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Acing the College Admissions Process


By Anna Bentley

It’s a topic on the minds of many high-school students and their parents: college admissions. With an ever-growing number of prospective college students—and an average of seven to 10 applications per student—colleges are seeing more competition than ever before. So, how do students stand out in the sea of applicants? According to some of metro Atlanta’s college and admissions counselors, the strongest applications are ones that show a pattern of success—and a little personality.

Going Above and Beyond

The most important aspect of a student’s application is his or her academic record. Strong academic performance is important, as well as the relative rigor of the class load. Admissions officers value strong grades, but they also consider classes taken in the context of classes offered at particular schools.

“At UGA we take a whole-student approach to our application review—meaning not only do we look at a students’ academic credentials, but we also review their extracurricular involvement, ultimately asking the question—how did they impact their community?” says Amanda Sale, senior associate director for undergraduate admissions at the University of Georgia. “To understand how we review students, it’s helpful to start with the end-goal: we want to admit students who are going to contribute and positively impact UGA both in the classroom and in our community. As a result, we keep that in mind when we’re reviewing applications and making admissions decisions.”

However, each student’s grades and the types of classes he or she took remain important factors in his or her application. “We want to make sure students are academically prepared and will contribute in the classroom,” Sale says. “AP/IB and dual enrollment courses offer great preparation for students while they’re in high school.”

Does it matter how many extracurricular activities a student participates in, or how many internships he’s completed by graduation? Not necessarily. For admissions counselors, the most important thing is the level of effort. Students stand out by making an impact—not just participating—in their activities, no matter how many they choose.

To show further initiative, Juan Acosta, associate director of college counseling at northwest Atlanta’s The Westminster Schools, encourages his students to get involved in activities related to their interests and communicate that in their applications. “I think it’s important to do things that they like because ultimately that can help them get into a school they want,” he says. “But ultimately, they should be able to find that level of interest in things that will keep them engaged, not just now, in high school, but in college.”

Authenticity Matters

“I think the most important thing is for students to honestly be themselves, to be authentic and to be honest,” says Jessica Jaret Sant, chief engagement officer at The Lovett School, an independent K–12 school in northwest Atlanta. “Kids often write about or do what they think an admissions person wants to see or hear instead of whatever it is that they really care about. We hear questions all the time about, ‘How much community service do I need?’ or, ‘What do you think an admissions counselor wants to hear in my essay?’ when the reality is the most refreshing students in those pools are the ones who are just comfortable enough to be who they are.”

Before joining Lovett, Sant was an admissions counselor at Emory University and the University of Georgia. She recalls students that spoke in an authentic voice and presented themselves as they were—successes, failures and all—were some of the most memorable candidates.

The Written Element

When it comes to completing essays, the advice for students is clear: Answer the question asked. Use your own voice and writing style. And check for typos and mistakes before submitting—better yet, have someone else review it, too. While students should thoughtfully consider the question asked, they should be careful not to overthink it, too.
Regarding the college-specific essays, Acosta says students should do their research on each school, adding, “Those college specific questions are the (colleges’) most important piece to find a match for them.”

Essays are also a great chance for students to show a side of themselves not represented in other parts of their application. Sant recommends that students take this opportunity to let the reader learn more about their personality, their values and who they are as an individual.

For letters of recommendation, Sant recommend seeking teachers from the student’s junior or senior year, and preferably one humanities teacher and one math/ science teacher. And while students might be tempted to choose teachers who saw them at their best, Sant recommends considering teachers of classes students have struggled in instead.

“When I was reading applications, the best letters of recommendation that I read were from teachers who actually observed the student struggle and overcome,” she says. “It’s those teachers who can speak to that student’s ability to overcome adversity the best.”

Ultimately, the application that stands out is the one that is organized, conveys a sense of personality and shows a history of academic performance and initiative.

“I would recommend students think about their application as kind of like an interview on paper,” Sale says. “We don’t have an opportunity to talk with you in person and, as a result, we’re using that application as the opportunity to get to know you both academically and within your community. As you pull together your application, be authentic and tell us about you.”

What Parents Can Do To Help

Here are some ways you can help nudge your child in the right direction:

  • Check in with your child’s college counseling department or guidance counselor to ask about his or her progress.
  • Encourage your child to polish his or her resume by pursuing community service, like a church mission trip to another country.
  • Likewise, help your child choose extracurricular activities that complement each other
    and illustrate personal growth and commitment.

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