Having gone through the college application process twice in as many years, I feel compelled to warn parents: Things have changed dramatically since we applied to schools.
Back in the day, I applied to two private universities and had my test scores and transcript sent to the flagship public institution in my state. That was enough back then to be offered admission and a scholarship to the state school. My son, who has also applied to this same state university, had to complete a detailed common application, along with several supplemental essays. Prospective students now apply to an average of six colleges. It’s a lot more competitive and a ton more work than it used to be.
I’ve learned some things I wish I had known earlier in the game. For parents and students who still face this gantlet, here are my best tips to make this time a little less stressful than it tends to be:
1. Start early. Begin creating a list of colleges in the summer before your senior year. Around this time, start brainstorming a few essay ideas for your personal statement. The fall semester of senior year is a busy time for students. The earlier you start, the less stress you experience leading up to the deadlines.
2. Get ready to write. One of the biggest changes I’ve noticed is the amount of writing required for applications. Many selective schools require supplemental essays and short-answer responses, in addition to the personal statement. Applying for scholarships requires even more essays. Try doing a five-minute free write for each of the questions to deal with writer's block.
3. Love your safety school. It’s important to have at least one backup school you know you will be accepted to that you would be happy attending. While the most elite colleges have slashed their admission rates to low single digits, the majority of colleges still accept most students. Find at least one among this group and focus on the reasons you would enjoy going there.
4. Expect some parental involvement. Most public school counselors are responsible for so many students that they don’t have the time to offer much individualized help. Ask a parent or guardian to review or proofread essays and every section of the common application before it's submitted.
5. Ask teachers for recommendations early. Some are swamped with requests and have to set cutoff dates so they have enough time to write all the letters.
6. Learn the lingo. There are so many different types of admission: early decision, early action, early-action restricted, single-choice early action, regular decision and rolling admission. Unless you are absolutely committed to one school, use early action, regular or rolling admission.
7. Undecided is fine. It’s OK if you don't know exactly what you want to study, what career you want to pursue or even where you really want to go to college. Unless you are applying to a highly specialized program, writing an essay about one area of interest or checking the box for a major does not mean you are locked in. Many students figure out the answers to these questions along the way or explore a new career path after graduation.
8. Have a response ready. Expect people to start asking where you are going to college before you’ve even submitted a single application. It’s important for parents to respect their kids' privacy. Ask what information they are comfortable sharing and have a standard response.
9. Money matters. Be frank about what you can afford. Be realistic about loans and what it means to borrow large sums of money for an undergraduate degree, especially if you plan to major in a field with lower starting salaries.
10. Make a calendar. With so many deadlines, including those for financial aid forms like the FAFSA and CSS, create a calendar and share the deadlines with your parents. Break the application process down into smaller steps, such as filling out general information, creating a resume, starting an activities list, brainstorming the personal essay, asking for recommendations and compiling supplemental essays. There's a lot of demographics and information required by each college even when using the common app.
11. Normalize rejection. Rejection is to be expected with far more students applying to more colleges. Acceptance rates at highly selective schools are lower than they've ever been. Rejection should be a normal and expected part of the process. Colleges turn away many talented students, and some of the criteria are entirely out of your control.