Inside Tips for College Admissions

A parent and student 101 to landing a spot in next year's freshman class.

Getting into college is tougher than ever. The number of qualified applicants has hit new records at colleges and universities nationwide and with even more competition for a spot in the next freshman class, what exactly do you need to do to get in?

We asked the admissions leaders at Santa Clara University and California State University East Bay for some advice that you won't read on the school's website.

Everyone knows you should start with a solid GPA and good test scores. Every school posts a range for what they typically accept. But beyond that, students need to be savvy with their essays.

Tip 1: Writing matters.

"We read every single essay the students submit," says Luis Lecanda of Santa Clara University. He personally takes responsibility for about 800 of the school's 11,000 applications. What is he looking for? Personal impact. If you're writing about someone who inspired you, make sure you write about exactly how that inspiration has changed your life or how you're a different person. Give examples of how that inspiration has changed you. Lecanda says, "We're admitting you, not the inspirational person, so make sure you write about yourself.

Mike Sexton, SCU VP of Enrollment Management, says, "Too often they think the essay is a summary of their life and a 17 year old life is not exactly a novel yet." Better to choose something specific or a moment that affected you. "If they've traveled, we don't want travel log; we want to hear about the afternoon they sat with student in Nicaragua and talked politics or justice." Sexton says writing is critical, and students who write well stand a much better chance of being accepted. "All of our faculty want students who can write, whether you're studying engineering or business or English."

Tip 2: Not all A's are created equal.

Every application at SCU goes through a system that allows admissions officers to assign scores to different categories. For example, course rigor (How tough were the classes you took--honors? AP? IB?), school strength (how challenging was the course work offered at your school), and senior load (did you slack off before graduation or did you continue to take tough classes?)

Tip 3: Emphasize the quality, not quantity of activities and service.

Better to be the leader of a few groups than a member of a lot of different clubs. Taking a leadership role in the activities that you've done shows your commitment and that you spent a lot of time dedicated to that group. Consistency in groups from 9th to 12th grade also looks better than a year here and there. And try to do things that are unique. The Asian kid who plays piano is more common than you realize.

Tip 4: No doesn't always mean no.

That doesn't mean badger the admissions office or try to talk your way in. But if you get rejected from your dream school, call or email and often you can speak directly to the admissions officer who looked at your application. Ask what you can do to strengthen it and how you might be able to transfer in later. That shows persistence, dedication, and that you really want to be part of that school.

At CSU East Bay, a committee also reviews the "maybe" pile, and they will take into account personal hardships. Sending in a personal statement to explain any difficulties you endured may help admissions officers better understand your background. Greg Smith, CSU EB Associate Vice President, says examples include " first generation to college, [students] coming from ESL backgrounds, coming from schools not as well resourced. We take that into account when they're applying."

Tip 5: Make your deadlines.

At CSU EB, the acceptance rate is just 31%. Smith says last year he saw a record number of applications last year. But he says students who procrastinate and submit their applications even a day late may end up losing their spot. "It's critical to apply on time, and get your documents in on time," says Smith. The good news at CSU--essays, recommendation letters, and activities are NOT part of the admissions process! Test scores and a minimum 2.0 GPA are all that count.

Tip 6: Start early. They can tell if you procrastinated.

Start looking over the application early. Now that most of the process is online, admissions officers can see exactly how much time you've spent on your application.

Tip 7: Fill out every blank.

Make sure you write something down in any spot that asks for additional information or areas where you can add personal stories. That shows you care, you're thorough, and that you've thought about the entire application.

Tip 8: Parents need to chillax.

Mom and Dad: It's time to let go. Help your students manage deadlines, and make sure they get some rest and encouragement. Don't call and pose as a student to ask questions (yes that happens all the time) and don't micromanage. You won't be there to  program the rest of your child's life. Or at least you shouldn't. 

"If we did our job well for last 17 years, we should really believe in the student and deciding "where do I want to wake up for 4 years" even though it might not be the place mom and dad want to have a decal on back of their car," says SCU's Sexton.

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