Prepping For College

By Ginny Frizzi

June 11, 2010 6 min read

It has been observed that life in general has become more complicated, but this is especially true when it comes to applying for college.

The process, which can get complicated and nerve-racking, should begin with the student sitting down with his or her parents to clarify objectives, according to Steven Roy Goodman, an educational consultant and the author of "College Admissions Together: It Takes a Family."

"This is a very important step," he says. "You, the student, can't assume that your parents will agree with you about what you should study or what colleges you should apply to. In fact, your parents may not agree with each other on these points."

Topics that should be discussed include possible majors and career interests, whether a liberal arts or career-oriented institution is more appropriate, whether the student will choose a college close to home or across the country and how to maximize financial aid.

"You need to flesh out these details before starting the admissions process. For example, one parent may not believe in women's colleges, while the other may refuse to pay for a liberal arts education," Goodman says.

The student and parents should determine what issues they can agree on and what, if anything, are deal breakers. However, the student must assume the leading role in the college search.

"Someone has got to be the quarterback. Ultimately, the student needs to accept the responsibility for his or her education," Goodman believes.

Ana Homayoun, founder of Green Ivy Educational Consulting, advises students and parents to work together to develop a list of institutions to which the student will apply.

"Make a list in September and the student should be thrilled in April when the admissions letters come out," she says.

When it comes to completing college applications, many students include long lists of extracurricular and community activities to impress the admissions officer or committee. This, various experts agree, often isn't as effective as the applicants may think.

It is a mistake for a student to try to present him or herself to the college as a well-rounded individual, Goodman says. "It's a lopsided world. The days of a student dabbling in a long list of clubs so they can be put on an application are gone," he says. "I advise students to do what you want to do and do a lot of it."

A student is better served by exploring a passion or special interest in depth and detailing that on the application, according to former college admissions counselor Whitney Bruce of Accepted.com. "Students miss a valuable opportunity to tell the admissions staff what makes them tick," she says.

Homayoun cites the example of a student who liked to explore the outdoors and was involved with an Outward Bound program, eventually winning a leadership award.

Homayoun and other consultants also advise students not to overlook work experience. "Students sometimes forget the value of work and what it can provide," Bruce says. "Someone who mowed lawns during the summer probably learned a lot about running his own business and dealing with people. This experience could be a good topic for an admissions essay. I advise students to think about what happens outside the classroom."

Academic performance remains the most important factor when it comes to college admissions, according to Goodman. "The No. 1 thing that counts is academic performance. You have to keep up your academic standards," he says. "The rule of thumb is to take the most rigorous academic load possible without killing yourself."

Most consultants advise that an individual apply to between seven and 12 colleges.

"I suggest that a student put together a balanced list of institutions. This might be three of the most selective institutions or those that it would be a stretch for the student to get into," Bruce says. "Students should apply to three colleges where they have a good chance of being admitted, as well as three safe choices where they are fairly certain of getting in."

The essay remains an important part of any college application. According to Bruce, the best essays tell a story and give the admissions committee a better look at the applicant. "The essay is the opportunity to fill a hole. Look at your application and see what information about you might be missing," she says.

Homayoun recommends that, beginning in September, students devote two hours a day to working on their college applications. "If they set aside a block of time each day and keep to the schedule, they should be done with their applications by Thanksgiving," she says. "It also helps decrease the stress involved with the whole process."

When working with high-school students applying to college, Goodman stresses the need to develop good writing skills -- and not just because of the admissions essay. "Some students say that they are going to major in biology or engineering and don't have to write well," he says. "I explain that good writing skills are necessary in all fields. For example, a biologist will need to concisely explain his work in a report that others can understand."

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