If I could only give every family one piece of advice about college admissions and the college application process it would be this: Dare to be different.
Be different from the beginning.
Don't wait like so many other people until the summer after junior year - or even worse, the fall of senior year - to begin this process. Starting early will alleviate much of the stress that you might be witnessing in seniors who are crunching to create lists, visit schools, write essays and complete applications.
Be different in how you prepare your college list.
Don't assume a college is a great fit until you've done your due diligence. Stretch yourself to consider colleges beyond the "usual suspects." Colleges read all the applications from each high school together. That means they are comparing students from the same high school with the same measuring stick. The understanding is that you've all had the same opportunity to take the same classes over your high school career. If hundreds of students are applying to a college from your high school and the rigor of your coursework and your test scores don't measure up to the competition, it's obviously going to be more challenging to be accepted. However, if you are one of a handful of students applying to a certain college, your credentials will still be compared, but your leadership or special talents may carry more weight.
Be different in the activities you choose.
Don't join the Spanish Club if the only reason you want be there is to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. Follow your interests, not your friends. Find something, almost anything, that matters to you; something you care about. It could be tutoring, the environment, Boy Scouts, dance, writing a blog, starting your own business, etc., but participate for the right reasons. Your activities should tell a story about who you are and what you care about. Make them meaningful.
Be different in what you choose to write about.
Your essay is your best opportunity to set yourself apart in the application. It is the one area where you maintain total control. It can be a powerful tool, so use it wisely. Don't write what you think college admissions people want to read; write what you want them to know about you. Brainstorming your essay topic is a soul-searching process. Stay away from cliche topics that anyone could write, and identify something that is uniquely you.
Lee Shulman Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. Visit her website College Admissions Strategies.
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