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College Admissions: Between Applications and Acceptances

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Updated on Mar 6, 2009

You thought it would never be over. First came the big exams: SAT, AP, ACT. Then those College Essays with eighteen edits each, followed by the “common applications” that couldn’t seem more uncommon when splayed across your dining room table. But all the stuff is finally mailed. Now all you and your kid need to do is wring hands until April, right?

Well, in the old days, maybe. But, say college counselors, life has changed. America’s most competitive colleges have only become more so; both Yale and Harvard, for example, now admit less than 10% of applicants. While the overall college admission rate is much more encouraging—70% nationwide, according to the National Association of College Admission Counseling—more and more students are hedging their bets. In fall 2006, for example, a record 71% of college applicants had applied to three or more schools. At places like prestigious Wellesley High School, in Massachusetts, the number may be even higher: Guidance Department Chair Thomas Hughart reports that “we are averaging about 8 [schools] per senior, with the high end being in the mid twenties.”

What does all this competition mean for your high school senior waiting for admission? Here are three top tips from pros in the field:

  • Extra good news? Send it along. During the admissions process, colleges routinely check back with high school counselors, and you want those reports to be great. Hughart and his staff also encourage students to let colleges know about added successes, such as any awards, honors or reports. Such information reinforces a good application. However, Hughart does caution against extra notes from family, or anything which could be perceived as “useless chatter just to be noticed”— chances are that this will only backfire.
  • Keep talking about the right “fit.” Remember: your child will likely be admitted somewhere—and rejected somewhere else. “As students wait for decisions,” says Carl Peterson, counselor at Forest Hills Eastern High School in Ada, Michigan, “I remind them of what they already know: that some colleges admit only a small percentage of a group of very smart, qualified applicants. I stress fit, and that one’s college experience depends to a great extent on what the student invests in making it a positive experience.” As a parent, you can help by reinforcing this message with a supportive, upbeat tone.
  • Keep up the hard work. As Hughart says, “[Seniors] can’t slump. Colleges are accepting students with caveats: keep up the grades and activities until you graduate. They tell students they have rescinded acceptances for poor grades or poor choices.” Your kid’s safest bet, in other words, is to keep up the effort in school right until graduation.

So, do these sober warnings mean that senior year must be one long grind? Actually, many counselors consider the challenge a benefit for kids. “I am seeing seniors now,” says Hughart, “who are truly respecting the value and significance of that acceptance and who desire to live up to it…they still have fun, but appropriately so.” After all, college may be challenging, but it’s deeply rewarding and exciting as well. If that means letting go of some high school “senioritis,” most college graduates can attest: it’s a choice worth making.

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