Applying to College

As the holiday season approaches, I'm looking forward to spending time in Philly with family. It's especially a great time to catch up with my younger cousins. I just love hearing about their high school drama. I've always found fascinating the energy and passion of high school romance, sports, and friendships. I even wrote a book on the genre. One cousin is getting ready to apply to college and had lots of questions. It feels like ages ago that I was filling out college applications and I'm sure the process is more competitive than ever but I agree with my parents' timeless proposition that the entire high school journey is the prelude and basis of a successful college application. Everything you've done during your high school years in many ways has helped you develop into a potential college candidate and the application is essentially a magic highlighter to showcase your many talents and strengths. Below are some suggestions that I hope can help guide you along the exciting yet often grueling passage.

1. Make a List. My super organized father has always advocated that my sisters and I start by making a list when it comes to finalizing a big decision. From middle school, I knew that I wanted to be a Princeton Tiger and to be honest my initial reason was quite superficial. It was where Sandra, the eldest child on The Cosby Show went to college but as I got older and learned more about the school, I fell in love with the campus and became intrigued by its legacy. However, Princeton was one of many schools to which I applied and compiling a tally or better yet a spreadsheet of the schools that you are considering is a great way to thoroughly research them and find the best match. It helps to prioritize your schools based on academic criteria, areas of study, social climate, location, cost, and other applicable categories. As you narrow down the list, try sorting each college or university into one of the following groups:

Safe Bets. In this column should be those schools that you feel match your profile in terms of academic performance and ideal program of study. Typically, your guidance counselor will suggest a few schools that will fall into this slot but U.S. News and World Reports is a wonderful resource to get a screenshot of what different schools are looking for in an ideal candidate.

Reach Schools. These colleges may have academic performance averages a bit higher than yours but that doesn't mean you should rule them out entirely. If a particular school offers an area of study that interests you, then why not contact the admission office and find out more about the student body and campus climate? Most schools are looking for good candidates across a broad range of experiences and backgrounds and perhaps your B in Geometry isn't exactly a deal breaker for their comparative literature program.    

Curve Balls. Here lies the school that you may not have even considered if your mother's best friend or your swim coach hadn't stopped talking about it. When I was in high school, my mother suggested that a certain college's high male to female ratio would increase my chance in finding a husband. I ended up finding love elsewhere but I'm so glad that I looked into a diverse range of schools.  

Remember, your goal is not to just get accepted but to actually enroll, graduate, and live happily ever after. So, it's important to have some options.

2. College Tour. Visiting colleges can be a lot of fun! Some schools may host large scale programs for applicants and others may offer small group tours. Perhaps, you know a current student and can organize a trip on your own. Growing up in Philadelphia, I often drove by plenty of colleges but it wasn't until I was actually considering where I wanted to spend the next four years that I looked closely at the buildings, student body sizes, and campus environments. Do you want to go to school in a big city or in a small town away from the hustle bustle? Do you want to go to a large university with a huge athletic program or a smaller populated technical college? Touring the campus, talking to staff and students, and watching the action can help you decide whether you want to attend a large research university or a quaint liberal arts college.

3. Test Scores. Academic performance is always going to be a factor in your candidacy. Most schools will require your high school transcripts and standardized test scores. Although standardized tests have been shown to demonstrate bias and do not highlight your full potential, they are part of the puzzle in college admissions. The SAT has changed a few times since I sat for it many years ago, but I recommend an organized test prep. Whether it's a Kaplan guide book, a course offered by your church, or a private tutor, find a study system that works for you. The College Board website is a good starting point to give you the latest information.

4. Supplemental Information. Many schools may give you an opportunity to share more details about yourself and regardless of your test scores, this is an area to really show off your strengths. Maybe you spent your summer protesting in favor of one of your passions. Maybe you launched a gofundme project to finance a quilt weaving company for teens at your community club. Maybe you like to draw and crafted a collection of comic books. Perhaps, your after school job and other family responsibilities didn't allow a lot of time for extracurricular activities. It's your application and this is the place to showcase not just your talents and passions but also your ability to overcome challenges.  

5. Letters of Recommendation. Most colleges will request letters from members of faculty. As your advocates, your teachers are able to give testimonies of your student character. These letters are very important tools for students. I strongly encourage applicants to consider a faculty member who has also worked with you in an extracurricular capacity. Perhaps, your debate team coach or gymnastics trainer is also your physics teacher. Take your time and choose a teacher who knows you well. You want that letter of recommendation not only to be favorable but to be an unwavering endorsement of your potential to contribute to a college campus.

6. Personal Statement. This was my favorite part of the college application. Perhaps it's because I've always liked to write but I felt like my personal essay was something that I could control in a huge pile of what often seemed like unpredictable outcomes. Sometimes the valedictorian doesn't get accepted to Stanford and the football captain isn't offered a full scholarship to the state college. The reality is that college acceptance is based on several variables so you want to maximize your assets in the process. If you're not a strong writer, ask someone to help you with your statement. An older sibling or cousin can be a gift in the process. The personal statement is also a chance for you to reflect on your many experiences and tell the schools why you actually want to join their community. It seems straightforward but take your time, outline your thoughts, and write several drafts until you're confident about your response.

7. Interviews. My nerves were definitely on edge during college interviews. I can still recall some of them quite vividly. I remember exactly what I wore to my Princeton interview and that I knew nothing about urology, which was the specialty in which my interviewer practiced. I also remember that I smiled when he referred to Princeton as "Tigertown" and made me that much more excited about such a magical place. My advice is to be yourself at the interview. Relax, smile, and have fun! The interview typically comes at a time when you've already done most of your college research. So, just sit back and have a good conversation.

8. Financial Aid. Dare I say the words student loans? Many schools will offer you a financial aid package based on your family's income and other factors influencing their ability to contribute to your college education. Often when your family is unable to meet the costs of tuition, some schools may waive your family contribution entirely or help you find other means to do so. This can be in the form of campus jobs, scholarships and student loans, which may be federal or private. It's no secret that educational loans are huge burdens and as someone who has paid off a quarter of a million dollars in student debt, I strongly encourage you to exhaust every resource possible to secure scholarships. Start with a Google search, visit your college guidance counselor, and take the time to read through those volumes of scholarship guides!

When I talk to high school students about college, many are often intimidated by the length of college applications or even the fees associated with their submission. I remember the same being the case with many of my high school classmates. Some were fearful to even ask schools for fee waivers and stunned to find out after the fact that they were eligible. Many schools have funds allocated for such a cause. Remember, you've already done the hard work of four years of high school, tons of extracurricular activities, and building and bonding with your community. The application is just a few pieces of paper but like origami, if you make each fold meaningful, then you'll have a brilliant piece of art to display.

Have you started compiling your college list yet?