Katherine Cohen, a long time admissions adviser, answers some common question about college admissions in this interview with The Hour:
The Hour: When is the best time to start applying to schools?
Cohen: We begin working with students on the college admissions process during the spring of 11th grade. Before the end of the academic year, junior students should focus on standardized testing, meet with their guidance counselor to plan for senior year, and approach teachers to request letters of recommendation.
During the summer, rising seniors should create a balanced college list of reach, target and likely schools that are good academic, social, and financial fits; update their activity list to reflect extracurricular involvement, as well as any awards or honors; and start outlining and drafting their personal statement and activity essay. Getting a head start during the summer will ensure that students can balance the admissions process with the demands of the academic year. As applications are released, usually in August, students should create an application checklist to keep track of the requirements and deadlines at each school.
As the school year begins students should decide when and how they plan to apply to each school (Early Decision, Early Action, Single Choice Early Action, Rolling, or Regular) and finalize components of the application. Senior students should also finish standardized testing, continue to deepen their commitment in extracurricular activities, and maintain strong grades in a rigorous curriculum.
The Hour: What makes a well-rounded application?
Cohen: Each component of a student’s application should show off a different side of the student so there is no redundancy on the application. In the personal statement, for example, the student should tell the admissions officer something he or she cannot learn from the rest of that student’s application, including the letters of recommendation or the activity list.
There is nothing more important to an admissions committee than your performance in the classroom. Colleges look for highly motivated students who challenge themselves in increasingly difficult courses. Because so many students have excellent grades and high test scores, colleges also look to see who you are as a person as represented in your resume, application essays and letters of recommendation. Ultimately, colleges are looking for well-rounded student bodies made up of specialists, and seek individual applicants who display consistency and commitment in their stated areas of interest.
The Hour: What schools have the best balance between quality education and cost?
Cohen: There are over 3,000 colleges in the US and as such, there are many great opportunities for students. Each student should make a list of schools that are appropriate for him or her and factors such as education quality and tuition/fees can be used to help identify potential schools. All of the colleges on a student’s final list should be good academic and social fits for your student, and financial fits for your family. If cost is a concern, be sure your student has one to two financial safety schools on his or her list. These are schools that are good academic and social fits for your student, to which he or she is likely to be admitted, that the family can afford without financial aid consideration. Parents should be candid about costs, financial realities, and potential limitations, so that there are no surprises later on. It is also important to understand the different financial consideration policies at each school, including need-aware, need-blind, and promises to meet full financial need.
The Hour: What is the right number of college applications?
Cohen: Students should develop a list of 10 to 15 colleges where the student could be happy and successful, including a balance of reach, target and likely schools. It is important for students to do extensive research to determine if a school will be a good fit — look at courses offered and the professors who teach them; the activities available on campus and in the local community; as well as the internship, career, research, and study abroad opportunities.
The Hour: In these tougher economic times is it wise to attend a less expensive school for two years and transfer later?
Cohen: We do not advise students to plan to transfer prior to entering college because transferring should be reserved for times when a student discovers, after spending time on campus, that a school is a poor academic or social fit. Transfer acceptance rates can be much lower than admissions rates for seniors, so it’s often very hard to transfer. Don’t completely rule out a school based on the stated tuition and fees. Many of the most selective schools have high endowments, which translates to more scholarships, financial aid, and opportunities to decrease college costs. Students can also graduate early to save on college expenses. Families should explore all financial options and sources available, and establish a budget to help with planning. Be sure to include all the expenses related to college, not just room and board, but application fees, books, the cost of traveling between the school and home and other incidentals that can add up, and add another 10% to account for unexpected costs and inflation.
The Hour: Are college visits important?
Cohen: Yes, while college websites, brochures, and catalogs offer lots of information, nothing beats the insight you can gain from stepping onto a college campus. Visiting more campuses will give your student the ability to determine what he or she is seeking in a college experience. Junior year is often a good time for visits. Students and their families should visit while school is in session and plan to spend at least half a day on each campus: take a campus tour, attend the information session, and arrange a meeting with an admissions officer, if possible. Students should also visit a freshman dorm, eat in the school’s cafeteria, and speak with a professor in his or her academic area of interest. Many schools allow prospective students to sit in on a class, so have your student check with the admissions office at each school you plan to visit in advance. Parents, give your student some time to explore campus on their own. This will help your child get a feel for the life they’ll have without a parent in this new environment.
The Hour: What roles do tests such as the SATs play and is it best to take them multiple times?
Cohen: Standardized tests are only one piece of the admissions puzzle. Colleges are more interested in how students perform inside and outside of the classroom over the course of four years, than how they perform on a standardized test over the course of a few hours.
While the SAT is the most widely used college entrance exam, as of 2007, every four-year college that accepts the SAT also accepts the ACT. I encourage students to take a practice SAT and a practice ACT under realistic testing conditions, score both tests, compare initial scores, and then prepare for only one of the two tests. Students should continue taking practice exams throughout their standardized test preparation, aiming for approximately eight to ten practice tests before the actual exam. There are test-prep options available for all budgets: students can work one-on-one with a private tutor, take a test-prep course in person or online, or buy a practice test book. Students should prepare for their standardized tests and only sit for an exam when they feel ready. While students can take the tests multiple times, scores tend to plateau after the third time and further attempts may look desperate to an admissions committee.
The Hour: What types of recommendations are advised?
Cohen: Most selective colleges require as many as three letters of recommendation, one from your guidance counselor and two from junior or senior year teachers in academic subjects. A student should seek letters from a teacher who knows him or her well, perhaps someone who has taught the student over several years or who knows the student in multiple capacities. It is so important for students to start cultivating these relationships early on in high school. A generic sounding recommendation may reflect just as poorly on you as a negative one.
Some students also choose to include extra letters of recommendation from mentors, coaches, or employers. Be sure that any additional letters come from people who know the student well and that the letters add something new to the application. If you are going to request supplemental recommendations, don’t go overboard! Limit yourself to only one to two outside letters. On a similar note, beware that letters from noted individuals, family friends, or generous alumni who do not know you well seldom mean anything to an admissions committee and may even work against you.
The Hour: Is it OK to take a year off between high school and college or does that hurt you?
Cohen: Ultimately, life is what ones makes of it, and if the student chooses a path other than college immediately upon high school graduation, they can still be successful. If a student is attending college against his or her will, they will likely not benefit from the experience. If they simply aren’t ready for college at the end of high school and would benefit from a year off, they should find something to do that is both challenging and worthwhile. Taking a “Gap Year” can improve a student’s chances of admission if she or she plans to reapply the following fall. Being productive during their time away from school will help them remain an attractive applicant in the eyes of the admissions committee when they are ready to apply.
That said, there are thousands of colleges in the US, some offering flexible degree programs, creative majors, and even independent study where students can design their own programs. Chances are with the right research and guidance, a student will find several schools where he or she can be happy and successful.
The Hour: Can you name three mid to upper level schools that fly under the average radar but are sure to get you a quality job upon graduation?
Cohen: When researching a college, it is important for students to take into consideration each school’s career services and alumni networks – this is a lifelong decision, not just four years. While most schools cannot guarantee a job upon graduation, students who have made the most of the opportunities available to them will usually be most successful. There are many non-Ivy League schools where students earn high salaries upon graduation, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Loma Linda University and Harvey Mudd College; make sure to cast a wide net and keep an open mind about potential schools. Ultimately, employers are most concerned about who you are and what you have accomplished.