I've been helping students and families navigate the college admissions process for a long time now, and there are some basic fundamental truths. I'm calling them my 10 commandments of the college admissions process. I'm sharing 1-5 this week and 6-10 next week.
1. Thou shalt know thyself. For this process to really work, students need to have a better understanding of their wants, their likes and, very importantly, their dislikes. This isn't just about academics. In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 80 percent of students in the United States end up changing their major at least once. On average, college students change their major at least three times over the course of their college career, so knowing thyself is more than identifying a major from a long list of options.
And knowing thyself should go beyond whether the school is dominated by Greek life and has a rah-rah sports vibe. Students should be thinking about their learning styles, accessibility to professors, specialized co-op/internship programs and study-abroad opportunities. They should also be thinking about the size of the town, climate, access to cultural events, distance from home and ease of getting to campus. Take a college major and career assessment as well as a college personality quiz. They will help frame your college list.
2. Thou shalt not fall prey to stereotypes. College rankings aren't very meaningful if you're at the bottom of your class at the most prestigious university. A student with a strong GPA and some internship/work experience will always be the preferred hire over a student who didn't perform well at a more name-brand institution.
3. Thou shalt not fail to visit colleges. It's important for a student to "trod the sod" and get on campus to check out the kids, the college town, the dorms, the food and, most importantly, the "vibe." Does your student feel like this is a place where he or she can thrive? I ask students to provide me with specifics about why each school is a good academic fit and a good social fit for them, or why it isn't a good fit for them.
4. Thou shalt not fail to perform to the best of your abilities. Colleges are more likely to accept and admire a student who worked hard in challenging classes but didn't necessarily receive straight A's. Colleges are generally less likely to accept students who have strong test scores but a weaker GPA.
5. Thou shalt be active in your community. Colleges definitely want to know that a student has made a contribution to his or her school and community. The activity list on applications is asking students to share where they've spent their time during high school. And it asks for specifics: how many hours per week and how many weeks per year. The earlier you start keeping track of your club activities, what you're doing in the summer and outside of school, the better off you'll be when it comes time to complete the college applications.
(Next week: commandments 6-10)
Lee Shulman Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. Visit her website College Admissions Strategies.
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