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5 Secret (or Not-So-Obvious) College Tips

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College can be a mind-blowing, confusing, anxiety-ridden part of life — and I’m just talking about the application process. I just went through this for the first time with my oldest daughter, and even though we sought out help at every turn, there were still things we didn’t learn from any of the guidance counselors, friends or the 5,000 articles we read on the internet. Here are a few things that might help you in your journey:

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1) Prepare a student resumé early on

We had no idea anyone would be asking for this, and no one had ever mentioned it, which is why we found ourselves up at 2 a.m. one night scrambling to help our daughter put one together in order to make a submission deadline. (But it turned out to be a great exercise for her in preparing a professional resumé.) She ended up taking it with her to several college meetings and auditions, and tucked it in with requests for transcripts. Bonus: It’s a real confidence booster when a student sees — organized in chronological order — all that they’ve achieved.

Formatted in much the same way as a job resumé, the student resumé lists your GPA, SAT/ACT scores and any academic achievements and school activities. Here’s a general outline:

2) Go off the grid during your college tour

College campus tours are great, but if you only stick with their schedule, you might miss some great opportunities to meet key people and gain insider knowledge. (No, this is not an endorsement of illegal behavior, like sneaking into the Dean's Office and rifling through his filing cabinet.) We made it a point to take time after the tour was over to explore the department our daughter was interested in (music) and talked to everyone from tech personnel to security guards.

On one visit we struck up a conversation with a student who was working in the reception area, and she and my daughter bonded over their shared musical tastes. She mentioned that she happened to be on her way to deliver some papers to the head of the department and would we like an introduction? Of course we said yes, and that led to a half-hour, informal meeting with the department chair. A few weeks later when my daughter went for her audition, that same person was one of the three people she had to perform for, and he remembered her. (She got in!)

3) Get all of the essay prompts from each school you apply to before you start writing

The dreaded college essay. Almost all schools require one and will often provide a prompt that they want the essay focused around. Here’s a valuable tip that was given to my daughter by her SAT tutor: If you’re applying to several schools, it would be time consuming to write an individual essay for each school, so organize your prompts ahead of time and see if you can cover several of the themes with one essay.

For example, if you’re applying to 10 schools and one of the schools provides a prompt that reads, “Tell us about an accomplishment or experience that is important to you and how it has shaped you” and another school gives you, “Discuss an accomplishment or event that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood,” these are similar enough that you can touch on both of these themes in one general essay, just altering small details to customize for each school. That way you’ll be writing maybe three to five essays instead of 10.

4) Find a financial aid workshop and attend early. Way early.

This is painful to admit, but we really missed the boat on this one. By the time our school held its financial aid workshop, it was literally days before some of the applications were due and many scholarship deadlines had passed. They offered a lot of valuable information and tips, so if we had known better we would have attended a session in our daughter’s junior year or sought out another high school that was offering a workshop (most will allow students from other schools to attend.) If your school doesn’t have one scheduled or if it occurs after the winter break of your senior year (which we found was too late), look elsewhere.

5) Talk to people — lots of people — about your choice of colleges

Everyone will have an opinion once you mention your child’s choice of colleges, but here’s the surprising part — some of it is actually useful! Listen carefully to what alumni have to say about the school — what they thought their actual return on investment was, what the social climate was, their specific likes and dislikes.

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I mentioned on Facebook a certain (very pricey) college my daughter had been accepted to, and it prompted an acquaintance to message me with her thoughts. After her daughter’s four-year stint at this particular school, she thought she had come out with very few real-world skills compared to her peers who had attended other colleges. It made us take a much closer look at the school and dig deeper into their curriculum — and we decided to pass.

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