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Acing the college application

College admissions counselors want more than straight A’s and high test scores from prospective students. Get the real secrets to acing the college application.

Teen filing out college application

“The college application is the student’s time to shine and convince the institution they should make an investment in [the student] because of what she has done, both academically and socially,” says Jamie Kosh, director of financial aid for Saint Francis University.

Application Considerations

“The most important part of your application is your academic program, and how well you have followed through in courses like math, English, history, the sciences and a foreign language,” says Don Dunbar, author of What You Don’t Know Can Keep You Out of College and founder of Dunbar Educational Consultants.

quotation mark openThe senior year is not too late, but it’s better to start earlier. quotation mark close

Kosh encourages the student to submit a custom writing sample that address why she should be accepted, why the school is a good fit, what she can contribute and why she’s chosen the major she has. “Anything that makes that institution special in her search process will make the admissions counselor take a second look.” Errors can stop an application from moving forward; proof the document for proper grammar and spelling.

Kosh recommends including an “activities resume” with the application to highlight involvement in school-based and extracurricular activities and community service.

Recommendations from teachers augment grade reports, too. “If you don’t get top ratings here, no essay, interview or trustee can save you,” Dunbar explains.

Take an online course or read a book on how to prepare for the SAT. Many websites have free practice tests available. A high SAT/ACT can help counterbalance a not-so-great GPA.

Too Late to Shine?

For high school students who haven’t applied themselves as much as they could have over the years, there are opportunities to enhance their qualifications so they’re attractive to a college admissions committee. “The senior year is not too late, but it’s better to start earlier, at least before the teachers who write for you are assessing your strengths,” says Dunbar.

Sometimes you have to be patient to get into the school of your choice. “A straight-A student who claimed to be an environmentalist had done nothing outside his school in any environmental causes and had a disappointing college admissions result,” says Dunbar. “During his freshman year in college, he became an activist in environmental causes.” The outcome: He transferred to Harvard as a sophomore. “It only takes one commitment in depth to stand out,” notes Dunbar.

Some competitive programs of study have minimum requirements for SAT/ACT scores and high school GPAs to narrow the applicant pool. If a student’s credentials aren’t up to par, he won’t be accepted to the major but won’t necessarily be denied admission to the institution. “The student may have the opportunity to choose another major or be accepted as a provisional student in that major until he proves himself by fulfilling the academic requirements needed to be fully accepted into that program,” says Kosh.

Kosh encourages students to request a personal interview. “It’s a time to shine and tell his story as to why it is important he be admitted to the institution and specific program of study.”

Public, Private or Ivy League?

Most colleges have basic admissions requirements in common, but some expect more. “Private colleges look carefully at the kind of communities they are building. State universities tend to go completely by GPA and test scores, but even large private universities such as Georgetown and Boston College care a great deal about character,” Dunbar shares. “The bigger the college’s endowment, the more scrutiny it can give to each application, but in any college that cares about the essay, you can bet it is looking carefully at the maturity and integrity of their applicants.”

Kosh says a student should view her acceptance and scholarships as the university’s investment in her. “Institutions are rewarding the student for her hard work and dedication, but expect academic, social and community service action in return. The common thread is that institutions are accepting students who have made an impact in high school, and [the institutions] are looking for that to continue in college to make the campus a stronger, more diverse and involved institution.”

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