The news report showed one particular densely populated apartment complex in Tokyo where many high schoolers lived. It looked like any other big-city, high-rise except for curious and conspicuous heavy metal canopies shrouding the sidewalks in front of the buildings. A convenience for rainy or hot sunny days? No, these steel coverings protected passersby from the falling bodies of distraught high schoolers who had not fared well on their exams. The suicide rate was so high that city officials felt duty bound to protect pedestrians with this shielding. Incredible.
You may know someone who was deeply crushed by his or her failure to get into an ultimate first-choice college. Hopefully, s/he didn’t contemplate a rash act. The point here is simple and worth remembering: The most challenging part of your college process may well be getting into your chosen “dream” college. Graduating may be much easier.
Many times over the years here, I’ve talked about the many-times arbitrary nature of elite college admissions. The story seems to be the same every year. The pressure to apply early mounts every admissions season and this year’s seniors will face tougher competition than last year’s, but not as tough as next year’s. No end to the spiral seems to be in sight.
So then, what observations can we make about the ever-falling acceptance rates? One strong implication is that if you’re deadly serious about getting into an elite college, you’re going to have a lot of well-prepared competition. That seems obvious, but what else does that suggest? It suggests early preparation — not only early but also savvy.
You may be following my blog here for one of two basic reasons. First, you’ve either already decided that you’re going to throw your hat into the high-end application pool, or second, you’re thinking about it but wanted to see just how hard it may really be. If yours is the second reason, don’t be scared away. Unless your overall profile is a complete mismatch with those of the admitted freshman at these top schools, you have a (mathematical) shot at getting in. If you’re reading because you’ve already decided to go the distance, then hopefully your profile package is up to the challenge.
Keep in mind that you can never be sure exactly what the admissions office is looking for each year when it reviews thousands of applications. Across my past posts, I’ve tried to help you build an arsenal of questions to ask, tactics to use, and skills to develop as you approach this significant challenge. I can, however, assure you of this: colleges look to build well-rounded classes more than to recruit well-rounded applicants. They want students with that “standout” special gift, skill, or talent. Make sure your application shows that you have the right profile to show to the admissions officers, and that your special talents are easy to identify.
If you’re currently in the process of preparing your applications (you should be; it’s getting late in the season!), now is the time to go back and check everything you’ve prepared. Above all, you should be looking for traits of consistency, clarity, and logic. Make sure that your transcripts agree with your teacher and counselor evaluations, that your SAT or ACT scores reflect your abilities as shown on your grade transcripts, and that your essay(s) is/are an airtight wrapper around the whole application package that makes your candidacy hard to ignore.
If so, you should end up looking pretty good and come spring, you should have in hand a group of terrific acceptances to schools that “feel” right and are a great fit in most ways. I certainly hope that’s the case. Don’t turn off all your switches, though. I wouldn’t be a good advice giver if I didn’t –as always! — have a few more things for you to do.
Now is a good time to look forward and plan to take care of loose ends. Take a look at the end of your high school career and make sure you stay on top of details. One area that many seniors overlook is showing appreciation to teachers, counselors, and even parents for all the help they provided during the college selection and admission process. Take a moment right now to think back over all those who helped you along the way. There may have been one or two special teachers who provided the inspiration you needed to decide on a specific college field of study.
There are those teachers who wrote recommendations for you. The art of writing a good recommendation is very special. If you have success getting into your first-choice college, chances are that the recommendations that accompanied your application played an important role in the admissions committee’s decision to admit you.
Your school counselor may have also played an important part in your college process’s success. College counselors are supposed to be part coach, part teacher, part advocate, and part friend. At some schools, counselors are extremely overloaded with students, thus making the building of a close relationship quite difficult. Sometimes, though, even under difficult circumstances, students and counselors develop a special relationship that brings rewards to both the student and the counselor. Perhaps this has been your experience.
And what about Mom, Dad, your guardian, or whatever your personal family definition is? Sometimes parents don’t know a lot about the college selection and admission process, but they give you plenty of support. High schoolers frequently overlook all the little things parents contribute to the college process such as helping with application preparation, traveling to prospective colleges, discussing your feelings and aspirations, and so forth.
So what should you do? Showing your appreciation in some way is an excellent gesture. Send a thank-you note to the teachers and your counselor. As for your parents, perhaps you could take them out for lunch or wash the family car. The important thing is to make sure that these folks know that you appreciate what they’ve done. Saying thanks for a job well done is something you’ll never regret doing.
As long as you’re looking forward, what about the summer between high school and college? What to do? For many of you, summertime is probably work time. If you’re going to work, you may already have your job lined up. You may even be working one now and will just keep on working through the summer.
Most high schoolers start their summer job search in the early spring, around March or April. That’s when most businesses that depend on summer help start looking for applicants. Don’t let that discourage you, though, but keep in mind the fact that the closer you get to summer, the more highly desirable jobs become more scarce, having already been picked off by early prospectors.
If you’re a sophomore or junior and don’t have concrete plans for summer work, you can still have a profitable summer. Even though you may not want to hear it, the summer is an excellent time to get ahead on your preparations for next fall’s standardized tests. This can be done in a couple of ways.
– First, you can increase your frequency of quality reading. I emphasize the word “quality.” Summer seems to invite students to turn off their brains and recline into three months of MTV, game shows, video games, social media, or soap operas. Don’t be one of those. Go to the library and check out some classics or some poetry. Stimulate your brain! Even if you can make it through only one good book this summer, you’ll be ahead of the game.
– Think about your academic goals, and ask yourself, “What experiences can I gain during summer work that actually have more value than just earning some spending money?” Are their internships that allow you to work in the field you are considering exploring at college?
While I understand how much fun it would be to join your friends at the beach, working days and partying during the nights, remember that these things rarely impress an admissions officer. In fact, if you really want to impress them, get a job in a company that has openings in academically-related fields close to your interests, a non-profit organization or volunteer for a community project that will take up the entire summer and make a difference in your community. If so, you’ve just generated another recommendation letter! Do it to learn more about yourself, build your character, and especially because it increases the value of another individual’s or community’s life.
Also, keep a close eye on opportunities for leadership camps, week-long seminars, and other special application-only programs that invite talented students to learn more about civic leadership, environmental awareness, or other academically aligned program. If your state offers subsidized leadership programs at various colleges over the summer, get involved in one, even if it is not sponsored by the college you applied to. Colleges are aware of the value of the programs, despite the fact that they don’t host the event on their own campus.
You can find these programs on the Internet, in places such as the state’s higher education home pages. Also, look in the academic department home pages of the colleges you are applying to. Surf the links until you find special programs targeted to talented, leadership-level students. Call the college or department, and ask for application materials in January through March. Most close their application period quickly. Many of these programs are funded by the state, corporations, or private foundations. They all have a vested interest in developing the next generation of leaders. Why not become one?
Be sure to see my other college-related articles on College Confidential.