College Applications – Focus on the Factors You Can Control

By Cassandra Geiger & Jenise Holloway

ctd blog 1About 250 colleges and universities in the United States are deemed “selective.” About 50 colleges have acceptance rates of 30% or less; a few creep into single-digit admittance. These institutions claim higher graduation rates, world-renowned faculty, top facilities and resources, and large endowments.

Students and their families applying for admission to colleges and universities, regardless of the institution, often find the process overwhelming, anxiety provoking and sometimes confusing. The stress increases when applying to “selective” schools, where gaining admission may seem impossible.

The key to keeping a healthy and constructive perspective on the selective admissions process is understanding which factors you, as a student or parent, can control or influence and to what degree. Early identification and acknowledgement of these factors can reduce uncertainty and stress.

Factors within student/parent control

  • The classes you take in high school.
  • The quality of your work on assignments and projects.
  • How you spend your time, whether it’s a job, community service, sports, clubs, etc. Avoid the temptation to add “resume stuff” — take classes for the intellectual challenge and engage in activities for the genuine interest.
  • The research you do to develop your list of colleges and when you do that research. Your chance of success improves when you have the right information early in the process.
  • The timeliness of your applications; Submit all required material – applications and other supporting documents — on or before the due dates.
  • The quality of your application and essays. The earlier you start the process, the more time you have for “quality control.”
  • The number of applications you submit. A well-thought-out and researched list of colleges that includes reach schools, strong possibilities, and “safeties,” can reduce the panicked tendency to apply to as many schools as possible.
  • Your presence on social media and the information you make available for viewing.
  • Perspectives about the process and openness. Keeping an open mind and adopting a long-term view will go a long way toward reducing your stress.

Factors student/parent can influence

  • The attitudes and behaviors you display that distinguish yourself as a learner, not just a student.
  • The alignment between your professed interest and actions. Admission officers will notice if you say your dream is to be a medical doctor, but you are not enrolled in any higher level math and sciences classes. Similar observations will be noted if you profess your dedication to community service, yet have not participated in any activities that support your claim.
  • Your willingness to envision a future at various colleges and universities not just your first choice, the most prestigious or the one your friend likes.  This also requires moving beyond biases and preconceived notions of a college or experience derived from a visit. While bad weather, an unenthusiastic tour guide, or an extremely charismatic admissions rep can leave a lasting impression, none should be the sole factor in deciding whether a college is a good match for you..
  • The impression a student makes on admissions personnel regarding an applicant’s autonomy and independence. If only the student’s parents are asking questions, calling, and completing application tasks, it leaves doubts about whether a student has the capacity for independent long-term engagement.

Factors beyond student/parent control

  • The institutional priorities and needs of colleges. They change from year to year.
  • Size of the institution and the number of acceptances offered.
  • The number of applicants and the talent level (Rank, GPA, extra curricular activities, or other accomplishments) of the students you are competing against.
  • The content contained in your recommendation.
  • The admission representative(s) who read your application.

During the entire process, it’s helpful to remind yourself that multiple factors contribute to a denial or acceptance. Rarely is there one factor at the root of an admissions decision. So focus on the aspects of the process that you can control and make them the best you can. Good luck!

cassandra-profileCassandra Geiger directs the Northwestern Academy, a joint initiative under the Good Neighbor, Great University Program to identify and prepare academically talented, low-income youth from Chicago Public Schools for successful matriculation to selective colleges and universities. She previously worked with the Schuler Scholar Program as a college counselor.

Jenise-Holloway-webJenise Holloway is CTD’s Project EXCITE Advisor. She has spent more than 10 years working with students and their families through early college awareness initiatives, college admissions and retention.

2 responses

  1. I would suggest that parents and students also have control and influence regarding developing a purpose for college, which would include a well-thought out career direction and a major that prepares them for that career. On their applications, schools like Dartmouth, Columbia, and Penn have questions about how their specific program will help a student achieve their goals — and it’s really hard to tap dance though an essay – or interview – when career and college major are still very unclear. Start early – and start smart.

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