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 werent available) and a record 30,820 at Chapel Hill this year, according to the schools Ashley Memory.
But now everybody thinks youve 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 dont. But you can certainly maximize your senior year. We asked experts how, and heres what they said:
Take the helm, and a deep breath.
Juniors, youre in control.
Remember for most of that whole admissions process to college, the student is in control of everything, N.C. States Griffin said. The decision-making is in someone elses hands for a little bit of time, but come March or April, then the decision-making is back in the students and parents hands.
Davidsons Gruber agreed. He said juniors are in control of where they apply, the information theyre presenting and where theyll ultimately choose to enroll, and that remembering that should make the process less stressful.
Dont worry about a formula.
Because there isnt one.
Theres not a magic formula for a student that a student can put together to formulate that this-will-get-me-accepted (application), Griffin said.
Dukes Guttentag agreed and said that being well-rounded or having a singular focus doesnt make a difference to Duke admissions officers. Theres no combination of activities, no individual activity that makes a difference, he said. If an activity is worth doing, then its 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 thats not the smart way to approach the process. Its a mistake to try to plan your life around what a college admissions officer will say. At the end of the day, whether youre well-rounded or focused, you have to be happy with yourself.
Admissions officers dont 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. Theyll say, Oh, weve submitted our SATs. No, we didnt. ... 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 theyre still teenagers.
Theyre very smart and very accomplished, but theyre still in the process of becoming adults, and sometimes their essays make them sound like theyre 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 doesnt mean those schools dont 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. Hes also seen videos and portfolios.
Similarly, JCSU doesnt require letters of recommendation, but likes to see them because it helps them get to know the student better.
UNCC doesnt 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.
Dont 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 dont 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.
Its best to go into your search knowing what your limitations are, so you dont 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 youre 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 youre applying require SAT subject tests, Gruber said.
The experts said they dont value one test over the other, and that its 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, its $50.50.
The SAT is more reasoning-based drawing on the test-takers comprehension and critical thinking skills while the ACT is more content-based, Memory said. Making note that shes not a testing expert, she said, its 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.
Dont forget to hit the books.
Scott said everything is secondary to strong academics. If you compare two students, and theyve had similar accomplishments and ones 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 years 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 wont 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 theyll 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. Thats them. We know that voice.
Many of the experts said theyll read essays about service trips, and they understand those trips are meaningful. But N.C. States Griffin said he wants students to get more into the why.
Dont just describe the details of what you did on this mission activity, but tell us more about you as the applicant. Thats what were 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 were looking to see is what is meaningful to the student, Davidsons Gruber said.
Try new things.
Even though theres not a formula of activities and academics that guarantees admission, it is wise to try new things. Experts say its OK if students havent 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 thats what Im interested in doing. As a result Im not longer participating in the art club thats 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, thats what were looking for. If its 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 UNCCs 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 its all right if students have to work instead of participating in extracurricular activities, and that he values seeing a students 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 doesnt go on without the people in the back making things tick, Gruber said. Were 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.
Davidsons Gruber also said titles arent 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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