Many parents and high school students are finding that it is harder to get accepted into college these days. More parents of this generation of children have saved money specifically for their kids to go to college; therefore more people are applying for and attending college. Colleges only have a certain number of students they can accept in a given year, depending on the facilities that they have at their disposal. The end result is that the college admissions process is more competitive than ever before, and many parents are asking “What can I do to get my child into college?”.
Part of my job as a high school counselor is to speak with college admissions officers – these are the people who decide who to admit to the university that they represent. I have spoken to dozens of admissions officers and attended numerous college admissions conferences, all with the goal of helping the students assigned to my caseload gain entry into the best college that they can. I have also worked as a high school counselor for over five years across two different states, and working on the front line has helped me refine the advice I give to parents on a daily basis.
1) Start thinking about college in middle school. Many middle schools offer accelerated courses, some for high school credit, that are crucial for laying the foundations necessary to earn good grades at the high school level. Talk to the school counselor who is assigned to your child about these courses and see if your child qualifies to take them. The earlier you start laying those foundations, the better prepared your child will be to tackle the difficult high school courses that colleges expect them to take.
2) Evaluate your child’s skills as honestly as possible. Countless parents of average children have argued with the school counselor that their child is gifted, or that he can really handle that extra AP course. Look at your child as objectively as possible. What is his work ethic? What motivates him to do well? Can she handle the higher level thinking that is required in honors and AP courses? Keep in mind that many students are smart enough to do the work, but they choose not to put in the effort. Forcing your child into a higher level course that he has no chance of doing well in will only discourage him, and may lead to him giving up entirely.
3) Sign your child up for the highest level courses that he can earn an A or B in. Colleges look at many things beyond GPA and SAT scores. One of those things is strength of curriculum. For example, if a student is able to earn an A in a lower level science class as a freshman, the colleges expect to see that student taking a higher level science class as a sophomore. If the student earns an A or B in that higher level science course, the college will look to see if he then went on up to the AP level the following year. However, if the student chooses to continue in the lower level courses, knowing he will easily make an A+ and pad his GPA, the colleges will consider him LESS competitive for admission. If your child takes all honors and AP level courses and earns B’s, that’s perceived as better than getting an A in a class that is a no-brainer for that student. Remember: college work is tough, and they want to admit students who are prepared to tackle that level of work. If you have a choice between a class that is a step below their level or a step above, and the child has a good work ethic, always aim up.
4) Don’t sweat the elective courses. Parents come unglued in my office on a regular basis because their child didn’t get the elective he wanted, because their son/daughter really wants to pursue that field as a major in college. Relax! Colleges know that students have to take a certain number of electives in order to graduate, and while they do care which ones students take, there are limits. I’ve seen plenty of students get accepted into competitive engineering programs, for example, who never took a single one of my school’s engineering electives. Colleges are more concerned with the strength of curriculum than they are with electives. If your child has a choice between AP Physics and Introduction to Engineering, he should take the AP course, even if he wants to be an engineer. Now if the student is taking all the AP courses that he can handle, and he has a choice between Art and Engineering electives, obviously he should take the Engineering. But if he decides to take Art, it’s not going to make or break his admissions chances. Honestly. When in doubt, take core elective courses that are offered at the AP or Dual Enrollment levels.
5) Choose the colleges wisely. During your child’s sophomore year, start working up a list of what she’s looking for in a college. Possible majors, busy city or quiet country setting, large or small campus, sports, and volunteer preferences should be considered. Spend as much time during the sophomore and junior years visiting schools that meet this preliminary criteria, editing the list as you go. Students need to physically walk around enough campuses to get the feel for a large and small school, a school that is in the middle of a busy city with lots of activity versus in a small country town near a great little hiking trail. If your child plays a sport, talk to the coaches to find out when they start conditioning, how many hours a day they practice, and if their athletes are expected to take any special courses. Narrow your list down to half a dozen or so that your child is sure they would be happy attending for four years.
6) Proofread your applications. Now that most colleges have online applications, students are rushing through them in ways they never did when they had to submit paper copies. It is very easy to hit the “send” button in haste, without double checking your spelling and grammar first. Sit down with your child when they are done filling out an application and go over it with them. Make sure they have included everything that you feel is pertinent, and that everything looks correct. If the essays are submitted online, copy and paste them to a word processing document and run the spell check. Print it out and have your child bring it to her current English teacher for review. This is your first and only impression to the college admissions officers, and you don’t want to give them any excuse to toss it into the “denied” pile.
7) Don’t be afraid to call the college admissions officers directly if you have questions. Want to know if your son should take AP Physics or AP Chemistry? Call the schools on your son’s list and ask them what they think will make him a more competitive candidate for admissions. Their phone numbers are usually published on the admissions’ website, and they are normally very happy to answer your questions. While you child’s high school counselor is a valuable resource, they aren’t the ones who decide who to accept into that college your daughter is dead-set on attending. Admissions officers are a great and often ignored resource.
8) College admissions is a competitive process. If your child has any extenuating circumstances, the admissions officers should know about it. For example, if your daughter is the first person in the family to attend college, or if she has to baby-sit her three younger siblings in the afternoons, or has to work to help make ends meet at home, admissions officers really need to know. If there is no space on the application to list extenuating circumstances, attach a separate essay to the application itself. Try to spin everything in a positive manner, and avoid whining at all costs. This is another place where your child’s English teacher can help; ask them to edit the essay and take their advice when it comes to the tone. Your son’s learning disability in writing may explain his low SAT Writing Scores, but he will still be expected to write at the college level when he gets there. Point out how willing he is to accept help, and if the college has a writing center make sure they know he is prepared to visit there regularly. Be as specific as possible.
9) Choose people to write letters of recommendation carefully. School counselors know how to write a good letter, but make sure you provide them with a resume that highlights your child’s achievements. Teachers who have had your student in the past also make good resources. Coaches, church elders, employers, and Boy or Girl Scout Troop leaders are also good resources. Pick people who can highlight your child’s strengths, or who can speak to her overcoming adversity in specific terms. You want a letter that will stand out to the admissions officers, not one that will sound like every other one they receive. Never ask family members to write letters of recommendation, even if they are also an employer/troop leader/etc. The only exception to this is if there is a building at the school named after a relative, or that relative knows and is well liked by the President of the college.
10) When it comes to financial aid, chose a school your child is overqualified for. If your child gets accepted into a college by the skin of his teeth, the financial aid department isn’t going to bend over backwards to give him scholarships. However, if your child has a higher GPA than the average student accepted by that school, you can probably get a fair amount of scholarships and other aid packages. That’s because those schools are more than likely trying to increase the quality of their student body, and they are willing to fork out the cash to give their reputation a step up. I know of at least one college that offers a full ride four-year scholarship for any student who is the valedictorian of their class. These colleges are not sub-standard, in fact quite the opposite. They are good, solid schools who may not attract the same attention as the larger and more prestigious universities. Your child will still receive a top-notch education, just at a fraction of the price.
Hopefully these hints will help you and your child understand more about the admissions process. Don’t forget that school counselors are a valuable resource, so if you have specific questions go ahead and schedule an appointment to discuss them with your child’s assigned counselor.