Tips for students in the process of applying to college

This time of year tests the patience of both parents and high school students as both refrain with all-too familiar questions that plague the class of ‘15.

”What will the mail bring? Should I use my code and find out the answer or should I go back to bed and hide under the covers. What will I tell my friends? Should I lie or pretend I got in? My stomach is growling, and I want to cry. I know they rejected me because of the C in freshman biology. Did I have enough community service hours on my resume? I messed up big time when I forgot to put in the application for the National Honor Society. Maybe my college counselor wrote a bad recommendation. What a waste, devouring college guides, taking practice SAT tests, fighting with my parents. The one school that wants me is one I hate. I’m going to take a year off.”

All of these thoughts go through the heads of many promising students. They chastise themselves and feel completely at fault when a thin envelope arrives, even though they all will find a college home.

From my many years of counseling thousands of students through the college application process, to the next crop of college aspirants, I’d like to offer a few tips which may help to avoid some common pitfalls: 1) Make the focal point of a college essay something about your life not evident on a resume or report card unless told in a captivating and engaging way; 2) Because fine arts programs look for certain types to fill their particular needs, arts students should apply to a broad range of schools and know that being rejected does not mean a lack of talent; 3) Likewise, athletes should be wary of promises by recruiting coaches. They look at the composition of the entire team before making a real commitment and sometimes that means last minute changes to the roster, with some promises left not kept.

No matter how much expense, time and effort is put into an application, finding awe-inspiring extracurricular events, and being in AP classes, for some, a college rejection may be the first inevitable disappointment in one’s young life. This was a particularly competitive year and some students remain bitter as to why, with all their hard work, their dream school acceptance did not materialize. I vividly remember sitting with the family of a very impressive candidate whose well-rounded resume boasted a National Merit Scholarship commendation, lots of community service, and a high grade point average in competitive classes. With English as her chosen major, she set her sights on a particular Ivy League school with a very low acceptance rate.

Prior to submitting her application she sent her essay for me to look over. What I read was a depressing piece about receiving a lower than usual grade in a freshman class. I suggested that with all her qualifications, a defensive essay was not the best strategy. She stuck with the essay and applied early decision. In December she found out that she had been deferred to regular decision in March. Using the same essay, she applied to other very competitive schools. When those decisions came, she was roundly rejected. I suspect that her essay sent out a red flag that she would have difficulty when solving a tough situation did not come easily to her. The college essay is a place to shine, and no student should use it as an apology for how they performed in a class unless there were extreme circumstances much more pressing than challenging subject matter, and even then, the focus should remain on the honest outcome of how the challenge was met, or what was gained from the negative experience.

Auditioning for one of the arts conservatories is another situation wrought with anxiety. Many talented students fixate on one program without realizing that many schools have spectacular departments. A student may actually get more experience outside the narrow confines of a conservatory. This year a talented student became obsessed with one school. He had performed the lead in all the school plays and since childhood had built up a strong resume. An audition was prepared with a local teacher and, according to the student, it went well. In all probability it did; however, when time for acceptance came, the envelope held a rejection. No amount of counseling or talking about the whole picture relieved the feeling of failure. It is difficult for a 17-year-old to understand that out of many thousands of auditions, schools look for specific types for their needs that year. Much like the performing arts in general, having a particularly conventional appearance can influence the decision, and has nothing to do with talent. My hope is that this student will stop feeling rejected and head held high, go to one of the schools where he/she was accepted and wanted.

Recruitment into athletic programs is another dimension of the college admissions process that can often lead to disappointment. Many families become obsessed with preparing their progeny as early as kindergarten. When the time comes, the recruitment process can be brutal. It is filled with game-playing among the recruiters who are, understandably, conniving to assemble their best team. Many aspirants are led to believe they have a good chance of being accepted, but sadly, only meet with a disappointment. As statistics of turning pro are not favorable, with athletics, concentrating on academics and life balance is key to keeping a big picture in place.

Parents and counselors, as much as they are able, need to support those applying to college with encouragement and a holistic perspective. The college application process needs to be put into perspective as a stepping-stone to finding the right place for each and every student. It may be the first time in which high school students are facing real life issues outside the narrow confines of high school, or what is known and familiar. Colleges, like employers, do not like whiners and showing that one gets up when something goes wrong or not their way is a positive step toward adulthood.

The application acceptance/rejection can be used to help students understand that, in the real world, slots in college, on teams, and in jobs are filled, not only by qualified applicants, but many times according to talent, types, and connections. It is important to keep the broader picture in mind and should a rejection come, consider that perhaps those in charge of hiring/selecting were simply looking for other kinds of talents or abilities. These are difficult lifelong lessons, and it behooves families to share the larger view of the process well before beginning college applications.

To the class of ‘15, wherever you have landed — good luck!