“Designer jeans” wasn’t the answer I was expecting when I asked Jessica, a high school junior, why she was interested in a particular college. She’d just told me that Ivy U was the “perfect” college for her. When I asked what was so appealing about it, I thought she might say the international relations program — she was interested in languages and politics — or the music department (she played the French horn).
Instead, she said she wanted Ivy U for the same reason she wanted designer jeans: She wanted the brand.
Although Jessica had strong grades and test scores and was deeply involved in a few activities, Ivy U’s acceptance rate was about 10 percent, and she needed to find some other colleges to add to her list. She still loved Ivy U, but eventually she did her research and grudgingly admitted that there may be other colleges that could be — maybe not “perfect” — but OK for her.
I’m sure that Jessica would have chosen Ivy U if she’d been accepted, but by the time she sent in her applications, she realized that there were other colleges that offered what she needed to be successful.
Jessica ended up attending a small liberal arts college, where she majored in international relations and got to know a professor well enough that she invited Jessica to her home regularly. Jessica was reserved in high school, and the smaller environment was a great place for her to gain confidence. Even though she didn’t end up with the designer brand she coveted, the college she ultimately chose fit well, like a favorite pair of jeans.
While I don’t have the secret recipe for getting into Designer U, I’ve crafted these four tips to help students navigate that challenging process of getting into college:
Get to know yourself
Many students know they should challenge themselves academically and get involved in activities outside of school. In fact, students are often so busy with honors and AP classes, sports, music and clubs that there’s hardly time for much else. But one of the best things students can do is take time to reflect upon what they really want from the next step in their education. What are they good at? What do they love to do? How do they learn best? What drives them?
If students really think about these questions, not only will they have a better idea of what colleges will fit well, they’ll also have material they can use for their “dreaded” college essays. Even though most students don’t believe it, everyone has a compelling story. You don’t have to be a bagpipe-playing juggler to be unique.
Do your own research
Not everyone can visit the colleges on their list before they submit their applications, but they can still do research online, read resource books and talk to current students or college admissions officers.
Look at different sizes and types of schools — in the Seattle area, there are many within an hour’s drive. Spend time on campus to get a feel for a large (University of Washington), midsize (Seattle University) or small (University of Puget Sound) university. Sit in on a class and enjoy a meal in the dining hall. Are students friendly? Do they interact inside and outside the classroom? What do students care about? Find out by picking up the student newspaper and checking out fliers that are posted around campus.
If you have a particular academic interest, is it available at each school? Look for specifics. What does it mean to major in business versus economics? College websites have a wealth of information, and you can drill down into the site to find out what courses are required for all students and for a particular major.
For colleges that may be hard to visit, talk to college representatives who come to college fairs or to your high school. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Choose your college list wisely
After you’ve done your research, start building your list. Besides looking at the programs, activities and social climate at each school, note how your academic profile compares to the average incoming freshman class.
Are your grades and test scores in the mid-50 percent range or higher? Is the acceptance rate so low that a student’s admissibility is unpredictable for even the highest-achieving student?
Add colleges that offer what you want and also align with your academic profile. As you’re building your list, make sure that you study the cost of each college and determine what is a reasonable financial fit based on the availability of need or merit aid.
Let colleges know you are interested — sign up for their mailing lists
As soon as you have determined an initial interest, contact the college to get on its mailing list. The simplest way to do this is to go to its website and fill out a “request information” or “contact us” form. The college will send you materials that will highlight key characteristics. You’ll also be the first to get updates from the college about local receptions, interviews and changes in the admissions process.
Monitor your online presence
Colleges increasingly are looking at your Facebook page, Twitter and Instagram accounts — your online presence. Now is the time to clean it up! If you have an embarrassing email address that you created in seventh grade (goodbye, firstname.lastname@example.org), now is the time to change it. You would be surprised how much information is out there about you, even if you think your social media accounts have strong privacy settings. Wha's online often cannot be deleted; now is the time to get serious about the how you present yourself.
It takes time and effort to apply to college, but if you do the work up front, you’ll find a great place to learn and thrive.
This story was originally published in July 2013 and updated in October 2017.