Getting Into College

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College Admission Statistics

Carolyn Williams

The choices students make in high school matter – and they matter a lot. Whether your child is dreaming of a highly selective college or a regional public university, how they move through high school will determine their options for years ahead. Admissions, financial aid, scholarships … the process can feel daunting. Here is a rundown of what students (and their parents) need to know to make the most of the college application process.


Admission representatives look at the offerings of a particular high school and check to see if an applicant is taking the most challenging courses he or she can handle. Typically, AP and IB courses are considered the most challenging, if they are offered. Early in the school year, a student should make sure their course load is neither too easy nor too difficult and should switch courses or get a tutor as soon as possible. Throughout the senior year, students should be challenging themselves, within reason.

Few students realize that their grades from as early as ninth grade will be considered by colleges. It is important that students immediately sign up for the five major subjects – English, history, science, math, and foreign language. Students should continue with at least four major subjects for four years, and if they need to drop a major subject, they should double up in another major, i.e. two sciences. Keep in mind that many universities require at least two or three years of a foreign language. Taking four years of all subjects keeps a student’s options open.

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Students should practice with the PSAT during October of their junior year. Then they should begin testing during the spring of their junior year and take both the SAT and the ACT to see which score is stronger. Senior fall, students can re-take whichever is their strongest test. Khan Academy test prep or private tutoring can help raise scores.


Quality over quantity is the message coming from college admission offices regarding extracurriculars. Colleges prefer students who pursue their activities with devotion and rise to leadership and excellence. Students should look for ways to make a lasting impact in their area of interest. For example, if a student loves theatre, perhaps they can participate in school plays, join a local summer theatre, and mentor in an after-school program for younger students.


Summer months can be a valuable time for a student to develop expertise in a given area. From devoting time to community service to completing an internship, to working in their field of interest, summer is a time to devote to growth. For example, if your child dreams of becoming a professional musician, perhaps they can enroll in JAS Aspen
Camps or the Aspen Music School P.A.L.S. program or attend a summer intensive offered by a collegiate music school.


Students should start casually visiting a few colleges during their sophomore year. A tour of a nearby campus can help them know if they prefer a large college or a smaller college. During their junior year, students should start identifying and researching colleges that could be a good fit for them. Their college list should also take into consideration whether their family qualifies for need-based financial aid or if they will need to seek out colleges that offer merit scholarships. 


Families ought to see if they qualify for need-based aid. The online FAFSA application will provide a score that measures a family’s financial strength and determines a student’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The FAFSA may be filled out after October 1 of the senior year.  Early, unofficial estimates can be calculated at or on the financial aid pages of college websites.


This is where a student’s merit (grade point average, test scores, musical or theatrical talent, community service, and/or athletics) can make a big difference in opening doors. The best scholarship awards will come from the college itself. Students should research to learn which schools are seeking applicants with strengths that match their interests and skills. These are more likely to offer strong four-year scholarships. Local and regional programs can also take the edge off of the cost of college, but most often, these are one-year scholarships.


Colleges want to accept students who are most likely to enroll. How much interest a student has demonstrated in a particular school can help the college determine the odds the student will join the community. Did the student open the college’s email? And come to the presentation in their high school guidance office? Or visit the table at the college fair? Did they visit the campus? If they visited, did they choose to interview? Colleges keep track of these details and even a student’s online activity. 


Students should request at least two teacher recommendations during their junior year. If a student plans to pursue music or art, they should also seek a recommendation from this specialty teacher. A recommendation from a guidance counselor also strengthens an application. Seek supplemental letters of recommendation from coaches, employers, clergy, or alumni who know the student well.


The strongest part of an application is the student’s essay, which presents a wonderful opportunity for students to tell their stories and show what makes them unique. These should be drafted and edited multiple times. In addition to the traditional college essay submitted to every school, colleges often ask additional questions to learn why the student wants to apply, why the student has chosen to study a particular major, or why the student is a good fit for the college. Counting basic essays, college-specific essays, and scholarship essays, many students write 25-30 essays or more.


Applying to college is a rite of passage, an exciting time for a young person. There are thousands of colleges, each with its own unique educational philosophy and focus programs, which means there is a good fit out there for everyone who truly wants to earn a post-secondary degree. A majority of colleges accept the majority of their applicants, and better yet – there is financial aid and merit money available. The key is to stay organized, start the process early, and treat each step as an important indicator of how your student will approach the many opportunities ahead.


About Carolyn Williams

Carolyn Williams College Consulting