College applications: two words that often trigger panic in parents and students alike. But you don’t have to let them send your family into a stressed-out tailspin. Check out these tips from a trio of experts – who are college counselors and parents – and get your student’s college applications in without all the stress.
How many schools should a student apply to?
The general consensus amongst our knowledgeable panel is that students should apply to eight to 12 schools. “That may sound like a lot to many parents,” says Roberta Lachman, partner and counselor at local consulting service College Fit 360, “but it has become pretty standard due to the surge in international applicants and the fact that the Common Application makes it easy to apply to multiple schools.”
When choosing where to apply, it’s important for students to select a range of schools that fall into one of three categories: safety, target and reach. “A safety school is where your GPA and SAT/ACT scores are higher than the average they accept, a target school is one where your scores are about average for getting in and a reach school is where your GPA and SAT/ACT may be lower, but you have some specific reason to apply there, such as a program you’d really like to be in,” explains Judy Walters, a college-essay writing coach and mom.
Perhaps the most important piece of advice to heed on where to apply comes from Lachman, who is proud to have gotten her own child successfully through college: “Every school on the list should be one that the student would be happy to attend.”
How much preparation is reasonable for the SAT/ACT?
Every student is unique, so the amount of preparation needed for these tests is really going to depend on the individual. Our experts agree, however, that students can’t expect to do well on the SAT and ACT without at least some advance preparation. “There is a strong correlation between prep time and scores,” says Lachman, “so it’s important to put in the work.”
This often means taking test-prep classes or hiring a tutor, but if these are out of reach financially, you can access free resources online and through the local public libraries. These include SAT and ACT prep books. Jeff Haig, Ed.D., founder of Irvine-based Strategic College Consulting and host of The Ultimate College Planning Podcast, says that one of the best ways to prepare is to develop strong reading, writing and math skills. “The SAT and ACT mirror those types of classes in many ways, so having a good foundation in your education will help prepare for that,” says Haig, who serves on the UCLA scholarship admissions committee as an application reader.
What’s the best way to help a student stand out?
While the SAT and ACT are the primary methods by which colleges assess applicants, don’t overlook the importance of the essay or personal statement. Give your child a leg up by encouraging a passion for reading and writing at a young age. Quite often, the students who have fantastic essays are the ones who have been reading widely since they were young.
Haig stresses the importance of reading fiction, as this helps kids learn to craft a creative and compelling story with a narrative arc. Hiring a writing coach can also be a worthwhile investment, as he or she can use simple guidelines to assist students in turning their backgrounds into cohesive and engaging essays.
Students who have strong communication skills have a big advantage, especially if they’re applying to a college where an in-person interview is required. Activities such as speech and debate, Model UN or mock trial can help kids develop confidence. Public speaking often correlates with writing skills as well. “College admissions reward the students who can really articulate themselves well,” says Haig, “so it’s good to develop those skills as early as possible.”
What is the value of AP courses?
Advanced Placement, or AP, courses are designed to give students the experience of a college-level class while they’re still in high school. At the culmination of the class, the students are given an AP exam, and those who pass receive college credit that will be reflected on their transcript. Depending on how many AP courses a student passes, he may be able to begin college with a semester-worth of credits, enabling him to save money by graduating early.
College admissions offices often respond positively to students who have excelled in their AP courses. “The two most important factors that colleges look at in evaluating prospective students are high school GPA and rigor of curriculum,” says Lachman. “Since college will be challenging for everyone, admissions officers want to make sure that the students they select will be up to the task. AP courses illustrate a student’s willingness to take on demanding coursework.”
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One word of caution from Haig, however, is that while taking more AP courses means students will be more competitive come college application time, “it’s important to monitor their stress levels and make sure they’re not getting stressed out and pushing themselves too much.”
What is the role of extracurriculars, and what is the best way to make them count?
The attitude toward extracurricular activities has changed over the past few years, and it’s no longer viewed as a plus to be a student who does a little bit of a lot of things. “You don’t need 10 [extracurriculars] to get into college,” says Walters. “Pick what you like and excel in them and you’ll be fine.”
Extracurriculars are an opportunity for kids to pursue the subjects about which they are most passionate. “It’s not about quantity, it’s about quality,” says Haig, “so they should focus on a smaller group of activities related to their interests.” Whatever these interests, do your best to guide your child toward extracurricular classes that relate in some way to what they plan to study in college. That could be the Science Olympiad for a science-minded kid or an internship with a designer for a student interested in a career in architecture.
It’s important to help students narrow their interests as they get older. “While it’s typical for students to explore a number of different things in their first year or so of high school, as they approach junior year, it’s a great time for them to choose one or two and commit to them,” says Lachman. “Such commitment allows students to develop and refine skills and expertise, and often provides opportunities to move into leadership positions.”
How does a parent know when they’re pushing a child too much?
Our experts agree that it’s vital that the student is the one who drives the college-admissions process. “The parent’s role, as I see it, is to set financial expectations (i.e., This is how much we can afford to pay for your education), be encouraging and write checks (so, so many checks),” says Lachman.
Haig points out that every student has a different comfort level. “While some students love to push themselves aggressively,” he says, “others want a more balanced approach. When parents are too involved, too strongly, that can usually be negative.”
Without a doubt, the most important thing to remember is that where your child goes to college does not automatically determine their future success or failure. “My favorite book on this topic is ‘Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be,’ by Frank Bruni,” says Lachman. “It brings some much-needed perspective to the college admissions process – namely that the outcome of this process will not be what determines a student’s future success or lack thereof. When parents believe that and convey it to their children, the process becomes way less stressful and way more exciting.”
Anna Lane is a writer and editor who currently resides in L.A. with her husband and two children.