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Insider's guide to applying to colleges

Staff writer

Each college considers applications differently, but years of evaluating thousands of applications at a selective university yield advice that applies to other schools as well:

  • Test scores and grade-point averages are not magic numbers.

In fact, they often matter less than does how well you perform in relation to others in your high school.

A high score on the ACT (or, less commonly hereabouts, SAT) might be enough to earn you automatic admission to some schools. However, the number that admitting deans most closely consider is your high school class rank.

Being in the top 10 percent of your high school class is the single best predictor of whether a student will do well in college.

Admitting deans are looking for students who work hard, not just those with gifted educational backgrounds.

  • If your class rank isn’t that high, it’s important to show improvement.

Progressively higher grades in progressively more demanding courses are considered very good signs.

While still in high school, make sure you enroll in whatever are the most advanced classes your school offers.

Universities understand that not all districts are able to offer separate honors and advanced-placement courses. However, they typically know what each district’s most demanding classes are, and they check to see whether students have challenged themselves by taking the most difficult courses available. They even understand that grades might suffer slightly if you switch from a less demanding set of classes to a more demanding one.

Whatever you do, make sure you will have completed all the courses the college to which you are applying requires. Pay special attention to math, science, English, and foreign language requirements.

  • Keep hitting the books even after you apply.

For many years, universities tended to ignore the last semester of high school work, performed after a student already had applied. In recent years, however, many have begun going back and checking, even after offering admission, to make sure “senioritis” didn’t creep in.

If an applicant’s performance — or list of classes taken — in his or her final semester slackens significantly, offers of admission can be withdrawn.

  • Make sure your high school provides colleges an honest profile of its education.

This is not the place for your counselor to brag your school’s great facilities or cover up any weaknesses.

If your school has only a few college preparatory courses, the counselor’s profile should note that. If most students in your school qualify for free or reduced price lunches, the profile should say so. If the average ACT score for your classmates is relatively low, the profile should list that, too.

You want the profile — though you probably won’t see it — to be as honest as possible so admitting deans can see what obstacles, if any, you might have overcome.

Having every educational advantage imaginable can be a plus, but with such advantages come expectations for higher ACT scores.

  • Take college-level courses from community colleges while still in high school.

However, don’t look at these courses as an opportunity to knock off college requirements early.

Particularly in math and the sciences, students often find it better to retake introductory courses they already have completed as high school students. Otherwise, they aren’t comfortable in more advanced courses for which these are prerequisites.

Think of community college courses as trial runs, preparing you to get off to a great start once you take the same courses at a four-year college. They also powerfully demonstrate that you haven’t shied away from demanding courses while in high school.

  • Regard your essay like a conversation on a first date.

Finding the right college and the right major within it is a bit like courtship. It’s important to put your best foot forward, but it’s also important to be who you are. Otherwise, you could end up in a badly matched relationship.

Use whatever essays might be requested as opportunities to explain why you are passionate about the college and major you are considering, to brag a bit about yourself, and to highlight how you may have overcome various challenges.

If no one else in your family has completed a college degree, be sure to include that fact. Conversely, if relatives have graduated from the same college you are applying to, mention that, too.

Being a legacy or a first-generation college student can score as many bonus points as can being a member of a minority group or having overcome a health or physical limitation.

If you do have a limitation, focus less on what accommodation you might need and more on how you have overcome the situation.

If your grades suffered one year because of health, work, or family concerns, explain the problem in general terms and, once again, how you overcame it.

Although a lot of the admissions process seems automatic, many colleges — even very big ones — perform individual, hands-on reviews. An honest and compellingly told story can more than compensate for less than stellar test scores and grades.

Some schools read letters of recommendation; some discard them. Check the instructions on your application form.

  • Know what you’re getting into.

Doing a bit of research about the college and major you have chosen can pay huge dividends.

Although the sciences tend to evaluate applicants purely on the basis of measurable aptitudes, the humanities and arts often are looking for students who understand and appreciate what it is to be in whatever profession they are seeking to join.

Call the department office for the major you are considering and ask about the program. If the department office brushes you off, pick another college. Most, however, will be happy to have someone chat with you. Use what you learn to make a case in your essay as to why that major is appropriate for you — if, in fact, it is.

Extracurricular activities — particularly those that have some relevance to the major — are very important, as are activities in which you demonstrate leadership, responsibility, and mature judgment. Be sure to itemize them and explain their relevance.

  • Don’t be afraid of rejection.

Admitting deans are trying to find students who will fit in and perform well.

If you indicate in your application that what draws you to a particular major is something that the dean knows is not a strength of the college in question, your application may not be accepted. However, that’s a good thing. You probably wouldn’t be happy there if you had been accepted.

On the other hand, you may think that your scores and record aren’t good enough for some particular college, but something you say in your essay or show in your background may mean something to a dean that you can’t even begin to imagine.

  • Pick your college for the right reasons.

Because you like its sports teams or know people who plan to go there usually aren’t the best reasons for picking a school. You also should avoid picking schools solely because they are large or small.

You won’t get lost at a big university, which rapidly becomes much smaller as students divide into very small, tightly knit groups of majors. Likewise, your educational growth won’t be stunted at a small liberal arts college, where classes — especially at the introductory level — tend to be more intimate.

Community colleges may lengthen your total stay in college a bit, but they often provide a much less expensive way to transition from high school into college. You must, however, be careful to make sure courses will transfer. If considering a community college, be sure to ask about its “articulation agreements” or pathways with four-year universities. Actually completing an associate’s degree, rather than simply enrolling for two years, can be advantageous.

  • Consider the whole cost.

Generally, the more reputable the school, the more valuable your degree ultimately will be. However, other factors also enter in.

Ask every college how long it takes a typical student to complete whatever degree you desire. Don’t be satisfied with vague platitudes. Insist on getting the actual number of semesters the average student requires.

It’s not always the case that big schools take longer than little ones. The number may vary substantially even by major within the same college.

Understand that the slower you go — the fewer hours you take each semester — the more costly your degree will be.

Likewise, consider that getting a dual major can be very costly. A bachelor’s in one area followed by a master’s in another might make more economic sense and give you stronger credentials in the end.

The author, a professor at the University of Illinois, served a five-year term as associate dean for academic affairs, including admissions, at its College of Media. He also has served on the university’s general education board and its committees on educational policy, admissions, and admission of student athletes in addition to chairing its council of undergraduate academic deans and serving as a faculty blogger for its admissions website. The views are his alone, not necessarily those of his employer.

Last modified July 27, 2012

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