best Fit” or just ONE college that will be the “Perfect Fit.” There are no perfect fits, and all students will have to compromise and sacrifice something on their wishlist.
“The one-on-one connection [with my tutor] is really the way to go, over any prep book. With the help of my tutor Alex, I accomplished my goal and came out with a score of 31.” ~ Kieran K. (Final Score 31, + 8 pts).
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