Top Ten Tips for the College Application Process

1. Know Yourself: Before you begin the college application process, ask yourself why you want to go to college and what you hope to accomplish while in college. Let your answers guide you to the schools that are right for you.

2. Understand What Colleges Want and Do Not Want: Before you start to pitch yourself to schools, take a moment to understand what kind of students schools are looking for in general. Schools are not looking for spoiled, selfish, lazy, biased, or hostile community members. They are looking for smart, hardworking, open-minded, generous community members. They are looking for people of character who exhibit good judgment and follow through on commitments. And, given that college is a place of learning, schools are seeking students who show an authentic love of learning, intellectual passion, curiosity, and engagement. Whatever turns you on, show them your spark. Reveal your genuine interest, energy, warmth, enthusiasm, and optimism.

3. Transcript: if you hope to gain admission to a selective college or university, take the most rigorous academic courses available to you and do as well as you possibly can. This includes taking four years of high school math, science, English, history, and foreign language (even if it is not required to graduate). Colleges like students who seek challenges. It is more important to them that you pursue the most rigorous course of study than that you have perfect grades.

4. Teacher Recommendations: during 11th and 12th grade, develop relationships with your teachers. Actively participate in class so they can get to know you and learn how you think. Contribute generously to the group discussion. When it is time to ask for a recommendation, ask to meet with each teacher to discuss what you hope to accomplish in college. Tell your teacher about your passions and pursuits. Give them the information they need to help create the narrative you want to unify your application. Colleges highly value what teachers say about their students. They look to teachers to confirm what you say about yourself. Help your teachers help you.

5. Extracurricular Activities: you do not need to participate in dozens of extracurricular activities to impress a college admissions committee. Rather, find two or three activities you are passionate about, engage in them deeply, enthusiastically, and joyfully, and pursue them to a position of leadership. Reveal your leadership skills by modestly discussing your positive impact on your peers. This shows how you will not only be successful at college but will help others achieve greater success.

6. The Essay: Colleges care less about what you have done and more about how you think about what you have done. So don’t worry if you never got to travel to South America to help impoverished school children. Just focus on the choices you have made and how you made them meaningful. Remember, your essay is the only place in your application to humanize yourself. To make your essay authentic, significant, and have an emotional impact, you must be willing to write with honesty and feeling. Use your essay to make sense of your entire application and create a compelling narrative. Most important of all, choose the message you want to convey, tell a story that illustrates you in this light, and articulate it clearly at the end. Help the admissions committee know you, understand what unique value you will bring to campus, and want to make you a part of their community.

7. Diversity: There are two important things to know about diversity in the college application process. First, colleges seek diversity in their student bodies (racial, multicultural, geographical, diversity of thought). If you want diversity to be one of your “hooks” to grab an admissions committee’s attention, it is not enough to simply belong to a minority group. You must show how you shared your culture with outsiders in generous and significant ways. Second, because colleges are trying to build large, diverse communities, it is not enough to show that you are merely tolerant of diversity. Rather, colleges look for students who actively embrace diversity, show social courage and curiosity, make connections with all kinds of people, and build bridges. The colleges seek to create communities of students who will happily engage with people who are different from them. Let them know you will be one of them.

8. The Interview: If you have an opportunity to interview, take it. When you arrive for your interview, whether meeting an admissions representative on campus or a local alum at a nearby Starbucks, walk in on your own (translation: leave your parents at home!). This shows your independence and readiness for college. As you talk, reveal your character by openly sharing what you care about. Even if you are shy or reserved, show your curiosity and ability to build bridges by trying to connect with your interviewer. You might be asked about a paper you wrote or a book/newspaper article you read that meant something to you. Before your interview, review your school work and recent reading and be prepared to talk about why it was meaningful to you and why you enjoyed it. Be ready to answer the question, “What do you think you can contribute to our school?” Let your answer show how you see yourself on campus: passionately learning, actively participating, and generously giving. When discussing your achievements, in or out of the class, reveal the personal connection you feel to these accomplishments beyond mere ambition; let the interviewer know what motivates you. At each school interview, be ready to explain your personal reasons for liking that particular school or major. Instead of asking merely factual questions that could most likely be answered by the school’s website, prepare thoughtful questions in advance about the inclusiveness of the student body, the faculty/student/administration relations, the interviewer’s favorite memories, etc. Be ready to articulately discuss what you did over the summer, the way you define success, a challenge you overcame, why you want to attend college, the person you most admire, and what makes your family unique. Finally, stay positive and remember that you will have to face many interviewers in the course of your professional career, so embrace this interview as an opportunity to practice an important skill you will use for a lifetime.

9. Yield: Yield is the number of students who accept a place at a college relative to the number of places that were offered in all. For instance, a college might receive 10,000 applications, accept 3,000 students, and enroll 1,000 students. Why does this matter? Because colleges only want to offer acceptances to students they believe might actually attend! Given that as many as 90% of the 10,000 applicants are worthy of acceptance, how do you boost yourself off the wait list and onto the acceptance list? LET THE COLLEGE KNOW THAT YOU ARE GENUINELY INTERESTED! Every time you go to a college event, fill out a little information card that indicates your interest. Every time the college sends an email or survey, respond. Even if interviews are optional, choose to have one. Reach out to get to know the college’s admissions recruiter who is in charge of your geographical area. Develop a relationship with that person. Send an occasional email with a question. Show your continuing and growing interest. Because if your application is on the fence, that person is the one who will try to get you in.

10. A Match to Be Made: Remember, a college acceptance is not a prize to be won but rather a match to be made. Trust that there are many great schools where you could grow and thrive. The ultimate goal for the entire college application process is for you to end up at a school that deeply values what you have to offer. Then the real journey begins.