Four Elements of Control for College Applicants


There is so much written about the college search and application process that fuels a sense of anxiety and confusion on the part of students and their parents – about the competition to get into college, the uncertainty about gaining admissions and the high cost of tuition, to name a few. In contrast, too little is written about the numerous elements over which high school students and college applicants actually have control. Four of those elements and nine general actions students can take to maintain a sense of control are identified below.

1. Students have control over which colleges they consider and research.

Learn About Your Own Academic Profile

When colleges look at applications, a student’s academic profile is a focus of their review. Students should learn the components that make up an academic profile and determine what their own profile is. It is comprised of many elements, such as course choices, grades, grade trends, and standardized college admission test scores (SATs, ACTs). Since high schools vary greatly in curriculum, grading scales, use of weighting the GPA and so much more, a student’s academic profile is very high school specific.

Assess Which Schools are Possibly Appropriate Choices in Terms of Admissibility

Learning the middle 50% of the SAT or ACT scores for students that a college admits, the data on applicants from their high school, and how their own academic profile compares is very useful in gaining a sense of the competitive terrain to assess which universities are possibly appropriate choices in terms of admissibility. For example, a student with a two part SAT score of 1260 or an ACT score of 28 who has a B + average in high school is likely a competitive applicant (from the perspective of academic profile only) for liberal arts and science colleges like Muhlenberg College and Dickinson College and universities like the University of Delaware. In contrast, that kind of academic profile suggests that a student is not competitive for admissions to universities like the University of Pennsylvania and Brown University.

Identify Schools that Match Your Ambitions, Interests, Values and Preferences

Students should consider and assess their own academic and other strengths, interests, learning styles, preferences in terms of college culture and environment, and financial and other requirements. Learning about a school’s academic programs, majors and minors, special opportunities, and more to identify those that match their ambitions, interests, values, preferences, and requirements is critical to determining which colleges to further consider.

2. Students have control over how they conduct themselves in the college search process.

Demonstrate Interest

For various reasons, many colleges value “demonstrated interest.” At a minimum for colleges of preliminary interest, students should visit their web sites and go to the admissions or visitor pages to find the prompts that allow them to sign in to receive emails, announcements and other materials. That will put them on the colleges’ radar, demonstrate their interest in learning more about the colleges and ensure that they are not perceived as “stealth” applicants.

Visiting is one of the elements of “demonstrated interest” that many colleges like to see. Conducting an official visit includes attending the information session held by administrators and the campus tour led by a student. To get credit for the visit, students must sign in at Admissions. Colleges have conducted research that shows that applicants who visit are more likely to enroll. Therefore, many colleges treat the visit as proxy for “likely to enroll” and as a positive factor in their admissions deliberations.

For students, visiting a college is an important part of their own search and exploration process. The process of visiting allows for preferences to evolve as students learn about different programs, styles of instruction, levels of academic rigor, and the look of the students, facilities and the campus. It gives students the language to interpret and understand what different options can provide. Depending on the rigor of their investigative process, students can arrange in advance to sit in on classes and meet with faculty members at many schools.

Information sessions are a good way to learn about what a particular school values as an educational institution and in the college admissions process. Colleges often provide their definition of terms, a roadmap of sorts, and keys to their particular code for increasing the likelihood of gaining admissions. Applicants and their parents should pay close attention and listen for the tips that a good information session can provide.

Understand the Role of the Regional Representative for Westchester County

Most admissions offices are organized by geographic territory with an admissions officer assigned to a specific area. The “regional representative” is responsible for knowing the high schools and making contact in their region and is often the first reader of a student’s application. In our area, the regional representative is responsible for all high schools and applicants in Westchester County.

Students identifying and then reaching out to their regional representative shows their level of interest in learning more and allows the college to personalize its admissions process. Students can reach out by attending local events sponsored by the institution, including its visits to their high schools. When colleges offer local interviews, the regional representative is often the one in the field conducting those interviews.

Interview When Colleges Indicate Interviews are Recommended and Evaluative

Review college websites to learn about their policies and practices regarding interviews. When colleges indicate that interviews are recommended and evaluative they are revealing that they are important in their application review. In that case, students should interview on campus or investigate whether they can interview locally with the regional representative or an alumnus. Some colleges offer interviews via skype or phone.

3. Students have control over which colleges and how many colleges to apply to.

Decide Which Colleges to Apply to

It goes without saying that students, often with the help of their parents, decide which colleges to apply to. Students who have been thoughtful and engaged in assessing their own goals and preferences, understanding their own academic profile and other strengths in the context of the competitive college admissions terrain and then researching, investigating and visiting colleges to identify appropriate choices that will provide the best opportunities for them tend to be most effective and successful in gaining admissions to colleges.

Apply Only to a Reasonable Number of Colleges (the General Rule is Nine)

Students who have proceeded thoughtfully and deliberately are usually able to limit the total number of schools they are applying to. As a result, they are better able to focus their application development efforts and submit stronger applications. If students are spread too thin, they also may not be able to conduct as comprehensive a visit or interview where doing so is important to the college.

The general recommendation is that the total number of colleges to apply to not exceed nine schools. The actual number varies, depending on many specific factors about the student, the admissions plans, financial considerations and the type of colleges.

Applying to more schools does not necessarily result in more acceptances. In fact, the reality is often the opposite. Also, while colleges can make it very easy to apply, simply doing so does not mean it will be easy to gain admission.

4. Students have control over the development and content of their applications.

Develop Applications that are Authentic, Comprehensive and Targeted

The challenge for students is to develop application materials that are authentic, comprehensive, and targeted. Any and all responses, from short phrases describing activities to long essays, need to be approached with diligence and care.

Students should give themselves months to prepare their applications. It is ideal to start during the summer before senior year. The common application, the instrument currently used by 548 colleges, is available annually on August 1 and only online. With prompts for the main “personal essay” usually announced during the spring, applicants can begin drafting that reflective essay over the summer. Applications to schools not using the common application generally start to become available online around August 1 as well.

Responses for the personal essay allow colleges to hear an applicant’s “voice” and to learn about them and their writing style. Depending on the type of college, one or more additional school-specific supplemental essays may be required. These essays allow colleges to gain insight into applicants’ knowledge of the college, the thoughtfulness of their search process and how their programs and opportunities “fit” or match applicants’ interests, aspirations, and goals. Many colleges use the “why I want to attend x college” essay prompt, which is a very important part of their application. Impressions gleaned from college visits will help applicants articulate and write comprehensive and targeted responses and increase the likelihood of being admitted.

Published in the Education Section of The Scarsdale Inquirer, The Rivertowns Express and The Record-Review on January 16, 2015.

The CEP is the Certified Educational Planner which Jane holds, and is the mark of distinction for independent educational consultants and high school counselors.

Jane Hoffman is a Certified Educational Planner (CEP). The CEP is the mark of distinction for independent educational consultants and high school counselors. It reflects the highest level of professional achievement and signifies extensive knowledge and commitment to the profession and to providing the highest quality of service to students and families. It is conferred only after demonstration of expanded institutional and professional knowledge.

CEPIECANACACJane Hoffman is an active member of a number of professional associations in college admissions and counseling, including the American Institute of Certified Educational Planners (AICEP), the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) and the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). Jane is a graduate of IECA’s Practices and Principles Training Institute and adheres to IECA’s Principles of Good Practice. Since it is important to remain current, Jane frequently attends national conferences and participate in professional exchanges that provide the latest information on admission policies, practices, trends and developments. Jane regularly visit colleges and meets with admissions officers to learn about each school’s culture, educational programs, institutional priorities and admissions practices. Ongoing professional development activities also include taking courses online, completing webinars and consulting with colleagues.