Navigating the College Application Process

Our family went through the college application process in back-to-back years and the experience couldn’t have been more polar opposite. One of the kids immediately jumped on board and created a stunning application while the other one fought the process from the start and in the nick of time, created a stunning application. Having lived through both experiences, my wife, along the way, became a subject matter expert in the college application process. These are many of her insights gathered from books, college forums, information from the universities themselves, college counselors and friends who had gone through the process and I am here to impart the most critical of these and offer some helpful guidance.

This is a Marketing Project. Plain and Simple.

UCLA had 149,813, University of Michigan had 90,000, Tulane had 41,365 and Harvard had 9,406 undergraduate admission applications for incoming freshman for the 2023/2024 class. With the exception of the University of Michigan which has an acceptance rate of 22%, the other schools have single digit rates. Your child, depending on where they apply, can have less than a 10% chance of acceptance.

That is why your college admission application needs to be an exercise in marketing that follows some basic guidelines; know your audience, grab their attention quickly, differentiate yourself.

Know your Audience

I am going to let you in on a little secret.

The Dean of Yale, U of M, UCLA, Tulane, Vanderbilt or the University of Alabama is not reading your child’s application for admission. No, they are not. But, I will tell you who is. An overworked and probably underpaid, most likely recent graduate in their mid-20’s, Admissions Officer working through the summer, reading hundreds of applications and essays. Think twice before you write an essay about your trials and tribulations at summer camp in upstate New York or your summer trip to Paris to study the culinary arts or your summer job you got with a connection, interning for the editor of Vogue magazine. Make your experiences relatable! They don’t want to hear about the escapades of privileged kids nor do they want over-achieving robots.     

Grab Their Attention Quickly, and Don’t Let it Go

Admissions Officers at most schools spend anywhere from 3-7 minutes reviewing your application. That is why you cannot waste anytime grabbing their attention. You have to fit 18 years of life into your application and hope to G-d that you command their attention throughout the entire application review. 

Being redundant, being uniform, and being uninteresting is the quickest way to get your application tossed in the deferment or rejection pile.

LAYER! By that, I mean that nothing gets mentioned twice. Is the applicant the captain of the baseball team or the editor of the Yearbook or captain of the Cheerleading squad or President of their class or in the Chess club? That is great, but those achievements are only mentioned 1 time in their activities or essays.  Remember, you are trying to paint a full, multi-dimensional beautiful picture of the applicant, and so, every new section in the application process is an opportunity to do that.

Differentiate Yourself

If you are applying to UCLA, you are competing against 149,812 other applicants, most of whom, just like you also have all A’s, 4-5 on their AP exams, were Editors of their Yearbooks and Captains of their teams. You need to differentiate yourself from the pack.  But, how do you do that when everyone is high-achieving? My son wrote his main essay on how he “Chews” most everything.  From pen caps to bottle caps, he is constantly chewing.  And, my daughter wrote hers on Tarot Cards and Astrology and her love of both of those modalities.  And how she does readings for herself and others as guidance and to foretell the future. However you choose to express that differentiation, do it early and often.

Leave Your Ego at the Door

Your child doesn’t have to go through this laborious process alone – competing against the thousands of other applicants, many of which have used outside resources to create the most perfectly marketed application.  There is no better time than this to partner with your child. Their 17-18 year old minds, don’t necessarily grasp the idea that this process has less to do with their achievements than it does with how they are presented. As I referenced earlier, the experience for my wife with both kids couldn’t be more polar opposite. And, the one that fought the process from start to finish, almost put both of them into therapy. Either way – its not always easy but this is not the time to let your child fly solo. Don’t get me wrong, there are thousands upon thousands of kids who complete their own applications, without any help from anyone.  Frankly, that is how I did it years ago when I applied.  In retrospect, even though the landscape appears to be more competitive these days, I wish I had some insight and direction from someone who understood the process.

Remember this, the “right” fit is not necessarily the most impressive one. Take time with your child to explore colleges/universities that offer the best opportunity for growth and success.  When evaluating the right fit, look at these 4 areas: Emotional, Social, Academic and Location. Will the college or University stretch your child in these 4 areas without exerting unreasonable pressure in any one area? That should be the litmus test. When one of my kids was applying, I encouraged them to apply to 3 schools they did not want to, nor would they ever have attended. I think I did it for my own ego. They got into 1, deferred from 1 and rejected from 1.  After, I felt bad that I had made them apply, when they were never going to attend in the first place.  

Be Realistic

Your applicants grades, class rigor and scores by Junior year are what they have to work with.  Although you need to highlight the positives, create a manageable list of colleges for application. Here is a really good guideline: 3 likely, 3 target and 3 reach, and that’s it. Here is how to determine Likely, Target and Reach:  Likely are those schools that accept students below your GPA and test scores, Target are those schools that accept students that have GPA and test scores that are within the range of yours and Reach are schools that accept students with higher GPA’s and test scores. 

Applying to 20 reach schools only helps the colleges bolster their acceptance numbers in their favor and can have negative emotional affects on the applicant from rejection after rejection.

Finally, there are people in your community that have unfairly used the system to get more test taking time or who have connections at certain universities or who, with lower test scores and worse grades than your applicant, get into the university you wanted. Get over it. Unfortunately, like life the college process isn’t always fair. And, more times than not it has nothing to do with the applicants qualifications, but rather needs that the college or university is trying to fill. Regardless, have faith in the idea that your child, 85% of the time, will end up in the right place and have a truly wonderful college experience.

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