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11.08.09

Top 10 College Admissions Tips

As early applications come due this week, Kathleen Kingsbury asks admissions officers: What advice would you give prospective students that they’ve probably never heard before?

For the incoming Class of 2014, the news just keeps getting grimmer.

According to U.S. Census figures released by the Pew Research Center last week, more kids than ever are clamoring to get through the doors of America’s colleges. About 11.5 million young adults—or nearly 40 percent of the nation’s 18 to 24 year olds—were enrolled in two- or four-year colleges as of October 2008 (the latest data available). Not surprisingly, these all-time highs, combined with the recession, have led some public schools, such as the bellwether Cal State system, to cap enrollments.

In addition to this, girls might face an even steeper uphill battle to be admitted to their first-choice school. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has launched a formal investigation into whether or not “liberal arts colleges discriminate among female applicants in an attempt to minimize gender imbalances in the student body,” according to an article posted this week on Inside Higher Ed.

What’s more, paying for college is tougher than ever, as tuitions push the boundaries of plausibility. In its annual report, the nonprofit College Board estimated that tuition and fees for the 2009-10 school year at a private, four-year university now average $26,273, a 4.4 percent increase from last year. Throw in room and board and you're up to $35,636. Public schools are a better deal, of course, but that price tag is growing even faster—up 6 percent or more. Again, not surprisingly, financial-aid applications also hit a record high last year at many schools.

But here’s the good news: Smart applicants have more, better choices than ever. If they know where—and how—to look. So, with most early applications due this week, The Daily Beast went to the source. We asked dozens of college admissions officers across the country to go beyond the conventional wisdom and give their best tips for how to choose a college--and then get in.

1. Time the Mailing of Your Application Carefully
“Apply as early as possible. We read applications as soon as they come into our office. But we receive a huge number of applications on the actual deadline day, which can be overwhelming to us. It is detrimental to students, too. It really shows up in sloppy essays and writing samples and reporting on extracurricular activities. [Plus] with kids applying to more and more schools, it has gotten harder and harder for us to determine for what students Georgia Tech is their first choice. So applying earlier is one way to distinguish yourself. We think, ‘Wow, this kid applied early. They must really want to come.’” -- Rick Clark, director of admissions, Georgia Tech

2. Use the “Pajama Test”
“Choose a school that takes you out of your comfort zone. Eleanor Roosevelt has a great quote: ‘Do something every day that scares you.’ [But] we have a tour guide who also asks a great question: ‘What is a school's P factor? You know, ‘pajama factor’— can I get up in the morning, leave my pajama bottoms on and throw on a sweatshirt.’ It's her way of saying find a school where you will be able to be yourself.” -- Jenny Sawyer, executive director of admissions, University of Louisville

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3. Keep Cs Off Your Transcript at Any Cost
“Admission officers talk about the importance of rigor in a student's high-school program. When students ask, should I take an AP course and get a lower grade or take a lower level course and get an A, the cliché answer is: Students should take the AP course and get an A. Not very helpful! What we should be talking about is appropriate rigor. That is, if the student can take the AP course and get an A or B, then that's appropriate. If the student will get a C or lower, then she should reconsider. Grades of Cs ‘pop’ on a transcript to selective colleges since we don't see them often. That doesn't mean that one C on a transcript will mean a student won't get into college. What is does mean is that students shouldn't over-challenge themselves.” -- Debra Shaver, director of admission, Smith College

4. Visit the Campus—the School is Checking
“Visit campus. We take note of your visit and it's the only way that you'll know if a school is right for you.” -- Julie Shimabukuro, director of undergraduate admissions, Washington University, St. Louis

5. Don’t Use the Economy as a Barometer
“The economy continues to have an impact on admission applications and decisions. Last year was certainly a little different in that many schools that would not normally go to their waitlists had to do so. But students and parents should not assume that this will happen again this year. It may play out the same, or because of the economy students may be more discerning regarding the number of schools they apply to.” -- Terry Knaus, senior associate director of admissions, Indiana University, Bloomington

6. Have a Stranger Critique Your Essay
“Give your personal statement to a counselor or teacher who does not know you for critique. If you are writing about what makes you unique, special or interesting, ask your oldest and closest friends. They may be able to describe what makes you special better than you can.” -- Mae Brown, assistant vice chancellor of admissions and registration services, University of California, San Diego

7. The “Perfect” Essay Is the Wrong Essay
“There are so many essays written about the winning goal, world peace, loving parents, reaching the top of the mountain, etc., that if you choose to write on one of these topics your essay must be perfect. It is important to think out of the box and really write about something that you know and have passion for—do not pick a topic that you think we want to read about. The purpose of the essay is to help the admissions committee fully understand the potential difference you can make in the class and how your background and experience will move the campus community forward.” -- Douglas Christiansen, vice provost for enrollment and dean of admissions, Vanderbilt University

8. Make Sure the Teachers Show Up for Class
“The most important question to ask when considering an application or making an enrollment decision is this: What is the degree of attention paid by this school to the undergraduate educational experience? If superstar faculty members never cross the threshold of an undergraduate classroom, what will be the value to you? If research is valued more highly than quality teaching, and some faculty only do research or work with graduate students, what will be the value to you? You want to find a place where faculty are enthusiastic about teaching undergraduates, where they are accessible to students, and where they include them in their research. It takes some work to learn about the undergraduate teaching culture of a college, but it's important to find out. This college will be your home for four years, and you want to know that it is focused on providing you the best possible opportunities to grow both intellectually and personally.” -- John Mahoney, director of undergraduate admissions, Boston College

9. Don’t Put Too Much Stock in Brand Names
“Apply to colleges that you love, not because of their names or rankings or locations, but because they promote the learning and living culture that will challenge you, change you, delight you, and ultimately let you become yourself fully. The admissions decision is as much a journey of the head as it is the heart—let both organs speak to you and then translate what they say into your application.” -- Jennifer Delahunty, dean of admissions and financial aid, Kenyon College

10. Lower the Stakes
“Don’t forget what you do in college is much more important than where you go to college.” -- Philip A. Ballinger, director of undergraduate admissions, University of Washington, Seattle

Kathleen Kingsbury covers education for The Daily Beast. She also contributes to Time magazine, where she has covered business, health and education since 2005.