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Tips to Strategize Your Application Process

Tips to Strategize Your Application Process

Yes, September has just begun, but for all of you college-bound high school seniors, it’s not a day too early to begin planning how you will execute your college process. Maybe you’re an early bird who has already decided where -- and how -- you will apply. You may have already done some campus visits and thought about or even begun some application essay work. If you have, congratulations! You’re ahead of the curve.

However, knowing human nature as I do, I’m willing to bet that the majority of seniors who will be applying to college have not yet begun their formal application work. The summer was too much fun to think about the stress and level of work needed, so procrastination did its thing. Now, though, it’s time to play catch-up, especially for anyone planning an Early Action or Early Decision application. Those deadlines are less than two months away. That’s <60 days. Think about that!

When you play the high-stakes game of college admissions, especially at Ivy and “elite” schools, sometimes you may lose. Rejection comes with the territory. It can hurt badly. My experience has shown me one thing for sure: There are no sure things. Folk wisdom tells us to “Do our best and good things will happen.” Many of us, though, suffer an excess of after-the-fact self-criticism. “If only I had done [this] or [that], things would have been different.” Those are words of torment. We can second-guess ourselves all day long, but it won’t change reality. You need to create a savvy application plan before you begin to apply. That can greatly reduce your level of ultimate disappointment.

Rejection Isn't A Personal Affront

Getting a rejection letter from a college or university doesn’t make you a bad person. Unfortunately, some seniors see themselves in a negative light when they read the bad news from a highly desired institution. Dealing with rejection is difficult. Most high schoolers tend to take being turned down by a college or university as a personal affront. They seem to think that the letter from the admissions office is really saying something like, “You are deficient and we don’t want to have anything to do with you.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

The actual truth is that, in a lot of cases, some rejected students could have performed as well, if not better, at these colleges than those who were accepted. This isn’t a rationalization or sour grapes. At schools where there are a significantly larger number of applications than seats (essentially those schools whose acceptance rates are lower than 50 percent), there just isn’t room for all the qualified applicants. This brings us to the waitlist.

A waitlist comprises a group of “in-betweeners” who haven’t been rejected or admitted. They will be offered admission if the number of enrollments doesn’t meet expectations for the incoming freshman class. One well-known dean of admission said that his institution receives so many outstanding applications that he doesn’t have the heart to send rejection letters, noting that placing these fine young men and women on the waitlist is his way of saying, “We should have admitted you, but we didn’t have room.”

Such is the case with many good colleges. Everyone who is good enough to get in isn’t always offered admission. But keep in mind that there is life after rejection, but how can you head off rejection at the pass?

The Answer: Strategize Your Application Process

Shakespeare said, “Know thyself.” That’s good advice in general and great advice for college applicants. Your college application strategy should begin with an honest appraisal of how you stack up as a competitive applicant. A frank assessment early on can save you much rejection grief down the road. How can you do this?

The first step is to develop a reasonable list of college candidates. This may be old news to some of you, but it’s surprising how many seniors overlook the obvious advantages of “spreading the risk” by creating a candidate list that is ridiculously top heavy. A typical top-heavy list might include the usual suspects: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT, Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore and so on. Sometimes candidates will throw in a hastily picked “safety” just in case.

A spread like this is way out of balance. I see it all the time. When I do, I suggest a thorough self-assessment of the applicant’s overall profile, a kind of academic, extracurricular and writing-skills CAT scan that usually gets to the heart of the problem quickly. Here’s what I look for:

- Among other things, I ask students to tell me where they live and whether their school is public or private. I also ask for their current academic credentials: current GPA (weighted and unweighted), class rank, test scores (SATs and ACT, if applicable) and their current course schedule. I want to know which AP courses they’ve taken and their AP test scores.

- As for extracurriculars, I examine what kinds of activities the student is involved in and the length and depth of their involvement. I also ask for similar information about their volunteer work. Honors are important, so I ask for a list of them along with any summer activity data, such as college programs, jobs or whatever. I also want to know what the student’s college candidates are, the complete list of all schools s/he is considering, along with any legacy connections the student may have at these schools.

- Finally, I ask students to send me the best sample of their writing. This might be something they wrote for an English class or (hopefully) something they’re planning to use as an application essay. It’s interesting to note that there isn’t always a positive correlation between the quality of a student’s academic profile and his or her writing skills. Sometimes students who appear to be less than dazzling from a sheer numbers standpoint can be amazing writers.

Quell Confusion When Creating College Lists

Many times I’ll learn that a student isn’t all that sure why s/he has selected specific candidates. I’m often surprised to see a large apparent mismatch between a student’s overall profile and his or her candidate list. This tells me that the student needs to be very careful in planning an application strategy.

Once I have all this data, I evaluate the student’s relative chances at his or her candidate colleges. If the list is way out of whack, I tell them so (nicely) and make sensible recommendations based on whatever preferences they have mentioned to me. My goal is to get them clearly focused on a properly balanced spread. This should be your goal, too!

So then, if your overall profile compares favorably with those of admitted first-year students at your candidate colleges (this information is available on college websites), you’ll know that you have, at least, a chance. Don’t go by numbers alone, though. There are also essays, recommendations and those elusive “intangibles.” These can make a significant difference.

The best way to minimize rejections is to limit the number of schools from which you might be rejected. (I know: “Duh!”) That seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how many seniors load up on low-percentage candidates. Notice that I said “minimize” rather than “eliminate” rejections. Every senior should include some risk (or “reach”) candidates. The unpredictability of competitive admissions is such that sometimes even apparently marginal candidates get in.

The classic spread consists of a few reach candidates, some carefully considered “ballparks” (“target”) schools, and a carefully chosen safety or two. This would be your Plan A. I like to see a minimum of five-to-six colleges on a candidate list -- two reaches, maybe three or four ballparks and a safety or two. Your list should not be HYPSM plus your local state university. That’s an irresponsible and foolhardy strategy.

Your Plan A Definitely Needs A Solid Plan B

Let’s say that your Plan A consists of an Early Decision or Early Action application to your clear first-choice school. Most ED/EA programs have a deadline of November 1-15 (mostly Nov. 1). Since your ED application represents your best application efforts for your most highly desired school, you’ll already have the material in place to execute your Plan B applications if (or when) they become necessary.

If you followed the college candidate spread advice outlined above, you should have a nice group of great possibilities on deck and ready to go in case Plan A misfires (denial or deferral). One tactical error many seniors make is not having their full candidate list assembled before they send in their ED or EA application(s). Let’s look at some timing consequences.

There’s usually a four-to-six week waiting period for finding out about early applications. They go in by early November and colleges send out their decisions by mid-December. The question is: What college process tasks should you be doing during those 30-45 days?

Here’s the start of a list of things to do. I’ll continue the list in my next post.

Become familiar with your remaining candidate schools’ requirements. The advantage you gain from having all the application requirements in front of you is conservation of energy, especially when it comes to essays. You may encounter some version of “Tell us something about yourself that we can’t learn from other parts of your application” as a supplemental prompt.

There also may be some shorter questions asking for specific information such as what is it about [college name here] that motivated you to apply. These types of specific-information questions usually require original answers and don’t lend themselves to recycling. Be careful. If you try to adapt college-specific statements to other applications, you can commit application suicide.

More than a few careless applicants have cut and pasted their way to the reject pile. Imagine the terrific impression you’ll make on the Trinity admission officer who reads, “When I first started my college search, I was looking for a school that had an ideal combination of small class size, senior faculty teaching first-year courses, and modern campus resources. Swarthmore offers all of those and more . . .” Yikes. Just be careful!

It’s conceivable that you might be able to get away with writing just one (or two) major supplemental essay(s) that can generally satisfy the prompts of most of your applications. This is especially likely if your early application school has a general supplementary essay prompt, such as the “tell us something” approach mentioned above. If you’re not quite that fortunate, at least you’ll be able to minimize your essay production by not having to move through your applications one at a time. The “group-think” strategy pays handsome time dividends …

Next time, among other important aspects, I’ll continue my Plan B discussion with how to brief your recommendation writers on your Plan B. Stay tuned …