College Confidential

Application insights from one who knows

by Daniel Riseman | Updated 28 Aug 2015 at 11:29 AM

The madness of applying to college starts in August and continues throughout the school year.

As an adviser to students and their parents for the past 15 years, I know. It’s a seven-day-a-week job. Parents call, text, and email at all hours of the day and night. They think they know the secrets. They are anxious to get their child into an elite school. They want to put a great college decal on their car. Wanting what’s best for their children and keeping up with the Joneses can preoccupy even the sanest of parents.

There’s no quick fix for getting into college. If a student has an anemic high school transcript, he’s in for a struggle. Let me be clear: GPA is the most important piece of the college admissions puzzle.

Parents frequently ask if their child should take easier classes in high school to ensure a strong GPA.

GPA is the most important piece of the college admissions puzzle.

However, if they do that, they won’t get into top colleges. Elite colleges know the most challenging courses offered at high schools, and they expect students to take most of them.

Here are more tips for high school seniors about to undertake this all-encompassing process (and a heads up to juniors):

Standardized test scores are important. If you don’t get a particular score, let’s say at least a 2,100 on the SAT or 32 on the ACT, you’ll mostly likely be filtered out of the applicant pool at most elite colleges. But standardized test scores do not trump your GPA. Taking a four-hour test is not equivalent to your four-year transcript.

You must distinguish yourself from others to get into a top college. Varsity captains, editors of school newspapers, and founders of school organizations are important. It makes no sense to play three varsity sports if you do not excel at any of them. Colleges do not want generalists. They want specialists.

Knowing someone at a college who will "help" you get in is usually a fantasy. Unless someone in your family has made seven-figure donations or hired scores of graduating students from that institution, "knowing" someone is of little use.

Legacy is different. Legacy helps. If your parents or grandparents are alumni and you really love that college, then apply for Early Decision (ED), which is binding if you're accepted. However, if you're not in love with that college, don't lock yourself in. Be smart.

Beware of selecting an obscure major. You can't "break" the admissions code if you do this. It makes no sense to select architecture as your major if you've never taken any architecture courses. Students should plan out their majors years in advance. While this is uncommon, it's the truth.

Strengthen your transcript by taking college courses while still in high school. Most colleges offer summer sessions, and this is the ideal time to break away from the pack. Take a college course that is not offered at your high school. Something like Anatomy & Physiology could work well. Make sure this is an official course and that it goes on an official college transcript.

Take a college course that is not offered at your high school. Something like Anatomy & Physiology could work well.

The Common Application has a section that asks for official college courses that you've taken while in high school. Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses do not count. Syracuse University Project Advance (SUPA) classes do count. However, few high schools offer these.

Parents don't need to hemorrhage money for your summer college courses. Community colleges are well-respected and very affordable. Taking a course at Cornell can be wise if you think you'll apply there. But if you're uncertain, community colleges work well.

Summers count. Don't waste them. The summer after eighth grade is a big deal. Many colleges will ask what you did that summer. That continues for all subsequent summers.

Do something local to enhance your community. Contact local politicians to start something that has real meaning for you. Working at typical summer camps will not bolster your college application. Paying for community service won't help either.

Colleges want applicants to write from the heart; it's not formulaic.

Female students are excelling in high school. Colleges know that. The majority of valedictorians and salutatorians are young women. While this is exciting, it works against female applicants. They are the majority at many colleges. As a result, male students are more sought after. They can get in with lower GPAs and standardized test scores. If you're a female applicant, be fully prepared.

The college essay is not a magical key to unlock admissions' doors. Due to the overwhelming number of applicants, most larger colleges and universities simply skim over the essay, to many parents' surprise. However, the essay does come into play for smaller private schools and can be a deal breaker if it's filled with grammatical errors. Colleges want applicants to write from the heart; it's not formulaic. But a great college essay rarely overcomes a weak GPA.

The college process is emotionally draining. It touches the core of everyone's psyche — mom, dad, siblings, and applicant. This is why feelings of inadequacy and resentment are par for the course. Additionally, counselors at many schools are overwhelmed and simply are unable to do the work for you. Families must stay on top of all details; it's why many families hire private counselors.

It's best for the student to stay focused on the end game and use resources as he or she needs them. Assemble all your data and paperwork, keep an eye on the calendar, and be proactive.

And be prepared for what lies ahead.

Daniel Riseman is a college adviser in Westchester County, New York.

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