April is always an interesting time in the college admissions world. For many, April represents the beginning of the end of the college search process, with the National Candidates Reply Date of May 1 just around the corner. But for many high school juniors, April is when they emerge from the shadows of the seniors at their school and start to take their own college search to another level.
I was recently invited to speak at my high school alma mater on the topic of how to put together an effective college application. I organized my remarks into five main categories and would like to share them here:
High School Transcript
Most admissions and college counseling professionals would agree that the high school transcript is the single most important piece of a college application. When admission officers read your application, they are looking at your transcript not only to get a sense of your grades, but also how your curricular choices have put you in a position for success at the college level. If you are interested in engineering, did you take challenging math courses? If you have a pre-med or health sciences interest, did you take biology? At what level? The high school transcript is also important because it is the part of the application that shows the work you have done over the longest period of time (usually 3–3.5 years depending on when the application is submitted).
When most students embark on their college search, they are looking for more than just a school that has their academic program of interest. Likewise, residential colleges are looking for more than just students who are strong in the classroom. In order to build, shape, and sustain a community, colleges may be looking at your list of activities for displays of leadership, special talents, achievements, or solid displays of commitment and involvement. Just how much your activities play into your final admission decision likely depends on the selectivity of the college you are applying to, and where you fit academically compared to the most competitive applicants for that college or university. In addition to being used as criteria for admissions, many colleges may also award scholarships based on extracurricular activities. Résumé padding does not fool college admissions officers. It is better to have a few activities that you are really involved in than to have a long list of clubs and organizations that you have minimal commitments to. If you have significant family responsibilities that prevent you from participating in school activities (like taking care of a sibling or working long hours at a job to help support your family) make sure to list those things on your application.
Be Aware of the Requirements
One of the things that makes the college search and application process so tricky at times is that there are not a lot of standardized answers that apply to the thousands of colleges and universities out there. Make sure you know the requirements for each school that you plan on applying to. Do you need to submit the SAT or ACT? What about SAT Subject Tests? Is there certain high school coursework that you are expected to have completed in order to apply to the program you are interested in? Never assume that the requirements for one school are the same at another because they are similar or receive a lot of crossover applications.
Beat the Deadlines
Some schools offer more than one application plan, each with its own deadline. For each school you are applying to, decide whether you plan to apply rolling admission, early action, early decision, regular decision or another option and make sure you know the deadline for the application plan you are choosing. Allow enough time for your teachers and counselor to write recommendations and provide other supporting materials. Don't wait until the last minute! Murphy's Law dictates that "If something can go wrong, it will; and usually at the worst time." Don't fall victim to a last-minute loss of Internet access or some other event that is out of your control. Know the deadlines and beat them!
Become a Storyteller
Applying to college is a great time for reflection. What have you accomplished thus far? What goals have you set for your future? What is important to you? Who are you? The most effective college applications are the ones that answer these and other similar introspective questions. The essay is the most obvious choice to exercise storytelling in an application, because it is the part of the application that you have complete control over. The Common Application essay has a 650-word limit. My advice is to strive to write the best 500 words you can put together that will allow the admissions committee to see you beyond the quantitative, statistical parts of your application; this approach gives you a 150-word cushion should you need it. As you craft your essay, remember that it is not going to be read in a vacuum. Admissions officers often spend eight or more hours a day reading applications and essays. How would your essay read if it were the 40th one of the day? Great stories have a lot of information but are also easy to read; make sure that you take this approach with your essay. But the essay isn't the only chance you have to tell your story. When you choose the teachers to write for you, think about what they may have observed from you in their classrooms. What kinds of things would they say about you in their recommendations? Your grades also help to tell the story about you. Are you doing all that you can in the classroom, including getting off to a good start during your senior year? I hope so!
I wish the best of luck for those of you just starting off with the college admissions process. As someone who, since the age of 18, has spent the overwhelming majority of his life on college campuses, I can tell you that they are magical places. You just need to put in the work to find the ones that are the best fit for you.
Michael J. Keaton is Associate Dean and Director for Undergraduate Admissions at Drexel. Mike enjoys public speaking, is a music and pop culture enthusiast, and has been working in college admissions since 1998.