Valedictorians at the Gate: Standing Out, Getting In, and Staying Sane While Applying to College by Becky Munsterer Sabky

4. The Campus Visit

  • Although many colleges offer virtual tours and other ways to sample campus life, there is no substitute for a visit. Book a campus tour before you go, and let that be a springboard for exploring. Be sure to visit the department where you plan your major, check out their resources, and try to talk to a few professors and students you run into. Check out tutoring, counseling, and health care services.
  • Be sure to have a meal or two in the dining hall where you can overhear students talk. Becky likes the idea of a Friday visit with an overnight so you can see campus life on the weekend. Read the announcements posted around campus to get an idea of what’s going on. Read the student newspaper and any other publications you can find. Scour the campus website before you go and make a list of things to see.

5. Coming to a High School Near You

  • The admissions team at each college splits the nation into territories and visits as many high schools as possible. They try to select big schools with lots of college-bound talent. Be sure to know which schools are coming to your high school and sign up for interesting ones. Most communities also set up “college nights” so kids from area high schools can meet admissions offices from many colleges on the same night.
  • Since the admissions officer serving your region is the first to see your application, you want to form a relationship with this person. Try to ask non-googleable questions and stay after the presentation to chat if you can. Send a follow-up email. Don’t make it too long but try to show a positive piece of your character or two if you can. There are examples here.

The Application

6. The School Report

  • If you can choose your high school, choose the one you want, not the one most likely to get you into an elite college. In addition to your transcript, admissions will also receive your school’s profile and a counselor letter. Be sure to find the profile to embellish it in your letter. Meet with your counselor to discuss what you think should be in the counselor letter. (Doug: Don’t hesitate to give the counselor written notes or a fully composed letter as I did.)
  • Regarding selecting courses, honors and AP/IB courses certainly count. Electives that do not carry honors weighting will lower your GPA and rank, but take them if you are passionate about the content if there is no higher weighted option. Be sure to explain why you took each elective. Most committees will look kindly at arts and technology electives that come without extra weight. Don’t slow down senior year; mid-term senior grades count more than first-year grades.

7. Recommendations

  • Recommendations count! They differentiate students with similar transcripts and add warmth to an otherwise cold process. Teachers seldom get training in recommendation writing, so share this chapter with teachers you know. The key is to tell the committee something the transcript doesn’t. Tell a story that makes the student special in terms of character and kindness, if possible. What did the student do that was relevant and didn’t involve getting a grade?
  • Students typically ask two teachers and one other person for recommendations. Choose the teachers who know you best and who bring out your best. Let them know who the other recommender is. Give them lots of time in the hope that they will pay more attention to you and talk to each other. Work on teacher relationships beyond class time from your first year on. If you did something special for a coach, clergy member, or even a custodian, add that person to your team. Perhaps it’s more important to realize that in order for someone to tell a special story about you, you first need to do something special.

8. Extracurriculars

  • Do something, not everything, stay busy, and don’t try to game this category. Admissions people know that many things listed here require little or no effort. Take time to do things that don’t count. Focus on being a better person rather than being a better applicant. Depth is often preferred, so appearing focused rather than well-rounded is fine.
  • Out-of-school activities count. Be sure to have some fun and stay curious. Don’t hesitate to mention things like caring for younger siblings, being a neighborhood dog walker, or bird watcher. (Doug: If you don’t play a sport, you should at least develop a workout routine for many health reasons. Be sure to try music, but it’s ok to quit music or anything if it’s not for you.)
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