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College 4 . Us

Plan and act today so you have no regrets tomorrow...

The College Application Process

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Start early!  This is a lot of work and too often students rush to get the applications in, and in the process make avoidable mistakes in essays or their responses.  In fact, this makes a good summer project for the summer before the senior year.  Too many kids get overwhelmed in the middle of their senior year and make dumb mistakes because they run out of time to complete all the college applications they want to do.

For some selective schools, they have supplements to the Common App that you need to complete.  In many of these supplements, they try to evaluate you as a person in greater depth than what the Common App tries to do.  They want to see how you think about certain aspects of your life experience (e.g., "What do you consider to be the worst failure thus far in your life?").  They may want to see how creative you are (e.g., "If you are an admissions officer, what other questions would you ask that we did not ask in our application form?" or "If you can use only five words to describe yourself, which words would you choose and why?").  Some students feel that these supplements are far more difficult than the Common App, which is mostly a report of what you have done instead of how you think.  So get these supplemental applications early and start working on them. For many, the supplemental questions do not change much from year to year.  Therefore you should get copies of those applications online or from other upperclassmen before the application season begins.  You may want to start collecting those supplements in your sophomore and junior years so you can start your preparations early.  If you find that you cannot answer certain questions because of the lack of experience (e.g., you have no work experience), then you will still have time to do something so you can respond to those questions.  Those thoughtful questions may also pop up in your interviews.

Before You Begin – Clean Up Your Image

In this day and age where we are so open about everything, we often let too much information about ourselves known.  When you apply for college, you are essentially marketing yourself, just like someone applying for a job.  So your image is crucial, especially when you apply to the most selective schools.  Before you do anything, clean up your image by doing the following:

Finding the “Right” Schools for You

I’m not sure there’s a school that’s “perfect” for a particular person.  Even if there is one, you probably wouldn’t find it because you can only figure that out after spending time there, and most people attend only one college in their lifetime.  Therefore, it’s more of a matter of finding one that meets your basic criteria, has the curriculum in line with your long-term plans, offers the environment that you prefer, and is affordable (more about this later).  Cappex is a website that claims to do that.  I would recommend using Cappex only as a guidance tool.  Don’t let it deter you from pursuing your dreams.

If you are not planning to go to grad school, then work as hard as possible to get to the college with the best “reputation.”  If you, however, plans on going to grad school (especially medical school), then you may need to think more strategically about where to go.  For instance, if you want to do pre-med and go to a very competitive school, and then you drop out because it’s too hard, then your chance of getting into a med school is exactly 0%.  If, however, you go to a less competitive school and finish the pre-med track, then your chances will be far higher than 0%...

Personal Statements

First and foremost, your personal statements need to be about YOU.  Tell them something important in your life that made you better.  If it’s about a person that changed you, remember that you are the subject of interest, not that person, and therefore spend enough time talking about the impact on YOU, not just what that person did.  If it’s about a setback, emphasize what you learned and how that makes you better than before.  Having a failure or tragedy in life and learning something from it may be a better personal statement than a "How Great I Am" piece.  Also, please don’t give them a rundown of your life’s events.  This is not intended to be an autobiography.  Your life is too short for there to be a meaningful autobiography!

Colleges, especially the most selective ones, are looking for hints about how you are as a person.  Do you have what it takes to be successful in life?  (Note I didn't say "do you have what it takes to do well in college?"  They assume people who apply to their schools and have the required academic credentials can probably handle the work, and so they're not too concerned about that.)  There are four key traits they try to look for in your personal statement and interview:

First and foremost, they want to see passion/commitment.  Passionate people have the drive to pursue their goals even when facing great adversity.  Passionate people don't give up.  Passionate people fight on and eventually change the world.  It almost doesn't matter what you are passionate about.  It matters more that you are passionate about something, because while the focus of your passion may change, that trait is in you and will stay with you and make you successful.

The second trait that they love to see is the ability to learn, especially from mistakes, tragedies, and all kinds of unpleasant things in life.  They know that most people are not successful on their first try.  They are successful because they learn from their errors or others' errors.

The third trait they like to see is a person taking full advantage of the opportunities available to them, or better yet, going beyond the normal efforts to find opportunities.  Why did you not take some AP courses even though you could clearly handle the workload?  Don't have many AP courses at your school?  Did you try taking classes at local community colleges, online schools, or study on your own?

Finally, they like to see maturity in you.  This can be demonstrated by the topic you choose.  Which one of these show more maturity in you – a piece about your pet’s death or a piece about a current crisis in the world and what you did about it?  Are you a stereotypical, immature teenager or someone with critical thinking and self-evaluation skills?  Did your experiences give you a wider perspective or did you just think about the impact on yourself?

Some favorite topics are:

Avoid writing about:

There are services that help fix up your writing.  Just make sure they are indeed fixing up your writing and not writing the personal statements for you.  It is very easy for colleges to tell that you used a generic template instead of writing an original piece.

Recommendation Letters

Your recommendation letters will come from your counselor and teachers, and so get to know them and figure out who can best prepare your recommendations.  Ask early and give them ample time to write them – they may have many requests from many students.  In fact, the best time to ask may be right near the end of your junior year.  Remind them of the deadline two weeks before the actual deadline.  Refresh their memory by telling them the special things you did in their classes.

If they have problem submitting their recommendation letters online, call the admissions offices for mailing or faxing instructions.  Just make sure your identification codes are on everything so they can file the submitted materials properly.

If you took classes at a local community, ask the instructor to use your high school’s school code but indicate he is with the college in the recommendation letter.

Interviews

Most of the top universities try to interview their applicants.  Interviews are most often done by volunteer alumni.  They are busy people and so you need to accommodate their schedules, not the other way around.  When an interviewer makes contact with you, ask if they need any documentation from you.  Some may ask you to fill out a form to make the interview easier for them.  Thank them via e-mails immediately after the interviews to reinforce a good impression.  If you think there are issues that were not addressed during the interview, that thank-you e-mail may be your last chance to do so.  Don't ask questions like "what are my chances" because 1) the interviewer doesn't know, and 2) if he thinks you really don't qualify, he wouldn't want to tell you either.

Your interview is a chance for the college to know how you are as a person.  They like to see a person who is socially appealing and can get along with others well (i.e. not a loner or a weirdo).  Demonstrate your passion, commitment, uniqueness, and social skills.  Research the school a bit and prepare some intelligent questions to ask.  (Sometimes you ask questions not to get answers, but to show that you did your research and are really serious about the school.)  Show them you’re excited about the school and really want to go there.  Don’t appear to be a snob, but don’t unduly humble yourself either.

Remember, most interviewers do this volunteer work because they have a passion for kids and education.  They generally do not do this with the intention of being the "gatekeepers" of the schools.  Therefore, don't be too nervous even if you are talking to a top lawyer in a big law firm.  Interviews should be an enjoyable process for you.  Be yourself and relax.

Financial Aid Application

I am not an expert about financial aid nor do I really want to get involved in this field.  The reason being that I cannot be honest about everything to everyone when it comes to financial aid application.  If I were a student trying to maximize my financial aid, and I have absolutely no moral guidance, then I will likely try to manipulate the information on the financial aid application to get more money.  Therefore, I’ll just give some very basic advice that do not involve moral issues.  A great website to get more information is FinAid.org .

  1. Money should not be a top consideration about where you go for college. Apply to the schools that have the best programs for you and that you have a realistic chance of getting in (OK, you can apply to a few “dream schools” but make sure you also have one or two “backups”).  Then apply for financial aid.  If you simply cannot attend because you don’t get enough financial aid, call the schools that you really want to attend and see what they can do for you.  Then make your decision based on the final results.
  2. College is a worthwhile investment, and therefore borrowing money to attend college is generally a good idea.  College loans tend to have very competitive interest rates, and in most cases you don’t start accruing interest until after you graduate.
  3. There are institutions that subsidize your college education in exchange for a predetermined length of service.  The U.S. military is one of them.  You can take courses while in the service, and then finish off your college education while Uncle Sam foots the bill.  For medical doctors and teachers, they can sign up for service at some designated communities and receive loan forgiveness.  Some volunteer organizations such as PeaceCorps also have similar programs.
  4. Parents: please be very careful about getting a second mortgage or HELOC or even taking money out of your retirement plans to pay for college.  These are the last few options you should consider.  You can really help your kids by doing your taxes early and helping them get the financial aid application as early as possible.  If you really want to help them pay for college, find out the various options of student loans and decide what’s most suitable for them.  For instance, they can basically get a interest-free loan if they pay off some of the student loans within six months of graduation.  In that case, there’s no reason to front up the money, especially during uncertain economic times.

To begin your search, please read this from the U.S. Dept. of Education.

Where you can apply for financial aid:

Scholarships

There are scholarships for all types of reasons, and each year millions go unclaimed because few people know about them.  Sometimes your parents’ employers may have scholarships for their employees’ children.  It never hurts to ask.  Also there are stories who got scholarships for being very creative.  

Here are a few websites that help students find and get scholarships:

A few words of caution:

The Wait-List

Sometimes you are not accepted outright but are placed on a "wait-list" by a college.  If this is from a school that you really, really want to attend, accept the invitation to be on the wait-list but make plans to attend a school that has accepted you.  After May 1, that school will know how many students are matriculating, and if the number is below their minimum goal, then they will review the students on the wait-list and offer them the chance to attend.  You will, at that time, have a very brief period of time to make up your mind, and so make your decision carefully.  If you are wait-listed by more than one school, you need to rank them in your mind so you can choose one quickly if more than one accepts you later on.  If the wait-list letter does not prohibit you from adding stuff to your application, then check with your teachers to see if they did send in the recommendation letters you requested, and send in those missing recommendation letters if some were missing.  Shortly before the admission decision date (May 1), send an e-mail or a letter to the admissions office to reinforce your desire to attend that school, and mention any new achievements or awards you received since your application was submitted.  If you spotted some weaknesses in your application and managed to compensate for them (e.g., signing up for AP exams or getting some work experiences), then mention them also.  Just remember, you got nothing to lose so go for it!

It is frustrating not knowing where you will go for college until early summer, but if it's a school that you really, really want to attend, then this may be your last chance.  And all you lose is the deposit sent to the school that you initially chose.  For something that will impact the rest of your life, that deposit (generally about $100 or so) is a tiny price to pay.

And if you don't make it in as a freshman, for most schools you can apply as a transfer student in a year or two.  So keep that in mind and make sure you meet all the transfer requirements by the time you want to transfer.

Finally, Making the Decision

Choosing a college from those that accepted you may not be as easy as it seems.  You have to consider everything from the school’s reputation, strengths of the programs that interest you, the living environment, extracurricular activities, internship opportunities, distance from home, financial aid, etc.

Some schools have special tours for admitted students to help convince them to matriculate.  I experienced a bit of the college life when I went to Harvard’s Pre-Frosh Weekend.  College is a major commitment and may forever alter your life.  Don’t you think it’d be good to meet the other person before you marry that person?  Would you marry a person after only reading their Match.com profile?  Apply that logic here.  You won’t regret it.

Next: The Rest of the Senior Year