College Application Tips Every Student Should Follow

July 22, 2017
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By Emma Wulfhorst

Summer is finally in full swing, which means beach days, pool parties, and no more school work—or so you thought. Applying to college can seem like the most daunting task in the world, second only to scaling Mount Everest, but it doesn’t have to be.

We talked with some local college counselors who gave us their biggest tips and tricks on how to stay calm and ace those college applications.

“Applying to college is like trying to defuse a bomb while reading the instruction manual,” said Fair Haven-based educational consultant Erin Avery who counsels students and their families throughout the college search and application process through her company, Avery Educational Resources.

According to her, it is never too early to start preparing for college. Currently, her youngest client is a sixth-grade student. “People think that if you start early, you’re elevating (the student’s) anxiety,” she said. “But it’s the exact opposite—the longer you wait, the higher the anxiety becomes.”

Arlene Matthews, another local college counselor and founder of Arlene’s Admissions, also based in Fair Haven, believes students should start prepping early, too. She thinks students should take their freshman year to adjust to the high school experience and enjoy themselves and then begin the college search process sophomore year. She suggests making a list of possible schools and thinking strategically about the next three years of high school.

“In terms of the actual application process, I really think they should start the summer before their junior year of high school,” Matthews said. “I think they should do as many of their essays as possible the summer before, I think they should finalize their school list, I think they should strategize where they’re going to apply early, and so forth.”

Heeding that advice got easier this year when the Common Application changed its policy and now rolls over from year to year. “Any stakeholder—student, parent, educator—can create an application account, even as early as ninth grade, and roll over their data each year,” Avery said. “This gives everyone a chance to become familiar with the application and to save all the data year to year.”

Previously the application would reset every year so students had to wait until the summer before their senior year to start the application process. The Common Application is a not-for-profit member organization that includes more than 700 colleges and universities, allowing students to apply to many schools with one application.

Students should also meet with their high school’s counselors, who can offer guidance and direction when starting the college search process.

Kelly King, college counselor at Mater Dei Prep high school in Middletown, reassures her students it is okay if they didn’t get an early jump on the application process, but recommends rising seniors focus efforts on completing the application before school starts. King suggests these students take another look at their class schedule in late summer to make sure their first quarter transcript is strong.

“Really dig in senior year for your first quarter,” she said, as these are the last grades college admissions departments will see before making their decisions. “It will be stressful,” King said, but she emphasized the importance of remaining calm.

All the experts agree the first step in the college application process should be creating your list of schools. The College Board, the company that administers the SAT, has a helpful section on their website at bigfuture.collegeboard.org for researching schools.

The website’s college search tool allows students to find their ideal school by choosing answers to different filters like school size, location, and tuition cost, factoring in those categories which matter the most to the student and parent.

After making a list, the next step is often touring those top picks. Here the individual schools’ websites are the best resources for checking the dates of on-campus tours, whether admissions interviews are required, and when is the best time to visit.

Matthews reminds her students of the importance of signing up for campus tours. “A lot of schools, and particularly with regard to private colleges, do consider your level of engagement when you’re applying to schools, so they don’t like admitting people who have never been on their campus,” she said.

And after seeing the schools in person, you will have a better idea of your “right-fit college,” said Avery. King agrees, stating that visiting schools should absolutely be a part of the application process. “I encourage students to visit all the schools they are considering, as well as take advantage when the colleges send representatives to high schools,” she said. “I tell students to go up and introduce themselves, make an impression.”

Standardized tests are still an important part of the college application process. Both Avery and Matthews encourage students to take the SAT and ACT since many schools now accept either test. Students may find one test a better fit which could mean a higher score. A few colleges even offer application options which don’t require any standardized test scores.

College consultants like Avery and Matthews can recommend tutors for their clients to help boost their standardized test scores, and many high school’s offer peer tutoring and test prep as part of the curriculum.

For the first time ever, the College Board is now offering an August seating of the SAT. This year, the test will be held on Aug. 26. Matthews highly recommends students take advantage of this opportunity. “You can take the SAT without the added stress of being in school,” she said.

The most time-consuming part of the Common App is the personal statement, or “big essay.” According to Avery, Matthews and King, the Common App essay is often a dreaded part of the application process for their students, but they believe it can easily be made into a fun activity.

Avery teaches students she works with to pre-write, journal, take notes, and carve out time each day to write as practice for their personal statements. She says attention, energy and focus are extremely important in making the essay a “story that gets to the heart of who you are.”

Regarding the personal statement, Matthews insists students get someone to edit their writing. “Make sure somebody, whether an English teacher, a trusted friend, or parents, edits your essay,” she said. “Make sure you get some feedback on your essay, but that it sounds like you,” she continued, “The purpose of the essay is really to reveal positive character traits about you, but you have to tell a little story.”

The final step for students is to click that “Submit” button and apply to the schools of their choice. Avery and Matthews offered different perspectives on the number of schools students should ultimately apply to. “It’s easier to apply to more and more schools because of the Common Application,” Matthews said. “A lot of people just figure, well I’m applying to 10 schools, why don’t I apply to 15?”

Avery believes it is unnecessary, a “knee-jerk reaction,” to apply to too many schools. “It’s induced by fear,” she said. Students and families end up checking the boxes of two, three, four, more schools at the very end “just in case,” because they’re afraid they won’t be accepted.

Instead, Avery said to “compile a list of best-fit schools—starting broad with two dozen schools, then narrowing the list as you go to your campus visits and the student’s preferences develop.”

All of the counselors offered some final tips for students in the college application process. King emphasized the importance of students using all the resources available to them at their high school.

Avery said students should familiarize themselves with and learn important Common App jargon. She suggests younger students do this by reaching out to older siblings or friends who have already been through the college application process, and sit down with them to go through the Common App. She also said to utilize the instructions on the Common App website and “start early, work often and be proactive instead of reactive.”

Matthews wants to assure students they will get into college. “Students’ biggest concern is always ‘will they get in,’ and that’s a panic we’ve instilled in people for really needless reasons, because the bottom line is, they will get in,” she said. “There’s a right college for everybody.”


This article was first published in the July 13-20, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.

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