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The Right Move

Everyone knows students have to compete for admission to selective colleges today. More high school seniors are applying to more schools, more international students want U.S. educations, yet the number of seats available at top colleges and universities has barely budged.

But where college websites tend to make the process appear straightforward (fill out the application, submit a transcript, supply one recommendation), the reality is a little more complicated. Selective colleges no long admit most of the qualified applicants. In fact, they regularly boast of turning down valedictorians with near-perfect test scores. Students can’t assume they will earn admission to a highly selective school just because they “deserve” to. For most applicants today, the process of gaining admission to a best-fit college requires developing a great story and putting together a strategy to communicate with each college effectively.

First, let’s be clear about what strategy can’t do. No amount of re-branding or packaging as a senior will make up for what you didn’t do in the last three or four years. So sophomores and juniors, this is your chance: Develop your intellectual capabilities now. Sit in the front row, do all your homework, speak up, go the extra mile on that research paper. And be sure to find and pursue interests outside the classroom. Dedicate yourself to something, think outside the box, take on increasing responsibility. Learn how to persevere, tough it out. The more strengths and accomplishments a student has to work with when it comes time to apply to college, the more strategic options he or she will have.

Second, colleges can only select from among those who choose to apply. A student’s chances of admission will vary depending on who else is in the applicant pool. After all, it’s easier to look fabulous if everyone else is only average. And don’t fall for the old Groucho Marx line, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.” Which students are offered the best research and internship opportunities, profiled in the alumni newsletter, recommended for prizes, fellowships, and grad school? The students who stand out. Applicants with GPAs and test scores in the top 25% of the applicant pool have a much better chance of admission, merit aid, and access to the college’s resources.

Every college hopes to attract strong students, but every college has other institutional priorities as well. Careful research can suggest characteristics that might make a student more attractive to a school on his or her list. If most of the applicant pool is local students, geography will help. If the college is a perennial safety school, apply Early Decision. If there are more female applicants, be male (okay, you can't really change that, but you get the idea!) Your essays, interviews, and letters of recommendation all serve to craft your story. Strategy is all about choosing colleges that will appreciate what you have to offer, and then effectively positioning yourself to be noticed.

Competition for admission is a reality these days, and formulating strategy is just part of a process that can seem like a game. But students who just try to tally up where they can “get in” have missed the point. True “winning” means admission to a college where the student will thrive academically and socially, from which he or she will graduate in four years with a productive future in sight.

If you need some guidance in developing your story, click “Contact Me” at the bottom of the page, or call me at 847-660-8625.

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