Parents contact our office every day with questions about how their high schoolers can stand out when applying for college and concerns about what they should be doing right now to start the process. So we asked one of our ask our expert College Consultants to weigh in.
Here is Lisa Gastaldi’s inside scoop on college admissions and her answers to some of our most frequently asked questions from parents.
How has applying to college changed in the last few years?
The college landscape has definitely changed since most of our students’ parents applied to school. It also has changed significantly since 2020 due to COVID!
With the introduction of The Common Application, the holistic approach to college admissions, and the test-optional movement, these three things have significantly changed the college application process.
The rise in students applying to college, and the number of applications that they are submitting has jumped. With the test-optional option, students are throwing their hat in the ring at schools that maybe they didn’t think they had a shot at in the past. It is important for students to realize that the college application process is just that— a process. It should not be rushed. It is a well-thought-out endeavor.
What are colleges looking for on high school transcripts?
One of the main parts of any college application is the transcript. Colleges are looking for several things when it comes to the transcript. First, they are looking at the curriculum choice, progression in grades/rigor. They mainly look at the Core classes. Sometimes the GPA is inflated with electives like PE and Art.
Students should challenge themselves with the courses available at their school.
Colleges will look to see if a student tries what I call the “academic stretch.” They might consider:
- Did they challenge themselves with Honors/AP/IB classes?
- Did they take more than the graduation requirements?
- Did they take any courses that might be associated with a major?
Other factors include the weighted and unweighted GPAs, class rank, and extra points given for honors, AP courses, dual enrollment, etc.
Will colleges look at the grades seniors earn?
Most colleges applications are due before the senior year grades are calculated, but colleges will look at the senior curriculum and the rigor.
They will look to see if students are taking their senior off, or are they ramping up the rigor to get ready for college.
How can students make themselves stand out?
The best way to stand out is by creating a theme or a brand around the high school experience. What does that mean? Consider this analogy: As adults, one day we don’t just wake up and say “I’m going to be a doctor.” There would be preparation, schooling, experiences, and discussions.
So when students are thinking about their involvement, there should be some type of thought that goes into it.
The best applications do have an underlying narrative that can be detected by the admissions offices.
How exactly can students create a theme around their high school experience?
Here’s one example. I had a student that swore she wanted to be a forensic science major, she did a summer forensic science program at Johns Hopkins and came back and told me, “I think I’ll do business.” During her high school years, knowing she wanted to study international business, she did another summer program in business, took a college class in business, picked up German as another language, and found a summer internship at an import-export company.
So the branding theme I am referencing brings the academic and the personal together in the application.
Having a well-rounded resume does not necessarily mean doing 25 things, but rather doing 2-3 things in-depth, with purpose, and seeking out potential leadership opportunities.
Since so many schools are now test-optional, should my child even take the SAT or ACT?
Definitely! I encourage all students to take the SAT and ACT at least one time. My recommendation is always to try both tests one time, or take mock tests, to see if the student likes the SAT or ACT better or maybe does better on one. Then, they should work on test prep before trying the test again.
If the student decides not to submit a score at a test-optional school, then the college will put more emphasis on the student’s transcript, essays, recommendations, and high school resume. If a student tests well and decides to submit their SAT or ACT score, it will definitely help the application if it is lacking in other areas. The test score could become a deciding factor.
Do you think most schools will stay test-optional?
I do know that colleges are looking at the data from the last few years during the pandemic, to see if students that were admitted without test scores are successful at the school. They will probably base their future admissions requirements on that data.
By the time current high school sophomores or freshmen are applying to college, more schools might bring back the test requirements.
How can a student make a balanced college list?
Creating a college list is tough. As a shoe lover, I can compare the two. There are thousands of shoes out there, finding one that fits, looks good, and doesn’t squeeze your feet can be a feat!
Creating a college list takes research, evaluations, insight, and a determination if it “fits.” When I work with students, I start with an extensive questionnaire that covers questions about what they’re looking for in a school– location, size, major, and activities. I also ask about some of the hidden characteristics of a school. For example, do they care if it’s environmentally friendly or if it has ample hands-on learning experiences? Is it important to them that their college will offer access to professors, financial aid, and research opportunities?
My philosophy on the college list revolves around the student saying, ‘I can be happy at any of the schools on my list.’
What’s a good number to aim for while creating a college list?
Applying anywhere from 7 – 12 schools is a good range. Some should be in that reach category, some in the target category, and some in safety. It’s important to look at acceptance rates and any admissions statics provided by the college while creating a list to determine which category the school should go in on your list. For example, you can find recent stats for UVA admission here.
When should students start applying for college?
The actual application process can begin the summer after junior year. However, the planning should start much sooner.
Rising seniors cannot hit submit on their applications until August 1, but they can get a headstart on writing and editing essays, resumes, and supplemental questions over the summer. It helps alleviate some of the stress senior year if their applications are done or nearly done prior to the start of school.
How many essays will students have to write for their college applications?
Many students, nowadays, apply to most schools through The Common Application. It has one main essay and the word choice is limited to 650 words. Topics can be about anything as long as they follow one of the seven provided prompts.
A good college essay is one that no other child could write— something that is so specific to the character, personality, experience of the child— to set them apart.
In addition to the essay, many schools also ask supplemental questions. They are much shorter than essays, but are school-specific and can be difficult for students to navigate. For example, “why do you want to go to William & Mary?” Answering supplemental questions needs thoughtful introspection on what the campus can offer, and why the student’s experience and interests are a good fit for that college.
How can a student choose the right topic for their essay?
Essays are the only place on the application where the student’s voice is heard. That is why it is not only important what you write, but how you write it.
So many students have similar “experiences” such as mission trips, international travel, sports, or clubs, so they have to be careful that they are not choosing an overused topic. Sometimes students may use topics like death, disabilities, challenges, or illness. Writing any of these topics is fine, but the essay needs to be more about how the experience affected you, the person, rather than about the experience itself.
Some of my favorite essays are those that step outside the box, are funny and memorable. You have to remember that admissions officers are reading thousands of these essays, so picking a topic that is memorable or unique is the way to go.
Our experienced one-to-one college consultants help with each step of the application process that Lisa mentioned. Take the next step and schedule a free consultation to see how our comprehensive college counseling programs can help your child reach their collegiate dreams!