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

9. Testing

  • SAT or ACT scores may provide a single data point for admissions officers. (Doug: 80% of four-year schools have done away with or made them optional.) High scores are no guarantee you will get in, and low scores may not keep you out if other aspects of your application stand out. Unfortunately, colleges gain prestige by having high average test scores of the incoming classes, so they are pressed to accept more students with high scores. Scores also correlate with income and race. Depending on a school’s policy, being poor and/or black is likely an advantage.
  • Becky suggests starting early so you have time to retake, as some schools like Dartmouth only look at your highest scores. If you can’t afford test prep courses, there is plenty of free help online. (Doug: Test prep should start early. It’s easier to do well on verbal tests if your work early to develop your vocabulary. If you want to do well on math tests, work hard in high school algebra and geometry courses. Knowing how your scores compare to colleges of interest will give you some idea if you have a chance. Here is SAT data for 101 schools.)

10. The Personal Statement

  • Make it personal and make a statement. Don’t write about someone you admire. Drama, comedy, and thoughtfulness are all good. If it’s truly personal, a close friend should read it from an anonymous pile and know it’s you. Don’t lard it with a lot of fancy vocabulary. Once finished, write a one-sentence summary and ask yourself if it sounds engaging. If not, consider trying again.
  • Be sure to spellcheck and grammar check as you go and when it’s finished. Many students solicit help from friends, parents, and professionals. Such help can vary from helpful to harmful. This is just another single piece of data for the committee to consider. It won’t get you in by itself, but it can land you in the out pile if it’s sloppy.

11. Supplemental Essays

  • Many schools will ask for additional writing samples. Be sure to put as much effort into writing and editing as you do with your personal statement. What schools ask for varies all over the place. Look for opportunities to show your personality and your knowledge of the school. View it as another opportunity to share your voice.

12. Submitting the Application

  • Fill in every blank, even the ones that say optional. Pay attention to every detail. Ensure your personal statement and supplementary essays don’t cover the same ground. Mention if you are a first-generation college student or have legacy connections. Be sure to waive your rights to review your recommendations. Clean up your social media and online presence if necessary. Admissions officers don’t have time to Google every applicant, but they Google some.
  • (Doug: Music majors will need to audition. Select pieces with a range of notes and dynamics. Memorize your music, be expressive, and play to the audience. Art majors will need a portfolio of their best work. Don’t wait until senior year to rush one together. Start as a freshman and weed out old ones as you get better. Be sure to include drawings of still life as you observe it and a self-portrait. It’s also a good idea to do nude drawings so you won’t be shocked when you see your first nude model in college. Local colleges and art organization offer this option.)

13. Alumni Interviews

  • Excellent interviews can make a difference. Your application must be completed first. They should happen in public places. Think Starbucks. A negative recommendation can sink your chances, but they are infrequent. Don’t be late. Bring a resumé and dress well. Be prepared to ask questions about the alumni’s college experience. Tell them you appreciate the opportunity and follow up with a handwritten thank you note.
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