Attention Juniors: Applying to College in 2011

The old year is almost histoire, as my French teachers used to say. What lies ahead in 2011 is anyone’s guess. However, just like death and taxes, college applications are an additional certainty for many current high school juniors. Those eager college aspirants are no doubt already planning their strategies.

Looking ahead, what should you be thinking about? There is some shifting going on in the bedrock tectonic plates of the college admissions process world. How will this affect you and how should you be changing those plans that you may have already cast in concrete?  These are fair and perhaps fundamentally important issues that you need to consider before firing up your Common Application account.

As I have done many times in the past here on my blog, I will recommend that you stay in touch with the pulse of the current college admissions world by becoming a regular visitor to the College Confidential discussion forum. The College Confidential site, itself, is also a wonderful resource for free expert information on every conceivable aspect of college admissions. Maybe the biggest help to get started on the CC site is the SuperMatch college search tool.  If you need help narrowing down your choices, or selecting well-matched candidates, look no further than SuperMatch.

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One especially forward-looking college admissions article I found while searching the Web for 2011-related insights, was written by Tim Cantrick. He “recaps highlights in three major areas of the process – creating the list, fine-tuning the application, and maximizing the overall presentation – while previewing how each key issue will be expanded for additional insight in 2011.” These are all worthy topics for consideration and I thought I would share Tim’s insights with you.

COLLEGE ADMISSIONS 2011: New opportunities in the New Year

by Tim Cantrick

The College List

Occasionally, a family will engage my services for the first time during the summer after the junior year for help with applications. As we review the list already compiled by the family, not infrequently I discover that the colleges have only one thing in common, the major.

But otherwise the list exhibits an incoherent mix of features – big and small, near and far, public and private, conservative and liberal, pre-professional and liberal arts, extroverted and introverted, and so on.

As noted in previous columns, before students begin to compile a list of colleges they should go through a thoughtful exercise in self-examination. The inward look before the outward search ensures that applications are eventually sent only to institutions that are compatible with the student across a range of features. The value in this is two-fold: the more complete the match up between student and college, the more likely the applicant will be admitted, and, second, students are happier and more successful at colleges where they fit in well for multiple reasons.

Nevertheless, even a list thoughtfully developed can present its own kind of problem when it contains 10-20 great match ups. With so many attractive choices, students might have a hard time identifying the particular virtues of any given college compared to others on the list, which sometimes paralyzes their ability to decide if one college on the list is indeed a top pick. Psychologists call this phenomenon the paradox of choice. In coming months I will explain this point more completely and show how to solve the problem.

The Well-Managed Application

In a truly helpful attempt to relieve applicant stress, admissions personnel routinely remind students that applying to college is a straightforward action, as easy as making a list of places well-suited to your needs, following the simple application instructions and then letting the review process do its work – all the while avoiding the rankings mentality.

This approach is indeed appropriate when presenting to institutions where decisions are based on a clear cut calculation of GPA, course load, class rank and SAT – that is, at less-selective colleges and at most public universities. But such an approach is a mistake at more selective colleges and universities where a big element of subjectivity influences the decision, as readers struggle with the task of differentiating among a surplus of highly qualified applicants.

In addition to trying to get a “feel” for the applicant by sensing the individual behind the numbers, these colleges also want to build a well-balanced and diverse freshman class, with particular emphasis on enrolling students who fulfill program needs, whether in athletics, the fine arts, less popular majors and student organizations that need replenishment to survive another year.

I will return to this point by explaining in greater detail how the “holistic” review process works, and how any student can use its nuances to his or her advantage. The well-managed application is never a passive affair.

The Application Essay

Although the application essay is the most interesting part of the college application, it is also the most challenging, fraught with potential missteps that can adversely impact the student’s candidacy. Previously, I have offered advice about how to compose a compelling statement by being specific, personal and intelligent (the last term being the element most often misunderstood and neglected by students).

To supplement this advice, I will examine in greater detail the rhetorical function of the application essay. Effective rhetoric, which is the art of persuasion, requires that the writer understand his/her audience, and thus anticipate how the writer’s tone, style, organization and content will impact the audience. To dramatically illustrate this point, I will provide an example from a top university.

An Effective Presentation

If 2008-09 sent a shock through colleges as the recession impacted applications, then 2010 was the year of adjustment in the admissions office. 2011, in turn, promises to be an especially dynamic period for colleges as they see more clearly how to allocate institutional resources given the vagaries of the economic recovery, thus providing interesting opportunities for alert students to identify and act on those institutional needs to build a powerful presentation.

This point enlarges on the concept of the well-managed application by considering how parts of the file other than the physical (or digital) application itself can be aligned with the student’s overall message. A column this spring will examine in particular how to harmonize the applicant’s message with an institutional mission statement, how to account for relatively weak standardized testing, how to explain in a positive way potentially damaging grade patterns on the transcript and how to ensure that teacher and counselor recommendations are not only congruent with but also capitalize on the applicant’s overall message.

Let us resolve going into the New Year that all students applying to colleges next fall will receive the positive news they deserve.

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I’ll second that final thought, Tim, and add my best wishes to all my Admit This! readers for their safe, happy, and prosperous 2011.

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Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.