September 30, 2019

“... more than 1,000 colleges are test-optional, which evaluates students without their test scores taken into consideration.”

Do colleges really want an epic personal essay about overcoming hardship or do they just want to get to know the student better?

Between a flurry of college visits, wordsmithing a flawless essay, sweating out the SAT, partaking in extracurricular activities, volunteering at a homeless center, and keeping up grades, finding the energy to apply to colleges can be tough for both teens and parents. So where does one begin the process?

Choosing the Right School

“I think one of the most important things a student can do is to evaluate what they are looking for in a college,” says Mary L. Simon, department chair of counseling and student services with Benjamin Franklin High School. “Taking time to do an honest and thoughtful self-evaluation prior to applying will really help them to identify colleges that are the best fit for them.”

Above all else, students should seek out an institution that focuses on providing them the best possible opportunities to grow intellectually, personally, and professionally. 

If your student is set on attending an ivy league school, consider this: Last year, Harvard received 37,305 applications, but only offered spots to 1,990 students — a mere 5 percent.

Application Process

“Start early, include your parents, tour colleges when possible, and seek the assistance of high school college counselors and college admissions representatives,” says Sam Wagner, director of college counseling at Lusher Charter School.

He agrees with Simon: “Don't procrastinate. This is a stressful process, but putting it off is going to make things even more difficult. Set time aside each week to work on your college applications, supplement questions, and your personal statement.”

Admission offices receive a huge number of applications on the actual deadline day, making it harder for your child to stand out. Aside from showing a genuine interest, the best thing a teen can do is complete the admissions requirements within the school’s stated deadlines.

Additionally, often admission officers come across students with an email address like [email protected] Students should avoid this by using a no-nonsense email address. Also, encourage your teen to clean up his or her Facebook and Twitter accounts. Some colleges often check these to get a better sense of what each applicant is like.

“We use the application to allow us to get to know you,” says Kate Massey, senior associate director of admissions at Loyola University. “Throughout the application, show us your passion and let it come across in your writing.”

One helpful tool is the Common Application, which helps students with the application process. Instead of filling out a single application for each college, it enables a student to apply to multiple institutions. It is accepted by nearly 900 schools, including some colleges located outside the U.S. Students only have to fill out the basic details one time.

“I have been a college counselor for 17 years now and Common App has been the go-to application for most colleges,” Simon says.

Dream Schools and Fallback Schools

“One of the biggest issues I see is students applying to a lot of dream schools and maybe one safety school,” Simon says. “They should be applying to mostly target schools, which are colleges in their range.” 

For those with limited time and money, applying to multiple colleges might be a hardship. Application fees can range from $50–$100 and take about two to five hours to complete. This may not be an efficient strategy for your already over-scheduled high school senior.

Some experts suggest that students apply to six colleges: two dream schools, two schools where the student has a 50/50 chance of getting in, and two fallback colleges.

Federal Student Aid

Tuition and fees vary from college to college, however, the average costs for the 2018–2019 school year was $35,676 at private colleges; $9,716 for state residents at public colleges; and $21,629 for out-of-state students at state schools, according to data reported to U.S. News in an annual survey.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a form completed by current and prospective college students to determine their eligibility for student financial aid from the government. The FAFSA website opened Oct. 1. Simon suggests if you haven’t already created an account, do it now. 

“Gather all of the documents you need to complete your FAFSA,”she says. “This includes social security numbers, driver's license, federal tax return, and proof of any additional forms of income. The Louisiana Education Loan Authority is a helpful organization that provides free assistance with applying for financial aid.” 

Scholastic Aptitude Test & American College Test (ACT)

The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) is a standardized test meant to show schools how prepared your teen is for college by measuring key skills like reading comprehension, computational ability, and clarity of expression. It also provides schools with data about how your teen compares to their peers nationwide.

It’s one of two standardized college admissions tests in the U.S. The other, the American College Test (ACT), covers skills learned in school: English, math, social studies, and natural sciences. 

SAT scores can range from 400–1600 and follows a normal distribution — student performance tends to cluster around the middle. A score of 1070 is about average,but a score of 1350 puts the student in the top 9th percentile, making it a strong score.

A good ACT score depends on the college or university. A score of 23 is above the current national average and will make a student a strong applicant at many universities, but it may fall below the average score for accepted students at more selective colleges.

“However, most colleges these days are looking at students holistically,” Simon says. “They review transcripts. They take into consideration community service, extracurricular activities, and leadership.” 

More than 1,000 colleges are test-optional, which evaluates students without their test scores taken into consideration. This information can be found at the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, It works to end the flaws of standardized testing and to ensure that the evaluation of students is fair, open, valid, and educationally beneficial.

Knowledge is Power: Web Resources for the College Application Process

State Resources
Louisiana Department of Education
The Louisiana Education Loan Authority

College Stats
U.S. News Best Colleges

Federal Financial Aid

The National Center for Fair & Open Testing

College Planning
College Board

The Dreaded Personal Essay

The purpose of the essay is to help colleges fully understand the potential difference your teen can make in the class and how their background and experience will move the campus community forward. The overwhelming consensus from our experts is to have your child write about something he or she knows and has a passion for; they shouldn’t pick a topic that they think the admission people want to read about. 

“Write on a topic you know well,” Wagner says. “Seek to be authentic in your voice rather than trying to impress in content. And write multiple drafts.”

The myth might be that colleges really respond to essays about overcoming unfathomable hardships, but Massey says that’s not always the case.

“We also want to know about your happy and wonderful times,” she says. “Students should use their application essay as a chance to showcase their personalities.”

Best Advice from an Experienced Parent

It's important to make every effort to visit each school that your child is interested in. 

“Two recommendations: consider coordinating a vacation between the sophomore and junior year to include a college visit or two in addition to visiting colleges between junior and senior year,” says Mary Peyton, mother of 18-year-old Elliot Peyton, a senior at St. Martin’s Episcopal School.

Not only will you get a feel for campus life, but you'll be expressing your interest in the school as well as have an opportunity to ask important questions. Take notes of your visits as it's the only way that your teen know if a school is right for them.

“So far, the best advice I’ve gotten is to attend the college seminars at my son’s school,” Peyton says. “The college counselors have great handouts explaining the college application and financial aid processes and are always able to answer questions.” 

Pamela Marquis has lived in New Orleans for more than 40 years. She is a freelance writer and holds a master's in social work from the University of Missouri.

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