Issue 1 » Gaming Your Teen’s College Applications:

Unconventional Advice from an Unconventional Mom

As college search season becomes ever-longer and the quest for the right fit for your student ramps up, you have
no doubt absorbed all the conventional wisdom. There’s nothing wrong with that, but not every teen fits a preconceived application form and sometimes following the pack is not the only route to a great school. Here’s a bit of unconventional wisdom from a college professor and mother of three.

  • Uncommon Apps: Beware of over-reliance on the Common Application. Yes, hundreds of colleges use it, but an increasing number are asking for additional statements and sidebars. It’s important not to gloss over those. A statement carefully crafted for the 8-12 colleges on your student’s list can only cover so much ground. These additional questions, while annoying, are a great opportunity to customize the application, and to align the student with a particular college. Admissions committees read these questions closely, which makes sense, since they are unique to their school.
  • Reframe and Repackage: Become an expert question reader. Make sure your student understands it. Regard each question as an opportunity to provide a different slant or to accentuate something that didn’t make an earlier cut. The word length limits on most applications are severe. All the more reason to make each sentence count. Never repeat a fact, and edit down wordy sentences to squeeze in more narrative and personality.
  • Focus forward: Students often think of applications as expanded resumes – a record of what they have already accomplished. If your student seems short on accomplishments, one technique is to describe where he or she wants to be in five years. How does the student’s preparation connect with the college’s offerings and the student’s ultimate goal? This can be extraordinarily effective if there is a solid foundation on which to build. A student who took band every year, has applied to the music department and one day hopes to become a music teacher can draw a clear line between past, present, and future. Go further, and encourage your student to name particular professors or courses he or she would like to take. Mention any special program – and most colleges have dozens — that’s a clear link to a career goal. Colleges increasingly expect applications to spend time on their websites.
  • Go deep. It’s a truism, but worth reiterating: far better to focus on fewer activities, show a deeper level of proficiency and just a few impressive accomplishments. A figure skater who made it to the nationals and has been at the rink 4 days a week for 8 years is more impressive than someone who changed sports each year and has few competencies to show for it.
  • Stop, Collaborate and Listen! While it’s true that an application should showcase the student as an individual, today’s employers are keenly interested in teams, and word has trickled down to colleges and universities. Does your child excel as a team player? Has he or she had experience on academic or science teams? It is worth spending considerable time honing an answer and giving an example. Provide context by explaining how the team was set up and it’s various roles, but sacrifice space, if necessary, to state in very specific terms what valuable lessons were learned through collaboration.
  • Make the Connections for the Reader: Believe it or not, your student’s accomplishments might not be instantly apparent to the cranky admissions officer who’s on his 34th app of the day. Consider using a “closer phrase” that provides context for each activity as frequently as possible. Don’t write “I played piano at an old folks’ home,” and just leave it there. Add a sentence that will paint a picture, pull heartstrings, and make the task meaningful. “When I stuck with this every Sunday afternoon and began to develop a rapport with the regulars, I gained insight and connections to a community I would not otherwise have known.” Extrapolate from the specific to the general. Don’t write: “Competed for three years on the soccer team and served as co-captain,” without adding: “The hours of daily practice not only taught me playing skills, but gave me far more valuable time management skills which will be directly applicable to college.”

While none of these tips and tricks is a slam dunk, taken as a whole they are useful as a means of encouraging
a fresh look at the tired old college applications. Anything your student can do to look innovative and fresh is sure to catch a tired admissions officer’s eye somewhere.

Mary Thompson-Jones is a professor at Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies and faculty director of the master’s program in Global Studies and International Relations. Her book, To the Secretary: Leaked Embassy Cable and America’s Foreign Policy Disconnect, was published in July, 2016 by W.W. Norton.

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