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Advice From College Admissions Directors

Understanding the whole college admissions process can sometimes feel like trying to decipher an incomprehensible language. While there is no Rosetta Stone—universities often differ in their requirements expectations—we did get some insight from three experts: Amy Abrams, Dean of Admission at Sarah Lawrence College; Jennie Daley, Admissions Counselor for Penn State University, and Gabriel Aviles, former Assistant Dean of Placement at Wesleyan University.

From Jennie Daley, Admission Counselor for Penn State University:

1. Relax

“Don’t stress too much. It’s going to be OK, whatever happens in your college search process. The reality is your child is most likely going to have a great experience at whatever school they choose. While we spend a lot of time touting the unique experiences available at our schools, the reality is that almost any school in the U.S. is going to provide your student amazing opportunities and resources. What will really define your student’s experience is how they take advantage of them. So don’t get too attached to one school; remember, your student can be successful at many schools.”

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2. Majors Shmajors

“Don’t worry too much about what major your student should consider. The latest figures show 80 percent of students change their major once they get to school. More important than a specific major is the quality and range of offerings at a school.”

3. Freshman Year Counts

“Remember that your student’s grades will have an impact, starting freshman year of high school. Since schools are looking at the cumulative GPA, don’t brush off the freshman year, thinking college is years away.”

4. Plan Early

This doesn’t mean you have to have those college visits already mapped out, just that you should be developing contacts and keeping lines of communication open with important players like your school guidance counselor and someone who can help you think about financial planning.”

5. Check Deadlines

“There are zillions of deadlines and benchmarks in the college admissions process, with each school having different criteria and timetables. As soon as sophomore year, you may need to be thinking about the PSAT. Then there’s scheduling campus visits and eventually application deadlines. You’ll want to make sure early on that you know what deadlines are important for the schools you’re considering.”

6. Money Matters

“Start learning now about financial aid in your state. Every state offers different programs to help pay for college, so look now to see what your options are. The sooner you start squirreling money away, the easier it will be when that first tuition bill arrives. There are also options like 529 Accounts, which are savings accounts for education funds, available to residents of any state.”

From Amy Abrams, Dean of Admission and Financial Aid at Sarah Lawrence College:

7. Stand Back

“Remember parents, ‘we’ are not are going to college. Your son or daughter is going to college; you’ve probably had your college experience, let them have theirs. It seems that helicopter parents have now turned into bulldozer parents, ready to plow through the whole admissions process! We love you, but let the kids take the lead. We are creating a community here, and we want to hear the voice of the student—they are the ones who make up the community.”

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8. The Devil Is in the Details

Abrams says that kids need to be very detail oriented. In their haste to get through applications, they make silly mistakes. “One of the most frequent mistakes I see is on the Common Application. There is a small section that asks the students about their extracurricular activities and work experience. Often they forget to fill this out fully. They are so busy focusing on the big essay, but there are lots of little questions that need answering within many applications.” Another common error? “We are aware that students are cutting and pasting their essays for each application, but they often forget to change the name of the school accordingly! If your child is applying to Sarah Lawrence, I don’t want to see, ‘I would love to go to Smith because of X, Y and Z!’ On this end, we are like, REALLY?!” Details, people.

9. About That Essay

“The essay adds a new dimension to the application. It should be about something that the student can write passionately, and that can be a huge range. One of my favorite essays was from a kid who wrote about finding who or what was responsible for all of those missing socks from the dryer! Another favorite was from a student who wrote about the loss of his mother, a subject which is generally discouraged; however, if someone can tell a compelling, honest story, it’s going to be good. A great essay isn’t so much about what we want to hear, it’s more about what the student wants to tell. And they should be themselves—we can see when they are trying too hard, or when they are not being genuine. If your kid is funny, let them write funny. If they’re not, now is not the time to start!”

10. Interview Well

"The interview literally brings the application to life, so it should be a good conversation, a good connection. The student should realize that this is their time to understand more about the institution, so they should be prepared by doing their research on the school, and by having at least three to five questions at the end of your interview so we see that they are alert and curious. It’s also the best time to be honest. If there is blip on your transcript, this is their time to explain it. We are regular people, too—talk to us!” And finally, “Look presentable and pulled together. You don’t need to show up in jacket and tie or a skirt and heels if that’s not you, but skip the cut offs and sloppy T-shirts. Nice jeans and a shirt are fine.”

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From Gabriel Aviles, former Assistant Dean of Placement at Wesleyan University:

11. Tell Us Something We Don’t Know

“Their files tell us one tale; what their grades are, how well they test; so with their essays and interviews, we want them to tell us something new, something that we don’t see. This is not about shock value, but more about being relevant. How does what they would like to share further their relevancy to the school. How does it connect them?”

12. Financial Assistance and Test Scores

Although Aviles and the rest of us wish it weren’t so true, good test scores are very important. “Especially if you need financial aid, test scores have to be stellar. If we see a group of students who are equally compelling, how do we choose? Those test scores can be the deal breaker. It often comes down to dollars and cents.”

13. Don't Be Boring!

“I hate to say that your child is like a product, but they’ve each got to have their own 'hook.' What makes them special? The application is a snapshot of who they are, so they need to make it the best that they can. Gild the lily. Where do they shine? Are they gifted musically or athletically? Are they interesting demographically or internationally? They need to engage well in the interview and bring their interesting side to life. Before you spend money visiting colleges, conduct some mock interviews with your kid until they can present their best, true selves.”

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