A winning college application tells a story right – this is who I am, and this is what I contribute to your school. As a college counselor, your challenge is to help your student choose the best story and tell their story in the most compelling way. Like a good editor you help them bring their story into focus.
Highly competitive colleges review a mind-boggling mountain of applications. 61,200 hopefuls applied to Harvard in 2022. The admissions officer might spend a few minutes reviewing your student’s application. In that time they need to see the whole human being behind the application, and understand the value they offer to their campus community.
We’d like to share the best tips we hear from admissions officers on how college counselors can help students find their fit, tell their story, and get in.
Identify Your Student’s Core Values
What are the values that motivate your student? How do their activities and achievements express those values? This is the story their application should tell. The life of a high school student is complicated and messy. A college counselor brings shape to the student’s story, and context to their accomplishments.
Not many teenagers will simply spell out who they are and what they stand for. So be curious, ask questions, and open them up. Who are their heroes? What are their favorite books and movies? Where do they imagine themselves in ten years? Be an engaged listener, connect the dots, and a picture starts to emerge.
Some examples of core values include:
- Community involvement
- Creative expression
- Career achievement
- Spiritual life
- Intellectual exploration
- Family connection
- Travel and exploration
- Social engagement
Defining a student’s core values also helps build their list of target schools. Measuring a school based on how well they support the student’s story will serve them far better than obsessing over rankings.
Embrace the Pointy
It’s a myth that colleges ONLY seek well-rounded students. A thriving campus culture is built on a diversity of students with different points of view. Beyond the classroom, students educate and inspire each other. This is what makes college a transformative experience. Admissions officers build a well-rounded class with “pointy” students.
Throngs of science-fair champs apply to MIT. But maybe your student designed a modular synthesizer for their band. The MIT Media Lab might be interested. Yale has plenty of debate-club presidents to choose from. But your student started a neighborhood community garden. That could be the seed of a memorable essay. And maybe reach out to the Yale Sustainable Food Program.
Top-tier schools are inundated with qualified applicants. But admissions officers will tell you, those applications start blurring together. Don’t try to check every box. Students who stand out get noticed, and get in.
Face Fears Head On
Students and parents usually arrive at college counseling meetings with some baggage. Try to unpack it right from the get-go.
- If parents believe they can only afford a public college, explore scholarships and grants. They may be surprised to see Princeton and Harvard topping the list of most-generous financial aid programs.
- If a student is a first-generation college applicant, connect them with another first-gen from their school who made the leap. Foster a going-to-college mindset.
- If the student is terrified of testing, share success stories of students who boosted their scores with test prep programs. And remind them that 80% of schools are now ACT/SAT-optional.
Understanding those hopes and fears will help you build an effective, personalized college counseling curriculum.
Don’t Underestimate Letters of Recommendation
Counselors and teachers add context to a student’s story through letters of recommendation. The letters should be personal and specific. Ask students which teachers inspire them. Encourage them to ask about letters of recommendation early in the process. Admissions officers can distinguish an obligatory recommendation from a whole-hearted one based on real academic connection.
Show Demonstrated Interest
The application process is about building a relationship between the student and the admissions department. Your student should take every opportunity to demonstrate they intend to attend if admitted. Let’s say your student is ready to commit to Columbia. Encourage them to apply early-decision. Columbia’s early acceptance rate is 15.1% compared to 5.1% for regular admissions. Make sure they tour the campus, attend info sessions, and get in contact with professors in their field of study.
Admissions departments track demonstrated interest. Some even track which students open their marketing emails. Admissions officers are more likely to advocate for students they know are serious about attending.
Get Organized with Deadlines and Deliverables
The admissions process is a long and complex journey. Start early, and get organized. Craft a plan with your student with measurable goals. Make a calendar with big, obvious deadlines. Keep files and paperwork meticulously organized.
When submitting electronically, keep confirmation codes and log-in info organized for future reference. All your efforts amount to nothing if the right documents don’t get to the right people, right on time.
As a college counselor, you provide your student-client with guidance, resources, structure, and encouragement. But always make sure your student takes the most active role in writing their next chapter. This is their opportunity to practice self-reflection, networking, resourcefulness, and self-expression. While the story may not unfold exactly as planned, they will build skills to succeed in college and beyond.