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Maximizing senior year

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  • Meet the experts

    •  Appalachian State University: Lloyd Scott, director of admissions

    •  Davidson College: Chris Gruber, VP and dean of admission and financial aid

    •  Duke University: Christoph Guttentag, dean of admissions

    •  Johnson C. Smith University: Catherine Hurd, dean of enrollment services

    •  N.C. State University: Thomas Griffin, director of undergraduate admissions

    •  University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Ashley Memory, senior assistant director of admissions

    •  University of North Carolina at Charlotte: Claire Kirby, director of admissions

Nowadays, many high school students feel compelled to juggle AP classes, athletics, clubs and musical instruments – especially in senior year – to get into college.

Yes, applications are up: About 28 percent from 2007 to 2011 in the 16-school UNC system, for example, according to school stats, with a total of 151,332 applicants in fall 2011 (2012 numbers weren’t available) and a record 30,820 at Chapel Hill this year, according to the school’s Ashley Memory.

But now “everybody thinks you’ve got to be president of 123 clubs, have your own nonprofit and find the cure for cancer,” said Chris Gruber, vice president and dean of admission and financial aid of Davidson College.

You don’t. But you can certainly maximize your senior year. We asked experts how, and here’s what they said:

Take the helm, and a deep breath.

Juniors, you’re in control.

“Remember for most of that whole admissions process to college, the student is in control of everything,” N.C. State’s Griffin said. “The decision-making is in someone else’s hands for a little bit of time, but come March or April, then the decision-making is back in the students’ and parents’ hands.”

Davidson’s Gruber agreed. He said juniors are in control of where they apply, the information they’re presenting and where they’ll ultimately choose to enroll, and that remembering that should make the process less stressful.

Don’t worry about a formula.

Because there isn’t one.

“There’s not a magic formula for a student that a student can put together to formulate that ‘this-will-get-me-accepted’ (application),” Griffin said.

Duke’s Guttentag agreed and said that being well-rounded or having a singular focus doesn’t make a difference to Duke admissions officers. “There’s no combination of activities, no individual activity that makes a difference,” he said. “If an activity is worth doing, then it’s a good choice.”

At UNC, Memory said that she often gets phone calls from parents asking what their children should do to get admitted, and that’s not the smart way to approach the process. “It’s a mistake to try to plan your life around what a college admissions officer will say. At the end of the day, whether you’re well-rounded or focused, you have to be happy with yourself.”

Take charge.

Admissions officers don’t want to hear from parents all the time.

“I love it when (students) are the ones making the calls ... about something, as opposed to someone else in the family,” Gruber said. Parents who use the pronoun “we” get irritating. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, we’ve submitted our SATs.’ No, ‘we’ didn’t. ... I love to see the students doing it.”

Guttentag said he wishes adults had less of a say in applicants’ essays.

“What I find disappointing sometimes is that the voice of the student is lost a little bit in all the polishing that occurs.”

Students should trust themselves to write independently, he said, adding he knows they’re still teenagers.

“They’re very smart and very accomplished, but they’re still in the process of becoming adults, and sometimes their essays make them sound like they’re finished adults.”

Memory said it is “refreshing” when students call with questions, complete the application and take initiative on their own. “We really do enjoy talking to prospective students in person or over the phone,” she said.

Go the extra mile.

Some schools only ask for the common application, but that doesn’t mean those schools don’t take notice when students submit extras.

At Appalachian State, Scott said students get his attention when they submit an unrequired resume or letter of recommendation. He’s also seen videos and portfolios.

Similarly, JCSU doesn’t require letters of recommendation, but likes to see them because it helps them get to know the student better.

UNCC doesn’t ask for an essay but recommends it for students in “borderline situations,” Kirby said. She likes to see letters of recommendation, too, but “make sure you have people who know you, not just people who throw their political weight around,” she said.

Like Scar says, be prepared.

Start early.

“Don’t wait until your senior year to start doing some serious research,” Scott said. He recommended using the many resources available: the Web, even “snail mail,” talking with college recruiters and visiting campuses.

If the initial search seems overwhelming, Gruber said. narrow it by visiting different schools to find out what you like and dislike. “Start in the backyard,” he said. “You don’t have to go off and marry that school.”

Hurd recommended starting in junior year with a long list of possibilities, and taking the time that year to visit and research them. “By the time you get to senior year, you should have narrowed that list down to a short list,” she said.

Discuss limitations now.

It’s best to go into your search knowing what your limitations are, so you don’t have to make heartbreaking decisions upon choosing enrollment, Gruber advised. He recalled one girl who informed him that Davidson was 296 miles away from her home. He thought she was a little odd until she explained: “My father said I can go up to 300 miles away.”

Other limitations might include finances, health, academic standards and demands within a family.

If you’re a junior, take the SAT and ACT now.

Go ahead and take tests during the summer before senior year, and also figure out if schools where you’re applying require SAT subject tests, Gruber said.

The experts said they don’t value one test over the other, and that it’s best to take both to see which scores are better.

The SAT costs $50, but a fee waiver is available based on income. The ACT without the writing portion is $35; with writing, it’s $50.50.

The SAT is more reasoning-based – drawing on the test-taker’s comprehension and critical thinking skills – while the ACT is more content-based, Memory said. Making note that she’s not a testing expert, she said, it’s typical for a student to do better on one test than the other.

“If you prefer a more straightforward testing, the ACT might be for you,” she said. “If you prefer questions that are like a puzzle, then the SAT might interest you more.”

Memory added that test scores are not the sole deciding factor in admissions at UNC.

Students should check individual schools’ thoughts and requirements on testing. JCSU will eventually stop asking for test scores, Hurd said. It instead will want to know about applicants’ confidence, if they have support systems and if they can be leaders.

Don’t forget to hit the books.

Scott said everything is secondary to strong academics. “If you compare two students, and they’ve had similar accomplishments and one’s taken a tougher curriculum to achieve that, that means something.”

Gruber advised ending strong, because schools look at those grades. He said he expects students to take at least a history, math, English, foreign language and lab science during senior year.

Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes matter, too. Griffin said if those classes are available, he expects students to take some. More than two-thirds of this year’s incoming freshmen at N.C. State took AP exams, he said, and about 500 of 4,425 had taken college courses at community colleges.

Kirby warned not to slouch on class grades for AP and IB, because admissions officers won’t see test results until after choices have been made.

Be yourself and do your thing.

Mean what you say, mean what you do.

“To participate in activities because you think they’ll look good actually becomes counterproductive, because it takes your focus away from things that matter,” Guttentag said. Duke admissions officers look for things in two categories from applications: engagement and impact. “What we look for is a sense of being honestly and deeply and meaningfully engaged in the activities that matter to (students) – that their participation is more than superficial.”

Memory said officers can usually tell when a student is shallow. “We know when a student is just listing accolades for the sake of accolades. We know the student who writes eloquently about an experience that moves them or brings them joy. That’s them. We know that voice.”

Many of the experts said they’ll read essays about service trips, and they understand those trips are meaningful. But N.C. State’s Griffin said he wants students to get more into the “why.”

“Don’t just describe the details of what you did on this mission activity, but tell us more about you as the applicant. That’s what we’re trying to get at. Or you could write about something else too.”

More than anything, the experts said they get to know applicants better when applicants show them what they value, and why.

“The bottom line of what we’re looking to see is what is meaningful to the student,” Davidson’s Gruber said.

Try new things.

Even though there’s not a formula of activities and academics that guarantees admission, it is wise to try new things. Experts say it’s OK if students haven’t done an activity for four years.

“I love the fact that students have tried different things,” Gruber said. “If you say, ‘I just did my first musical, and gosh, I loved it. My fear of being onstage is gone today, and that’s what I’m interested in doing. As a result I’m not longer participating in the art club’ – that’s perfectly fine.”

Memory advised not to fear failure when trying new activities.

“Give it a try if your heart is leading to it. You might not be a virtuoso, but if you get extraordinary joy, that’s what we’re looking for. If it’s going to play the flute in the woods and that makes your heart happy, tell us about it,” she said, adding dryly she does not want to see a bunch of essays next year about playing the flute in the woods.

And doing activities outside academics is something UNCC’s Kirby values. “We want to see students involved in extracurricular activities because that translates to students more likely to be involved here,” she said.

Scott, of Appalachian State, also said that it’s all right if students have to work instead of participating in extracurricular activities, and that he values seeing a student’s dedication and sacrifice.

You can lead without a title.

“The reality is, not everybody can be the lead, front and center, with a theater production. But the show doesn’t go on without the people in the back making things tick,” Gruber said. “We’re interested in knowing where students get energy.”

JCSU is pleased to know when applicants have leadership qualities, which Hurd said can include working well with others and mentoring.

Davidson’s Gruber also said titles aren’t everything, and that vice presidents of clubs can be just as effective as any other member.

“What was the vice president responsible for doing? Waiting for something to happen to the president, or (having) a significant role that propelled that group to a level of great achievement?”

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