10 tips to college-search success

From left, Bates admission director Leigh Weisenburger, Duke University Associate Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Leonard Satterwhite and parent Jeanmarie Cooper '85 chat after an Alumni Legacy Program panel on June 8. Photograph by Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College.

Hallie Balcomb ’14, summer editorial assistant in Bates Communications, attended the inaugural Alumni Legacy Program.

Gleaned from ALP workshops, here are her 10 tips to a successful college search.

  1. Pick your battles. As you choose high school courses, don’t feel pressure to excel in every subject. While college admission staffs are looking for well-rounded students, they know everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. Struggling in one course will not only ramp up your anxiety, but may hurt other course work.
  2. Follow your passion. Don’t try to be a three-sport athlete and a part of every club just so you can check off all the boxes on the Common Application. Pursue what you are passionate about: It’ll make for a happier high school experience and provide you with genuine responses when you write or talk about your activities.
  3. Prioritize. Parents and students should separately rank a list of factors that would apply to any prospective college or university. James Conway, a post-high school counselor from New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., suggests these 11: location, cost, size of college, reputation, academics, surrounding community, sports, social atmosphere, religious orientation, student body and extracurricular opportunities. And then take the most important step: discuss the results.
  4. Look for the good! When exploring a campus for the first time, try to see the positives. If you focus on the negatives, you may cross schools that are good options off the list too early in the process. In particular, don’t base your opinions on factors, such as the weather or fellow visitors, that are out of the college or university’s control.
  5. Apply only to schools you like. Janet Rapelye, dean of admission at Princeton, suggests that before you apply to a particular school, ask yourself, “If this was the only school I got into, would I feel good about that?” Don’t waste time and energy applying to schools you don’t want to end up at.
  6. Practice your interview. Whether it’s with a close friend, a parent, a guidance counselor — or even a mirror — answering questions out loud before you enter the admissions lobby is a great idea. Although no one can predict exactly what the interviewer will ask, the exercise of articulating general answers can help you gain confidence and give you valuable feedback.
  7. Put effort into all your writing. The short answers matter too! While your college essay is being combed over by everyone you know, ask them also to take a look at your short responses and supplemental essays. Since there are very few places on the Common Application to express your writing, which in turn expresses your thinking skills, college admission staffs look at all your writing to see if there is consistency in your voice and writing style.
  8. Don’t oversell yourself. Additional letters of recommendation can be helpful if you feel there is a part of your life underrepresented by the standard application, but resist including more material just to set yourself apart. Admission staffs work tirelessly just to get through their required information. Expecting them to read five additional letters of recommendation can end up hurting more than helping. And some schools will not accept additional information.
  9. Take advantage of the essay. The personal statement, along with any supplemental essays and the short answers following the extracurricular activities section, allows you to showcase who you are. The five prompts, along with the popular sixth “topic of your choice” option, leave the range of topics wide open. This is the time to provide a snapshot into the real you. The word count is small, so narrow your scope and aim for the heart of the story you want to tell. Start writing early and start thinking even earlier!
  10. Talk about it. In every step of the college search, communication between the student and parents is vitally important. Beginning with expectations and ending with the decision, every component involves a great deal of prioritizing and decision making. The easiest way to get through the stressful times is honest communication.