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What Juniors (and Parents) Need to Know About College Admissions

By Robert A.G. LeVine

By Robert LeVine

It’s January, and for better or worse, it’s time for 11th graders to get serious about college. That can be overwhelming, so let us simplify things for you.

First … and I mean first … please understand how U.S. universities select underclassmen. Unlike other countries, the U.S. offers two parallel education systems: private and public. Whereas public universities place a premium on “objectivity” – your grades and test scores – private colleges really don’t. Although your qualifications are important for private schools, that’s just the starting point. They genuinely value how applicants will contribute to their campus communities. For that reason, private colleges evaluate using a holistic approach, one that usually gives separate grades for academics, extracurriculars and personality.

Yes, personality is important to them, and it’s unavoidable that humans use human emotion in reading essays, recommendation letters, counselor reports and interview reports. In the industry, it’s a concept known as “reader love.” If you love someone, you love them regardless of their resume, but if you don’t love them enough … well, those people get rejected by admissions offices. As I always say, admissions is much more like dating than you might appreciate.

Note: holistic admissions is not random, but it is subjective. Those essays that students write really matter!

Also note: essays are not writing samples. They are messaging. Absent total disaster, grammar does not matter. What matters is your content, as absorbed by the reader.

Of course, 11th graders won’t likely start writing any essays until May or June. What should happen now?

Before we address what you should do, please understand what your high school counselor will – and will not – do. Remember, they work for the school, not for you. They have the ability to “push” the right students toward certain colleges, and that may or may not be you. They cannot help you if they do not know you. please get to know them well, explain your thoughts, ask for advice … do the necessary to let them know you well.

As for essays, counselors will likely review your main essay (the Personal Statement), but not your other (supplemental) essays. They will likely coach you to do better in certain places, but they probably will not edit for you or with you. They will offer constructive criticism, because if they don’t “help” you, and then you don’t get results … they get in trouble. So, if you have written what you believe to be a great essay, and they disagree, please take their suggestions to heart while making your own decisions. Remember, this is your future, not theirs.

As for developing your “college list,” understand that the list inevitably changes throughout the application season. Because you won’t likely select your college until April – after the college decisions are announced -- everything done before you place a deposit on May 1 is just collecting options that might be good for you. Make your best decision after learning more about the colleges and more about yourself. Trust us: people change their minds at the very end.

How do you understand whether a college fits your needs? Do not rely on rankings; those are created for business purposes and are not trustworthy. Instead, understand the different institutional structures (is the school a “castle” or an open field?); the different curricular structures (general education, core curriculum, or open curriculum?); the culture on campus; and the opportunities off-campus.

The first part of your research should happen online. Reverse-engineer the admissions website, review their social media, dig deep for department newsletters. The second part of your research should be human. Talk to students, alumni and … call the admissions office! They actually want to speak with you!

Should you take a tour? It’s not necessary, and it can be distracting. For the university, tours are marketing opportunities, and your experience can be influenced greatly by the caliber of their professionals and volunteers, the other people visiting on that day, and even the weather. Because a few hours on campus is a lousy data set, tours should not be the basis of “yea or nay” decisions about schools. Instead, think of your visit as research for a decision to be made later.

You can tour if you wish, but you do not need to take an official tour. You can easily walk a campus yourself. However, if you do want an official tour, register early (they fill up fast) and try not to tour when the college is out on spring break!

Robert LeVine is the founder and CEO of University Consultants of America, an independent educational consultancy assisting students around the world with applications to colleges, universities and graduate schools. For more information, call University Consultants of America, Inc. at 1-800-465-5890 or visit www.universitycoa.com

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