Monday, August 2, 2010
Simplify the college selection process
BY GERALD M. BRADSHAW
Bradshaw College Consulting
Dear Mr. Bradshaw -- I plan to apply to several top colleges this fall and want to design a plan that will keep me on track.
At the suggestion of my guidance counselor, I have started to write my personal statement. But there are so many unknowns, I don't know how to start planning.
My fall schedule is filled with so many school activities that I am worried I won't have time get everything right. Can you tell me the best way to start? -- Overwhelmed
Dear Overwhelmed -- There are many misconceptions concerning the application process to a top college or university. If you apply, it is important to simplify the process beforehand and be as down to earth as possible in your analysis. That will help ease your anxiety.
First, dump any preconceptions you have about life at a top college. Start with an open mind. Vague ideas about privilege, dreaming of gothic spires and crewing on the Charles River are inspirational, but peripheral to your overall goal of getting a good education.
What will get you into Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania or Notre Dame are demonstrated intelligence, the ability to perform under pressure, and -- at least as important as either of the above -- careful planning. You will need a precise understanding of what courses you want to study and why.
First, there must be good reasons for applying to a top school. You have researched several and have decided an elite college or university is the place you will do your best.
Clearly, you like the idea of a highly competitive student body. You have discovered that students at top colleges learn quickly, have a very low dropout rate and enjoy conditions conducive to outstanding academic performance.
Next, you are likely to graduate at least in the top 5 percent of your class, although this does not mean a solid set of A's. If you have an uneven record in your freshman year, but are on target in the second and third years, prepare a brief explanation in your personal statement.
SAT and ACT scores are the only criteria that are universally standardized, so they carry a lot of weight. A good score on the SAT is at least 650 (out of a possible 800) in each category of the test. The magic number is over 700, but admissions committees point out that students with perfect scores routinely are turned down, and students with lower test scores routinely are admitted.
If there is any doubt about your scores, take the test again in October. If you already have taken it, use Score Choice to send in the highest scores. So it doesn't matter how many times you take it. (Caveat: Without taking a test prep class, it is unlikely you will improve you scores an appreciable amount.)
You must realize that entry to an elite school is very competitive and that each year, excellent candidates fail to get in. You have to face this fact and know that should you not get admitted, there are other excellent universities where you would be happy. In any case, be sure to have a backup school.
Once you have considered all the above and are still set on applying to the very best, then you can focus on the admissions process.
One reason certain high schools get so many students admitted to elite colleges is, they expect their students to prepare early, starting well before the end of their junior years. Many students take the SAT as sophomores to establish benchmark scores.
Many high schools expect students to have the application process well under way before the end of summer of their junior years. By then, applications should be finished in draft form. This helps assure that early application deadlines will be met.
You do not need a counselor to hold your hand. Do not let others do your thinking. On the other hand, this is an area where parents are justifiably strict in making sure their son or daughter stays on schedule.
Know what you're getting into. If you don't have copies of university prospectuses, go online or order them from the admissions office. Also, ask colleges for a copy of alternative prospectuses or class supplemental material in your major.
University catalogues are filled with classes and course descriptions that may not be offered when you get there. Look at the main catalogue and compare offerings to the supplemental materials.
Finally, it is time to compare schools. Which one is best? Only you can make that call. If you have done your research, trust your judgment.