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Navigating the College Application Process

Applying to college is both exciting and nerve-racking ... for your teen and for you. What are admissions committees looking for? How do you know that your child is picking the right school? Will you even be able to afford it? Here's how to make sure your teen has the best chance at getting into the school of her dreams—without stressing yourself out (too much) in the process.

Start Early

You and your teen should start looking seriously at colleges during junior year, but you can keep an eye out and prepare even prior to that. “The truth is, the earlier you start, the less you will have to cram into the fall of senior year,” says Evelyn Alexander, an independent counselor for Magellan College Counseling. “I start working with students as early as the 10th grade, to make sure the student has depth in their extracurriculars, interesting summer activities (or jobs), fulfills all of their academic requirements, and begins looking at colleges—by going to college fairs or looking at college websites—long before they begin to create their official college list.”

“Many parents could simply not be accepted into their alma maters based upon today's standards."
—Susanna Cerasuolo, guidance counselor

Don’t Rule out a College Based Solely on Tuition

“One of the biggest misconceptions parents [can have] is not to understand how financial aid is calculated,” says Sarah McGinty, author of The College Application Essay and former member of the writing faculty at Harvard University. “Some parents look at college A, with a $50,000 cost, and college B, with a $10,000 tuition cost, and they’ll say ‘So, we’ll only apply to the $10,000 school.’ But that school will only give you $2,000 worth of aid, where the $50,000 school might give you $42,000. It’s important to look at the financial aid, how colleges meet needs and talk to the school counselor or financial aid officer.” In other words? Don’t eliminate a school based on its tuition—at least not in the beginning.

At the Same Time, Know How Much You’re Willing to Take On

You should have an amount in mind that you’re willing to pay, and your teen should also have an idea of how much they can take on in loans. Most offers include grant or scholarship money, but some of the promised “financial aid” is straight up loans. “Unfortunately parents and students don’t always think long-term when reviewing offers,” says Maura Kastberg, director of Student Services, RSC: Your College Prep Expert. “Both parents and students need to become more mindful of what they are agreeing to before the student agrees to attend any college.”

RELATED: Start Saving Up For College—Now!

Set Realistic Expectations

We’re not discouraging your child from applying to “reach” schools, but you may need to reevaluate what that means nowadays. “Most parents applied to college 30 years ago when the admissions scene was wildly different,” says Susanna Cerasuolo, an independent guidance counselor and the brains behind CollegeMapper. “Many parents could simply not be accepted into their alma maters based upon today's standards. This is not helpful, and it really stresses the kids. Parents can be tempted to mention all of the big name schools that people have always heard of, but the important thing is to be realistic and well informed about the current acceptance statistics. With more and more students applying to college each year, admission becomes more competitive. “

Another Way to Look at It?

Remember that as truly amazing as your child is, with his volunteer work, tutoring, sports and/or grades, there are a ton of other children just as talented/hardworking/amazing. It’s tough to hear, but you have to put everything in perspective—it helps you to understand what really makes your child special—what he, himself, is passionate about, and why he's a good fit for a certain school. As Eddie LaMeire, an independent consultant who previously worked at UCSD in admissions and outreach, says: “If I were a parent and my child graduated as valedictorian, I'd be thrilled. But, there are about 28,000 high schools in the country, each with its own valedictorian. It's incredibly hard to look exceptional in this process. Parents need to keep that in mind in order to develop a healthy perspective.”

Good Grades and Scores Are Your Safest Bets

Everyone agrees that the surest way to get a college’s attention is through good grades and good standardized test scores. Period. It’s the first thing colleges look at, and it’s the one thing that can increase your child’s chances of acceptance. And it’s not just because it shows your child is “smart” or ready for college: “[Colleges] do their very best to find students who will truly take advantage of the opportunity. This is why GPA and test scores are top in consideration by admissions, because while imperfect, they are the best indicators of academic performance they have readily available,” says Ryan Woodall, a professor who has worked in admissions consulting for a decade and founded Pinnacle Tutoring.

"Remember that there are several ‘right’ choices of college for each person.”
—Ryan Woodall, admissions consultant

But There Are No Guarantees

“Remember that there are no guarantees: Having a perfect GPA and SAT score does not ensure your admission to any school, nor does being in the bottom fourth in either or both of these categories preclude you from acceptance,” says Woodall. “While both of these factors have a significant impact on admission decisions, don't rule yourself out because of these numbers—but don't wholly rely on them, either. Look for common traits in an environment that is best suited to your success, and remember that there are several ‘right’ choices of college for each person.”

Different Colleges Want Different Things

“All schools will consider the student’s transcript, how rigorous classes were, and standardized test scores,” says Kastberg. “But the degree to which they focus on these depends on where you apply. Large state universities by and large use a mathematical approach to admission that includes transcript, and standardized test scores. Private institutions will look closely at transcript and test scores but include other aspects like the essay or personal statement, extracurricular activities, leadership abilities, etc.”

Apply the 3-3-3 Rule

Elaine Sigal, an educator with more than 40 years experience and president of STIZZiL, an online tutoring and college prep website, agrees with Kastberg. “At large universities, it’s a numbers game,” she says. Her advice? Remember the 3-3-3 rule. Ideally, your child should apply to 3 safety schools, 3 schools with a somewhat higher chance of risk, and 3 “reach” schools—with a mix of private and public colleges.

RELATED: Advice From College Admissions Directors

Help Your Teen Figure out What She Wants, Truly

“The most important thing is that [your teen] focus on what they want the next four years of education to be like,” says McGinty. “I think a lot of people get derailed, and work on figuring out, ‘What does the college want?’ when it should be the other way around.” Focusing on how your child sees himself for the next four years can help him not only narrow down his search, but also apply well and get in. “When students state that they want to major in an area the college does not offer as a major, it’s obvious to the college that the student hasn’t spent any time seriously looking at their school. This will usually result in a rejection,” says Cynda Mullikin, a college prep counselor for O’Connell High School in Galveston, Texas. Mullikin also worked for years as an admissions recruiter and financial aid officer for a private university. “It’s important that students take the time to investigate colleges before they apply. Their application should demonstrate why this particular school would be a good fit for them and how this school will meet their needs the best.”

Tailored Essays Are Key (Read: They Are Not Résumés)

One of the biggest and most agreed on mistake that experts say is common is not tailoring the essay to the school. “I've seen many students copy and paste things from different applications and then forget to change the name of the school!” says Mullikin. McGinty agrees, and says that essays that scream “not a fit” are ones that quite obviously show a lack of research for the school. “If they say they want an urban environment and the school doesn’t have one, or just generally address features a school doesn’t have, [it’s a problem]” says McGinty.

How you know you’ve gone too far? When you’ve used the word “we.” As in: “We’ve been looking at Georgetown.”

Also, your teen should share a bit of his personality. “Colleges, especially the good ones, want to know who you are,” says LaMeire. “This is not accomplished through rattling off a litany of activities. It comes through reflection, depictions of growth, and honest writing. There's a section to list accomplishments in the application. It's in the ‘activities’ sections or as an uploaded résumé. But, not the essay.” Have your child start early on the essay so they have plenty of time. Remember: Writing creatively on demand (and in a couple of hours!) would be difficult for anyone, not to mention a busy (and distractible) teen.

Remember: You’re Not Applying, Your Child Is

A lot of times, parents can get too involved—usually from being overexcited or feeling too invested in the process. Remember that you are not applying. How do you know you’ve gone too far? When you’ve used the word “we.” As in: “We’ve been looking at Georgetown.” Or even worse, “We’ve applied to Duke.” Take a step back and remember this is about finding the best fit for your son or daughter, not you.

But That Doesn’t Mean You Shouldn’t Be Involved at All

Some parents are discouraged from helping their child, especially when they, themselves, didn’t go to college, or they have a student aiming for a completely different college experience. But you know your child better than anyone else, and will be a source of help for helping her figure out the best path for herself. Make sure to communicate that to her.

Encourage Kids to Be Themselves

You want your son or daughter to be well-rounded, with “pointy ends,” according to LaMeire. What does that mean? “With the extracurriculars, you essentially want the student to look like a well-rounded member of the school and community (sports, clubs, leadership, service, etc.) with one or two areas of intense commitment,” says LaMeire. Demonstrated passion is key, says Mullikin: “Passion helps them stand out. It demonstrates that the student is not just following the crowd, but that they're passionate and consistent about something. Students have to prove they are worthy for the few spots that are available.” Again, you want to help your child identify his areas of passion without becoming too involved—it's striking a balance of guidance and independence. Then, make sure he has plenty of time to demonstrate that passion in his application.

RELATED: A Guide to College Prep Over the Summer

Get Some Help!

There are a ton of great websites out there for students looking to understand the process, but don’t forget that these resources are available to you as well. “While assisting your teen through the college admissions process, don't be afraid to call on others, whether they be college admissions consultants, student counselors, or the students themselves. Your teen will often know about additional resources that may not have been communicated to the parents,” says Woodall.


Unigo and College Confidential both allow teens to see student’s comments and rankings.

College Board has official info about the SATs

ACT has official info about the ACTs

FAFSA is your resource for everything financial aid

And don’t forget your child's high school counselor!

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