College Application Timeline - August 2019

Amazingly enough, the relaunch of the 2019-2020 Common App on August 1st is in two days, marking the official beginning of the college application process for all incoming high school seniors. The Common App has a brand new look, a few more members colleges, and improved tools to assist students prepare the strongest possible application.

Staying organized and following a timeline helps students stay in control of the application process and will significantly reduce the stress that will invariably creep in. So let’s start keeping that anxiety at bay with a few points which might seem obvious, but are often overlooked.

Good application planning begins with establishing personal criteria. Will it be a small, medium or large campus; rural, suburban or urban setting, and what’s the geographical location? Next,  students need to identify possible areas of study, how far do they want to be from home, which campus culture will they be most comfortable in, sports interests, political and religious affiliations, financial and health needs, etc. The most important criteria of all should be personal fit.

• Check your high school transcript - Get a copy of your unofficial transcript and check it for accuracy. Are the classes and corresponding grades correct? Will all the state mandated requirements for graduation be met by June 2020 - especially important for those who have attended more than one high school? It is the student's responsibility to make sure this document is correct.

•  Senior Year Course Load - Follow the 4x5 formula as closely as possible: four years of the five core subjects: English, math, science, history and a foreign language. If it's not possible, get as close as possible. State mandated requirements for graduating from high school will vary from state to state, but in general are lower than those needed for a competitive college application. So avoid the temptation to take only what you need to graduate senior year and opt for a full course load.

• Extra Curricular Activities - All students are so much more than their grades and how they spend their time outside of school speaks volumes to admission officers. Write down everything you do and edit if necessary. See what qualifies as an extra curricular activity and remember the golden rule: quality over quantity. Don’t forget to mention those jobs (both paid and unpaid) as they show many great personal qualities that colleges are looking for in their students.

•  SAT/ACT Scores - One of the three most important parts of a student's academic profile after the transcript and GPA/class rank are their SAT/ACT scores. But what's a good score?  Also, more and more colleges are now ‘test optional’ meaning that the student decides whether to submit their scores when applying. Click here for more detailed information.

Prefer to retake either test? Next SAT is August 24th and the next ACT is September 14th. Scores will be back in time for the early admission due dates.

•  College List - Put together a list of schools you'd like to apply to. Everyone should aim to have a well balanced college list of reach, target and safety schools. While many would encourage students to throw the net wide, a well researched list of 8-12 schools has proven to be more successful in the long run. And remember, any school with a single digit admission rate, regardless of the rigor of the student's transcript or strength of SAT/ACT scores, should not be considered a safety school. 

•  College Essay - Fortunately for everyone, the 2019-2020 essay prompts are the same as last year’s. Besides good grammar and spelling, a college essay is NOT an English class essay and never assume you know what the admissions officers want to read or that a good essay is a reformatted resume. It's often the small 'incident' that makes the best essay topic. An essay has accomplished its job if the reader learns something about the applicant that is not already contained in the application.

It's hard to write about yourself, but that is what will be necessary in order to produce a solid essay, and these prompts encourage that. Ask any admissions officer and he/she will tell you that nine out of ten college essays are dull and uninteresting. A good college essay tells a story, hooking the reader from the start and giving them a peek at who the student is beyond the stats. A strong essay requires several drafts and a few weeks to complete, so be patient and don't rush the process. It is now time to start thinking about it. 

•  Campus Visits - Never a waste of time, much can be learned from a campus visit, even if it was a school you didn't like. Keep track of the little things and listen to your intuition. Best seen with students around, few spots on a campus will better tell you if the school is a good personal fit than the cafeteria, library and dorm so make sure to visit them.

 Parental Role - Parents often have a hard time knowing how to best help their children with this very exciting part of their transition from adolescent to young adults, but in five words or less: be there, be supportive, but stay out of the way.

November 1st is the first, and best known, early application due date. However, more and more schools are offering early application (Early Decision, Early Action, Priority & Rolling) due dates as early as October 15th.

So it would make sense for rising juniors to make good use of this block of time before school starts again in September to focus purely on the college application process. It will not get any easier once school is back in session, especially for the student athletes who participate in a Fall sport.

Prepping for the College Application Process

The college application process has only just begun for high school juniors. While applying to college via the Common App has gotten easier there remain things that require serious thought in order to achieve maximum positive results. These include the creation of a well-balanced and realistic college list, identifying the best strategy for when and how to apply, and thinking of how to finance a college education without incurring a massive amount of student debt.

The foundation of every student’s college application process is their academic profile, which is made up of the transcript, GPA/class rank and SAT/ACT scores. Together these three pieces of information will dictate which schools will be on the college list. All too many college lists are either top heavy with reach schools or bottom heavy with safeties. The objective should be well-balanced list of reach, target and safety schools.

The admission rate of a school is crucial in determining whether it will be a reach, target or safety and it is not necessarily the same for each applicant. Some of the factors that can come into play include grades, class rank, rigor of the transcript, legacy, ethnicity, gender, and sadly - ability to pay. Even the reputation of the high school can influence admission. So yes, a student should have a few reach schools on their list, but the focus should be on schools where being admitted is realistic. This also holds true for those students at the top of their class because even with a stellar academic profile the Ivies should never be considered a safety school.

One’s ability to pay for college should always be part of the creation of a college list as well. A school could be a target or safety yet be among the most expensive to attend. As a rule state schools will be less expensive for in-state students, but don’t not apply to those out-of-state colleges either if they fit your criteria. Experience has shown that with the right qualifications these private out-of-state schools have offered financial aid packages that bring the final cost of tuition even with the state school. Therefore a good college list will include several financially safe schools.

Once the college list has been finalized then it’s time to decide how and when to apply. Today’s students can select from Early Decision (ED), Early Action (EA), Single Choice Early Action (SCEA), Priority, or Regular Decision (RD). Based on the college list, academic profile and determination, which makes the most sense? Several realities exist with each option: the first is that many colleges fill their incoming freshman classes with candidates from the Early Decision (ED) and Early Action (EA) pools; secondly, qualified students are encouraged to apply Priority to state schools while there are more funds available for financial aid packages; and third, highly selective schools only offer Early Decision (ED), Single Choice Early Action (SCEA) or Regular Decision (RD) forcing students to choose. These early application options all have application due dates beginning as early as Oct 15th through to early December so work on those applications must start over the summer.

Note: Early Decision (ED) is not a good idea if you aren’t totally in love with the school. It’s binding and students aren’t able to compare financial aid packages. Single Choice Early Action (SCEA) in very similar to Early Decision as it does not allow an applicant to submit any other early applications, yet isn’t binding. It does, however, offer well qualified students a slight edge over applying RD. Think twice before being tempted to use your SCEA on a reach school as it might not be the best strategy.

Regular Decision has January or February due dates giving students more time to put together a strong competitive application, and if applying to a very selective school might be the only valid option. Ideally, it’s really nice to already have a few acceptances by December which is one of the reasons Early Action is so popular.

Regardless of which schools a student is applying to having a strategy in place will improve the odds of being admitted into their first choice schools. Once an application is submitted to a college the fate of the student is in the hands of the admissions officers, so why not take the time to select colleges and universities where the student’s academic profile, and personality, are a good fit ? This will increase the chances of admission and reduce the disappointments.

College Application Red Flags

A strong college application that will stand out in the crowd should be every student’s goal. Stretching the truth and trying to garner favors in the quest to gain admission to that top choice school is unfortunately nothing new. But, thanks to recent events this practice is now front page news and going forward applications will be scrutinized like never before.

The basic premise of a good application is that it is an honest reflection of the student. There exist strategies to highlight strengths when an academic profile is on the weaker side, but as a whole the information provided on a college application is the truth.

Nevertheless, many students and parents get caught up in the stress and competitiveness of the college application process and feel the need to manipulate the information provided in a way they feel will improve their chances of being admitted. Some of the most common application red flags include:

  • Transcript and test scores that aren’t in sync. Students with a high GPA/class rank are expected to have SAT/ACT scores that correspond to their academic strength, and the same is true for those with low GPA/class rank. Yet, when these two critical parts of an application are really off kilter it will beg an explanation.

  • A lack of extra curricular activities. You are more than your test scores! Well rounded students are especially attractive to colleges, and high schools today offer so many ways for students to express themselves that an applicant with virtually no extra curricular activities will stand out. On the flip side too many activities are almost humanely impossible to maintain. It’s all about quality over quantity.

  • Essay does not match student’s academic ability. Regardless of GPA or class rank, an overly edited essay filled with SAT words that doesn’t correspond to the academic level of the student’s transcript will raise suspicions about who actually wrote it. It could also put into question the balance of the application.

  • More than two high schools in four years. There could be valid reasons for attending more than two high schools in four years, but it might also be a sign of trouble. The Common Application has a required question that allows applicants to explain their situation.

  • Letters of recommendations from people who DO NOT know you. A good letter of recommendation will highlight the ambition and skills of the student, in addition to the attributes he/she would bring to the campus community. Recommendations from political figures or CEOs just come across as an effort to impress admissions by who you know versus allowing the applicant to be the focal point. Do not waste this opportunity to present another facet of the student.

Admissions officers are able to spot discrepancies on an application in seconds and if they have any concerns they will reach out to the guidance counselors for clarification. One of the best ways to avoid application red flags is to provide explanations, which can often do done in essay form or with a short answer. So make sure that this does not happen to your college application because presenting the genuine you will serve you better in the long run.

College Application Timeline - April 2019

April is the month when the college application process for graduating high school seniors and high school juniors overlap. A few seniors must still decide which school they’d like to attend in the Fall while juniors should be laying the foundation for their application process by following these steps.

• If they haven’t yet done it, juniors need to register to take either the SAT or ACT. There are two more test dates available this school year: May 4th and June 1st. Check here for registration deadlines. August 24th is the first test date for the 2019-2020 academic year and has a July 24th registration deadline. The next ACT test dates are June 8th and July 13th. See registration details here.

The SAT costs $47.50 (with essay is $64.50) and the ACT is $50.50 (with writing $67). Note: Each registration comes with four FREE score reports, but the schools must be named at the time of registration. All subsequent reports are $12 per SAT score report and $13 per ACT score report.

Students should never hesitate to retake these tests because even just a few additional points can change a school from a target to a safety or a reach to a target. Make sure to register early to not miss out on being able to take the test at a location close to home and not pay the additional late fee. Eligible students should request fee waivers from their guidance counselors.

Don't forget to take the SAT Subject Tests & AP Exams, tests that enable eligible students to highlight a proficiency in a particular subject matter and are often required admission material for highly selective schools. Strong scores on AP exams can result in college credit.

Yes, there are test-optional colleges, but their admission requirements can be equally demanding.

• Who will write your letters of recommendation? Choose two teachers and ask them before the end of the school year. Some teachers has a personal quota, so don't wait. The normal range of recommendations required by schools is none to no more than three and should not be confused with the letter your guidance counselor writes.

• Colleges look for well rounded applicants, so don't ignore those extra curricular activities - Both school affiliated activities and independent activities count as extra curricular, but quality over quantity should always be the goal.

•  Schedule campus visits - A must in the process of creating that list of criteria, a campus visit allows students to develop that crucial 'gut' feeling that will tell them when they've found the right school for them. Visit as many as possible, knowing that even those you don't like or will never apply to, are helpful in narrowing down the schools that will eventually make that final college list.

• Become familiar with the Common App - Common App Rollover will allow members of the Class of 2020 to create an account while still juniors with that information rolling over when the Common app relaunches on August 1, 2019.  Common App Ready is a series of tutorials available to students and their parents to help them familiarize themselves with the application. Click here for more details.

• Common App essay prompts will remain unchanged from last year. This is great news, but please remember that the college essay can make or break an application, so select your topic carefully and don’t be in rush to write it. Students can wait till the summer months to begin putting pen to paper.

• Want to make that application even stronger, then take a full course load senior year. Even if the student has most of the credits needed to graduate, don’t stop there. State mandated credits required to graduate from high school do not necessarily produce a strong application.

This is the last chance to boost the GPA/class rank that will be used on the applications so all high school juniors should aim to finish this year with the best possible grades. A strong GPA/class rank, along with the rigor of the courses taken, shows continued commitment to academics and is one of the best indicators of how ready a student is for college level work. A low GPA/class rank, however, does not spell doom.

So, this is not the time to drop the ball! Create the strongest personal academic profile you can and with it you will find the college or university that is both the perfect academic and personal fit.