College Admissions

Preparing For College

Start Planning Your Summer

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

Summer may be months away, but it not too early for high school students to start making plans. There is so much anxiety around college admission that choosing the “best” summer activity can be intimidating, but there are no rules about how you should spend the summer.

Perhaps there is one rule. The more money you have to pay for a summer experience, the less impressive it will look on college applications. Admissions officers want to see what the student has done, not what kind of experience her parents have bought for her. They are looking for evidence of initiative, leadership, intellectual curiosity, creativity, long-term commitment, impact on the community.

Academic programs that are selective and require an application with teacher recommendations, like the California State Summer School for Math and Science (COSMOS) or California State Summer School for the Arts, enhance college applications.

Internships can be a great way to explore a potential career. One student completed an internship in a science lab, and her work was compelling enough that she was invited to present it at a conference. The experience enabled her to write an essay that demonstrated her intellectual curiosity as well as the impact she was already making in the field.

Work experience is also valuable. I have heard admissions officers say they would love to read an essay from a student who spent the summer bagging groceries. In addition to learning how to manage time and take on responsibility, students who have a job gain confidence as they find they have something to contribute to a workplace.

Taking a summer course at a college is a way to explore a possible future major or study interesting subjects that aren’t offered in high school. Some colleges offer online courses. If you want to experience life on a college campus, attending a residential program at a college is an opportunity to try life in an urban environment or a college town. Some of these programs offer enrichment courses, which do not provide college credit but allow you to explore a subject you find fascinating. If your high school grades are not as strong as they need to be, taking a course for college credit can help demonstrate that you are capable of college level work. This strategy only works if you are willing to work hard during the summer, so choose a course you are excited about taking and commit to doing well in it. One student whose grade point average was a bit low for the college he wanted to attend took a summer class at a local university, and because he picked a subject he loved, he not only got an A in the class, he got a strong letter of recommendation from the professor, and best of all, he ended up getting into his favorite college.

Students who have a demanding course load during the school year often devote more time to community service during the summers, and that’s certainly a worthwhile activity. A long-term commitment to one organization, where you have taken on increasing responsibility each year, has more impact than occasional volunteer days at a variety of places.

While more colleges become test-optional each year, test scores are still an important factor in admission decisions at most schools and summer can be a good time to focus on test preparation.

There are so many possibilities. Be careful not to overload your schedule. Admissions officers are looking for quality, not quantity. More important, you don’t want to have a miserable summer. Protect your mental health by building in some time to relax and hang out with friends.

Prepare For College Applications By Doing What You Love

Friday, June 22nd, 2012

While some students will be going off on costly service trips or educational programs during the summer, others are finding less expensive ways to explore their interests. When a student takes the initiative to pursue her interests, that experience is likely to be more meaningful to her and more impressive to colleges.

In a case study session at a recent professional development meeting, admissions officers talked about activities that stand out on an application and mentioned a student who was an aerial artist. That doesn’t mean you need to run out and sign up for trapeze lessons. What matters is finding something you enjoy doing.

Last summer, a student who had already taken the basic psychology course offered at his high school signed up for a summer class in social psychology at a nearby university. His excitement about the subject impressed the professor, who asked him to help with a research project. While the student’s initial motivation was his intrinsic interest in the subject, and a desire to explore a potential college major, he ended up with great material for a college application essay. Admissions officers like to see genuine intellectual curiosity, and this student was able to demonstrate his love of psychology through his coursework and research experience. Despite the fact that his extracurricular activities were not particularly impressive, he will be attending one of the most selective universities in the country.

Admissions officers like to see long-term commitment and leadership. Leadership isn’t just being elected president of your school. It’s what you do with the position. One newly elected student council president had enjoyed volunteering at a center that provides services for people with disabilities, and he made it his goal to have the school do more service projects. His first act as president was to create a committee that assessed the needs in the community. But you don’t need an official position to demonstrate leadership. Persuading a group of friends to start an after school program for low-income elementary school kids shows that you can influence people in a positive way. Even more ambitious would be getting additional students involved and expanding the program to other communities.

Not every essay needs to impress admissions officers with a grand achievement. A student who loves cooking got together with his best friend every week to experiment with new dishes. He wrote a lovely essay about how they keep each other in check when one gets too carried away as they explore New Orleans Cajun cuisine with a Japanese fusion twist.

The impact of coursework beyond the high school curriculum or ambitious service projects depends on the college and on the student. It can be both frustrating and comforting to realize that there isn’t one clear path to an offer of admission. Evidence of intellectual curiosity and impact on your school or community is more important at highly selective colleges. But these factors only come into play when a student has an excellent academic record, and the strongest essays won’t overcome an unimpressive transcript and mediocre test scores. While rising seniors can use the summer to get a head start on application essays, younger students who have struggled in school might spend part of the summer brushing up on their most challenging subjects and developing study skills so that they are prepared for a successful school year.

Demonstrating Love of Learning Will Set Students Apart on College Applications

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

How will you benefit from attending our college? What will you contribute to our college? While you may not see these questions on college applications, if you have answered them in your applications, you will be setting yourself apart from other applicants and making a persuasive case for your admission. 

Students sometimes lose sight of the fact that colleges are academic institutions, and they are looking for people who love to learn. Someone whose idea of fun is discussing Kant’s moral philosophy will take full advantage of the opportunities for intellectual engagement in college. When admissions officers read an application from a student who has demonstrated this kind of love of learning by pursuing opportunities beyond her high school classroom, they know she will benefit from attending their school.

Many students have taken years of piano lessons, but one of my students is so passionate about music that she also led monthly workshops to study composers, because she believed that learning about their personal history would help her understand their music. She attended music festivals and entered competitions, where she embraced new musical perspectives. She wrote poetically about her love of music, and was accepted at several highly selective colleges because admissions officers understood that she will be committed to learning from professors and peers.

Admissions officers make assumptions about what you will contribute to their college based on what you have contributed to your high school or community. The more selective the college, the greater the impact your contribution needs to have in order to stand out. While tutoring children in a shelter for homeless families is certainly a valuable contribution, organizing a program to match every child with a mentor, recruiting other students to participate, and expanding that program to other shelters would have the kind of impact that stands out.

If the activities you pursue have a theme, you can focus your application on that theme, which helps admissions officers get a clear picture of your values and interests. When an aspiring anthropologist has volunteered every Saturday at a museum, taken anthropology classes at community college, and spent a summer on an archaeological dig, he will be able to put together a cohesive and compelling application.

But not everyone has a defining intellectual or career interest, and students shouldn’t feel pressured to choose one area to pursue in depth just because it will look good on applications. In fact, balancing a scientific or technical side with an interest in something artistic is another way to stand out. A young woman who loves science and wants to major in physics, but also writes poetry that she reads at a local coffeehouse would be very interesting to admissions officers.

Summer is a good time to explore your interests by getting involved in community service or research opportunities. If you can’t find an established program, try creating your own.

For example, a student who is on his school’s basketball team might combine his love of the sport with community service by volunteering to coach or organizing a program for children at a recreation center.

One of my students found a scientist who was doing research that sounded interesting, so she arranged to meet him. She ended up volunteering in the lab and enjoyed it so much that after spending much of the summer there, she decided to continue volunteering during the school year.

Find something you love to do and any impact it may have on your college applications will just be a bonus.