The College Board reports that more high school students submit college applications during the fall of their senior year than at any other time. Students and their parents face a mysterious admissions process; the reasons why one person gets in and another doesn’t can be confusing and even maddening to those at the receiving end of the small envelope.
Now that school’s in session, here’s how teachers, counselors and parents can walk students through the application process and help them submit their best selves to college admission committees.
Helping students demystify college applications: Personal essay, grades and coursework, and extracurricular activities
While it’s impossible to guarantee that any one factor or achievement will guarantee entry to a choice college, educators can help their students submit high-quality applications by working with them in several areas: Personal statements, grades and coursework and extracurricular activities.
Creating a powerful personal essay or statement
When applying to any university, it’s true that numbers matter, including grade point average, honors and AP classes taken, and participation in extracurricular activities. However, a student’s personal essay or statement has a great deal of influence over how his or her college application is received.
In addition to serving as a writing sample that illustrates a student’s English language skills, an essay helps an admissions committee understand each applicant in greater detail by clarifying any low points (a low grade or a bad semester, for example) or other gaps that might otherwise misrepresent them. Admissions committees use essays to review a potential student’s achievements and goals and evaluate his or her academic potential.
College essay components can vary
College application essays can take several different forms. Some universities ask for a general personal statement, where students have 650 words to introduce themselves and detail their interests, accomplishments and higher education goals.
Other colleges want answers to specific questions. According to the Princeton Review, the most common essay questions prompt students to discuss lessons they have learned or challenges they’ve met in their backgrounds, experiences, or activities. Whatever form they take, the thoughts expressed in an essay provide a more complete picture of the applicant, drawing connections between his or her GPA, coursework and other school-related activities.
Adult help with application essays
Students should seek assistance from parents, teachers and counselors for their admissions essays, but their own voice should stand out in the writing. Having proofreaders is a great idea, but essays that undergo too much (or overly-aggressive) editing from adults dampen the student’s own thoughts and ideas. Because so much is riding on them, the goal should be to submit an application essay free from spelling and grammatical errors that expresses the student’s genuine voice.
Grades and coursework: Patterns matter
Grades and coursework matter, but more than a specific level, college committees look at the pattern of a student’s transcript. Admissions representatives look to see if students have pushed themselves academically throughout their high school careers.
Taking honors and AP classes demonstrates a student’s ability to navigate the rigor of college-level work. Looking at grades over several years also enables a committee to see if the applicant began to slack off or slow down before his or her senior year. Representatives want to see students continuing to challenge themselves, which will further prepare them to excel in their college careers.
In addition to a student’s pattern of academic vigor, college admissions committees look at grades to determine their abilities. If a student has a bad grade, they want to see whether a bad grade represents a trend or is a one-time occurrence. Students should carefully consider what classes they take and push themselves to do well, but be careful to choose classes they can handle so their grades don’t suffer.
Beyond the resume booster: Extracurricular activities
While students should pursue any clubs or sports they find interesting, they must be aware that the activities they include on their college applications should demonstrate who they are. For instance, a student who is interested in pursuing a biology or pre-med major can illustrate his or her interest in science and medicine by participating in a job-shadowing program at a lab or hospital in addition to taking academically-challenging STEM courses.
Participating in sports can help students to illustrate their capabilities beyond the classroom but also demonstrate their varied interests. If a student excels as an athlete, this opens up opportunities for scholarships or participation in college or club sports.
Volunteer work as extracurricular activity
Although volunteer work can help illustrate community involvement to college committees, students shouldn’t do it simply to look good on paper. Instead, he or she should volunteer with an organization that fits specific interests and beliefs. For example, a student who is a committed environmentalist might spend his or her time cleaning up a beach, working in a community garden, or helping start a recycling program in an underserved area. This type of volunteering is enjoyable and also helps students step outside themselves and showcase their ability to make the world a better place.
Maintaining a school/life balance during college application season
It’s important for students to use their time in high school to prove to colleges that they’re ready to become productive members of a higher education institution. While teachers, counselors and parents should ensure that students prepare for college and do their best in academics, they should also make sure teens get downtime in order to maintain a balance between their academic and personal lives. Students should be working toward the future, but not at the expense of enjoying high school.
Caitrin Blake has a BA in English and Sociology from the University of Vermont and a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Colorado Denver. She teaches composition at Arapahoe Community College.