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Acing the College Admissions Process

Tips to help your child stand out from the crowd


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 of officers value strong grades, but they also consider classes taken in the context of classes offered at particular schools.

“We really want to focus on seeing that a student has challenged themselves and taken rigorous classes in highschool,” says Patrick Winter, senior associate director of admissions at the University of Georgia. “And the same goes for extracurricular activities” says Winter. “It doesn’t necessarily matter what they do as much as that they demonstrate that they’re doing something with their time, whether that’s volunteering, whether that’s working, whether that’s doing a service project. We want to see that someone recognizes the fact that they’re doing something above and beyond the minimum that is expected of them.”

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, Nancy Beane, college counselor at northwest Atlanta’s The Westminster Schools, encourages her students to get involved in activities related to their interests and communicate that in their applications. “If you’re interested in engineering or medicine, what have you done that might lend itself to that kind of major?” she says. “Have you done a robotics program if they have it at your school? Are you in the science bowl? What have you done that really speaks to that?”

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, director of college counseling 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 that the most refreshing students in those pools are the ones who are just comfortable enough to be who they are.”

Before joining The Lovett School, 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. “It doesn’t have to be something that’s earth-shattering,” says Beane. “Whatever means something to them is what they should write about.”

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, Beane and 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. Says Winter, “Usually the best predictor of future success is past success, and so when we see students that have been involved in things in high school that demonstrate interests beyond academics, that’s a good indicator that that’s a student who is going to be engaged with our campus.

“Every college wants students that are going to be successful academically, and that is always overwhelmingly the most important factor. When we have thousands of applicants that all predict to be successful students, we want to round out the class with students that are going to be leaders on campus, that are going to get involved in things and that are going to really make the most of their experiences here.”

What Parents Can Do to Help

Here are some ways you can help nudge your student 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 her resume by pursuing community service, like a church mission trip to another country.
  • Help your child choose extracurricular activities that complement each other and show personal growth and commitment.
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