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Top 10 College Admission Tips from a Private Counselor

A sheet of paper tickets that say college admission

By Matt Musico

A private college admission counselor shares his favorite tips for applying to college.

The college admission experience involves plenty of variables and unknowns, which is why it can be helpful to have a counselor advising you through each phase of the process. Unfortunately, not all students have access to a counselor through every phase. That’s why I’ve put together this list of tips based on the work I have done with high school and college students for the past decade.

If I had to pick the 10 best pieces of advice to share with any high schooler before they embark on this proverbial journey, here’s what I’d share with them.

1. Take your college research seriously

The time and research you commit to finding your college fit is an invaluable part of the process. As you do your college research and begin to develop your college list, write down two or three specific things you think you want or do not want in a college, such as big campus vs. small, close to or far from home, liberal arts vs schools that specialize in certain subjects. This will help you narrow down what’s important to you, what to look out for when finalizing your college list, and will help form questions you may want to ask admissions officers. Also, the more specific and detailed you are, the easier it'll be to write those supplemental essays when the time comes. If/when colleges ask you, "Why Us?" you won't have to start thinking from scratch. If you’re looking for some tips on how to structure and conduct your college research, these two resources from CollegeData are a great starting point: How To Start Your College List and Mining for Gold on College Websites.

2. Take unique approaches to campus visits

In-person visit experiences like open houses, tours, and information sessions can help you figure out if a school has what you’re looking for. However, it’s sometimes hard to find out what it feels like to be a student there because you’re walking around in a group of people, and usually one or both of your parents. The next time you visit a college campus, bring a backpack, and walk around by yourself for 20-30 minutes after your official visit with the admissions office and/or tour guide is complete.

Without a tour group and your parents by your side, you may look and feel like more of a college student. Take this time to head over to the campus store or get a bite to eat and observe what the vibe is like on campus. Exploring a campus on your own might give you a glimpse of what life could feel like as an enrolled student there.

3. Your test score isn’t a life-or-death situation

It’s easy to attach your worth to what you scored on the SAT or ACT. Compass Prep’s Guide to Admission Testing lists standardized tests as only the third-most important aspect of admissions. That was before the COVID-19 pandemic shifted the testing landscape with many schools now no longer requiring them. The SAT or ACT is a test that’s taken one Saturday morning during high school. Your score and even whether or not you take the test doesn’t necessarily determine whether you can accomplish your goals in college or be successful after you graduate. The classes you take and the grades you earn as well as the activities you are involved in may end up being more important.

4. Don’t wait until deadline day to submit applications

A good college counselor will work hard to help students submit applications prior to the actual day of the deadline, and for good reason. Every year, we hear about technical glitches with various application platforms (such as the Common App or Coalition App) around major deadline dates because so many people are trying to submit applications at the same time. Colleges sometimes extend deadlines because of these issues, but not all the time. Don’t run the risk of not submitting an application that’s already complete because the website isn’t working properly. If you experience technical difficulties when submitting your application, make sure you contact the admissions office immediately and inquire about alternative methods for submitting your application.

5. Know the admission policies of the schools on your list as early as possible

Rolling admissions is great because the earlier you apply to a college, the earlier you’ll get a decision in your hands. If there are schools on your list that have rolling admissions, try and submit your application by Labor Day weekend. You will likely have a decision in your hands before November 1 and before some Early Action deadlines. Having an acceptance in your back pocket early in the fall is a huge confidence boost and can relieve some stress. 

6. Follow Directions

This seems like a simple concept, but during a stressful process, such as completing college applications, directions can be overlooked or misunderstood. Whether it’s adhering to a word count limit on your essays, submitting documents by a certain deadline, or providing the admission office with specific information, follow all directions that are stated in the application. It’ll make the lives of admission officers easier, especially since they process, read, and make decisions for thousands of applicants every year. Also, mistakes or missing information in your application can impact admissions decisions, so do your best to make sure your submissions are accurate, complete, and on time.

7. There is no such thing as a perfect college

You might feel a lot of pressure to try to find the “perfect fit” school. However, there are multiple schools you can love and thrive at. A colleague of mine recently shared an excellent analogy — when you put on a pair of jeans for the first time, it may feel a little stiff. It takes some time for the jeans to mold to you and for you to get comfortable wearing them. The same is true for life at college. Whether you attend your top school or the last safety school on your list, it may take time to adjust.

8. Decisions don’t define you

College admissions can feel like a deeply personal process. Nobody enjoys getting denied from a school after putting so much work into an application and working hard throughout high school. Did you get into your dream school? That’s awesome! But that’s only the beginning of the journey — you still must attend that college and do the work necessary to earn a diploma.

Didn’t get into your dream school? That’s okay — your worth isn’t measured by admissions decisions. What you do while you’re on a college campus may be more important than where you do it.

9. Stay in your lane

There is a lot of talk in the high school community about “Jane and Johnny” and their GPA and test scores and XYZ factor that got them into X university. That talk is often just that — talk without any factual basis. Do your best to tune out the opinions and conjecture. Focus on your own path. You’re the one who will be going to college — not your friends, family, significant other, or any other influential person in your life. Be sure to listen to the advice of your parents, counselors, and mentors but remember to also pay attention to your own feelings and goals, as well.

10. It takes a village, so be grateful

It’s the job of school counselors and the other professionals in the counseling office to send your application materials (like your official transcript) to colleges, but they’re constantly overwhelmed with requests each fall. Your parents are probably excited to visit colleges with you, but it takes time and money to make it happen. Your teachers aren’t required to write your letters of recommendation, but they enjoy helping you achieve your dreams. Be sure to stop and say thank you to everyone who has helped you along the way. 

There will be times when this process feels stressful — that’s just the way it is, especially in the fall of senior year. However, applying to college can also be fun. Who doesn’t want to visualize and imagine what their immediate and long-term future could look like? Be serious when it’s necessary, but also enjoy yourself when you’re able to — because it may lead to one of the most exciting times of your life!

Matt Musico is a full-time sportswriter, but he's also spent the better part of a decade working in higher education. Half of that time was spent working in an undergraduate admissions office, while the other half has involved working with high school families as a private college counselor.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to CollegeData, 1st Financial Bank USA or any other person or entity. All liability with respect to actions taken or not taken based on the contents of this article are hereby expressly disclaimed. 

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