By PETER VAN BUSKIRK
Students who are beginning the college admission process are often unaware of the subtleties that can influence final outcomes. And at selective institutions in the U.S., the little things do, in fact, make a big difference.
Consumed with the obvious — grades, scores and resumes — students sometimes skip over seemingly insignificant details in the presentation of their credentials. This can be their undoing in a tight competition. Don’t let it happen to you.
Focusing on the most visible and, presumably, most consequential aspects of your credentials is understandable. After all, academic performance is what will put you on the “competitive playing fields” at your colleges of choice. Why not, then, strive to achieve at the highest levels possible? Surely, doing things “more and better” will put you over the top in the admission process, right?
In my work as a college-admission consultant, I often hear questions from students about this: “Should I take a sixth AP class? Getting A’s in all of them will surely make the difference — won’t it?” Or, “It can’t hurt to push my SAT superscore from 2100 to 2200, right?” Even with superior academic achievements in hand, many students seem to think that no effort should be spared in burnishing their credentials.
As a college applicant, though, the accumulation of superior credentials will not be sufficient at highly selective institutions if you are not attentive to the seemingly insignificant aspects of your application. The following are details that, if overlooked, can derail even the best of applications as admission officers seek to make fine distinctions between great candidates:
• Application preparation. Admission officers want to see whether your application reveals a clear image of someone worthy of admission. So, will you be content to complete the requirements and hit the “send” button — in which case your credentials will appear as a random, shapeless collection of data? Or will you be purposeful in using each part of your application to “connect the dots” in telling your story?
• Essay development. The number of essays you need to write will grow with the number of colleges to which you apply. As the fatigue factor sets in, beware of the tendency to cut corners and settle for “good enough.” Do you really want “good enough” to represent you in this high-stakes process? Or will you do what it takes to make a good essay great?
• Letters of recommendation. The people who write on your behalf really can make a difference in your candidacy — if you let them! Too often students are content to hand off recommendation forms to willing teachers with little more than a quick “thanks.” It would be worth the investment of 30-45 minutes of your time to meet with those teachers to make sure they understand your plans for college, the rationale behind the colleges you have chosen and the key messages you hope to convey in your application. While you’re at it, remind them of those “aha” moments you experienced in their classrooms. In doing so, you put them in a better position to help you.
• Senior (12th) year academic performance. Selective colleges are watching to see what you will do in the classroom when you don’t think you have to do anything. It will be at precisely that time when you don’t think anyone is watching that admission officers will make their decisions. What will your actions tell them about your commitment to learning?
• Relationship building. Get — and stay — on the radar screens of the international recruiters from the colleges to which you are applying. They are likely to be the first to review your application — and the last to have an opportunity to defend it.
Engage them in a meaningful manner. Respond to their emails and surveys. Contact them if you have thoughtful questions. Don’t give them reason to question the sincerity of your interest in attending their school. Admission officers tend to regard applicants who seemingly materialize out of thin air as “ghost applicants” and place them on the Wait List — or worse.
• Interview opportunities. There is no such thing as a meaningless interview. If a college offers an interview with a member of its admission staff, take it! This person is a decision-maker who can become an advocate for you in the admission committee. If a college offers an interview with a local alumnus, take it! While this person is not a decision-maker, it is the fact that the meeting has taken place — not the substance of the interview — that can make a difference for your application.
As you go through each step in the application process, your attentiveness to the little things will make the biggest difference with regard to how you are regarded as a candidate. Don’t let anything slide. Be thoughtful in your engagement and purposeful with your preparation. Don’t give those reviewing your credentials a reason to say “no.”
ASK THE ADMISSIONS EXPERT
Q: An international student completes grade 9 at a Chinese school, then leaves the school with one month to go in grade 10 to attend school in the United States. She then repeats grade 10 before continuing through grades 11 and 12 in the U.S. Will that affect admission to selective U.S. schools? She will declare all education but will not have a final transcript for grade 10 from China, only from her schooling in the U.S. — June H., Beijing, China
PETER VAN BUSKIRK: The decision to repeat grade 10 when coming directly into an English-speaking learning environment from China makes sense as it enables the student to acclimate and further develop her language skills. It will also be respected by selective U.S. institutions as evidence that the student is committed to a strong college preparation. This assumes, of course, that English was not the language of instruction for her in China.
While admission to any given selective institution can never be assured, the student is likely to bolster her credentials with enhanced language skills. This will give her a better chance for admission than she would have without the repeated year.
Q: I would like to know your opinion on community volunteer service. How important is it? — Malik A., Lahore, Pakistan
A: Much like other extracurricular activities, community service can be an important element of a student’s application if it is something that is pursued thoughtfully and enthusiastically. Participation in compulsory service is not going to be very impressive. It’s important that you invest in the activities and interests that you enjoy most. The authenticity and sincerity of that involvement will make the greatest difference in your application.
Q: Is there a preference at selective institutions for either the AP or the IB program? — Rita R., Florence, Italy
A: While they vary with regard to content and style of delivery, the International Baccalaureate (IB) and Advanced Placement (AP) programs are universally regarded among the premier curricula for secondary education in the world. You can’t go wrong with either. The AP program is geared toward preparing students to demonstrate mastery on an AP test, while the IB curriculum teaches students how to think critically as they master related content. As a result, the latter typically involves more writing and resembles college liberal-arts programs.
The bottom line is that students need to make curricular choices that make sense to them, do as well as possible in those courses and then select colleges that will value them for those efforts as well what they have to offer.
Do you have questions about getting into U.S. colleges and universities? Send them to Peter Van Buskirk at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Peter Van Buskirk, former dean of admission at Franklin & Marshall College, is author of “Winning the College Admission Game” and “Prepare, Compete, Win! The Ultimate College Planning Workbook.” For more tips on the college admission process, visit his website: www.bestcollegefit.com.)