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5 Things to Do Before Starting the College Search

College admissions pros offer their advice on what it takes

Published on: September 27, 2018

Young woman graduate looking through binoculars

Helping your high school student to decide where to apply for college can be more daunting than convincing them to take early-morning SAT prep classes. But narrowing down the choices from the 5,000-plus schools in the U.S. is work that you can share. Here are top tips from high school teachers, counselors and college admission professionals.

Use resources at your kid’s school  

“First and foremost, students should get to know resources in their high school,” says Muriel Montenegro, an assistant director of admissions at the University of Washington, Bothell

High schools are stocked with knowledgeable counselors and college advisers. “They often are familiar with the college application process and can help steer kids to a college that aligns with their interests,” says Montenegro. In some cases, counselors will visit classes to discuss options for after high school, and then students are encouraged to make follow-up appointments with counselors for one-on-one advice. 

Most school districts have purchased online tools that can also help assess student interests and steer them toward appropriate careers or colleges. WOIS is a Washington state database that provides career interest assessments, suggests college pathways, and guides students in creating résumés and college application material. Naviance is a similar tool for nationwide use. Students can usually access these online tools via school accounts. 

Also consider BigFuture. An online tool created by the College Board (the company that brings you the SAT and AP curricula), BigFuture provides questionnaires that recommend colleges, resources to help with the admissions process and financial advice. The site also features to-do lists for parents, with college-related tasks for them to complete for each year their teenager is in high school.  

Visit campuses

Campus visits are an essential part of a college search, but this doesn’t mean an East Coast road trip is in order. 

“Whether you’re thinking of staying locally or not, take advantage of the fact that there are so many great institutions that you can explore within two hours,” says Adrian Hodos, an assistant director of admissions at Seattle University. “Visit a big state school. Go to that smaller liberal arts school. Get a feel. Let that feeling inform what you are looking for in your college search.” 

Once a student has been on several campuses, they’ll have more confidence answering questions about college preferences.   

A campus visit also makes the idea of college tangible. If a 15-year-old becomes entranced with a dorm room or picturesque corner of a quad, that image may propel her through high school, encouraging her to sign up for that AP class or set a goal of all As for the next semester. 

“We have a lot of high school students who come here for a field trip,” says Montenegro. “Maybe UW Bothell wasn’t on their minds, but they’re motivated to apply after coming to campus.” 

Make it personal

Making a personal connection with admissions representatives is one of the most overlooked aspects of the college admissions process. Admissions professionals frequently set up booths at local high schools to talk to students. The representative working the booth isn’t some random person; they’re often the very person who will be reviewing your child’s application. 

College admissions personnel are assigned to different geographic territories and high schools within those areas. “We get to know students,” says Montenegro, “so when that student does apply, [we] can say, ‘Oh yeah, I met this student at that high school,’ and can advocate for the student’s admission.” 

Now, for the application

Once in their junior year, students who’ve done the work of selecting colleges find themselves in yet another quagmire: figuring out how to get in. There’s no perfect formula. 

Of course, a student needs to meet the college’s minimum admissions requirements. Then, applications are reviewed holistically, says Monica Tafoya, an assistant director of admissions at Seattle University.

“We look at the whole student,” she says. “Of course, we see the GPA, but we also look at grade trend, the classes that they’ve taken, what classes are available at their high school and how they’ve pursued their unique academic interests.” 

As far as how involved a student should be in their school and community, colleges want quality over quantity. 

“We’re looking for students who’ve had meaningful experiences,” says Montenegro. “We aren’t looking for a long laundry list of clubs, but rather one or two experiences that they can speak about: why the activity is meaningful, what leadership lessons they learned, what they’ll bring to the campus community.”

But competitive GPA and test scores are crucial. “Academic factors really are of primary importance,” says Matt Bishop, an assistant director in the Office of Admissions at UW. “Extracurricular engagements are going to come into play only as it relates to whether your academic factors were strong or not. It can enhance an application, but academic factors are going to be the driving decision.”

The question about what test score or GPA is “good enough” is impossible to answer. “Admission is really fluid, and every year the candidate pool changes,” says Sandie Vea, a counselor at Everett’s Mariner High School. Some years, students with a certain GPA will get in. Other years, that same GPA will not be competitive enough. 

There are no guarantees. Students need to check specific admission requirements for the colleges that they’re interested in and then try to get as high above the bar as possible. 

Tell your story

While grades, tests, classes and activities are important, so is a student’s story and their ability to tell it well.  

“Colleges do take into account the challenges that kids overcome,” says Vea. “Students underestimate the power of their own story.” 

Montenegro seconds that: “We have a lot of students who have family obligations at home, or work, or they have special interests like composing music. We encourage students to think beyond what they think we want to see. We are always looking for reasons to admit students — never looking for reasons to deny — so the more thoughtful and thorough a student can be on the application, the more information we have to advocate for their admission.” 

Bishop also stresses that the most compelling personal essays are ones that deviate from the normal clichés. “Try to stay away from topics that a lot of your peers might have written about,” he says. “We read a lot about service trips, sports championships and overcoming athletic injuries. If you write about a common experience, make sure to tell a story that only you could have written.”

Some of the best admissions essays that Bishop reads are about simple experiences, like a student having coffee with their dad. The best essays are “able to articulate a certain degree of self-reflection, nuance and self-awareness,” he says. “That is what is going to stand out.” 

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