Avalon College Connector

How to Create a Great College Application

How
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Creating a strong college application is a bit like baking a cake. First, you need all the right ingredients. Then, you have to combine them in just the right ratio and bake them at just the right temperature. Even before you begin to assemble the ingredients, however, you must decide on the flavor of the cake you are about to bake. A student who has a passion for business will not be very well served by dedicating his free time to taking art or music classes. Sure, having some proven ability in art or music is very nice, but there are far better ways to use your time if your objective is to prove your passion for business. Creating a strong college application means looking down the road a few years and navigating the twists and turns before the opportunity to do so has already passed.  

College admission is not a paint-by-numbers process. It is as unique to each student as a fingerprint. To create a successful college admission plan, a counselor must first evaluate each student’s starting point, set goals, then continue to monitor and adjust that plan in response to an ever-changing set of admission characteristics. For more than 35 years, I have had the pleasure of helping students navigate the test preparation and college admissions landscape. During that time, I have never had two students whose hopes, dreams, experiences, strengths, and weaknesses were exactly the same. 

It is important to realize that every student is a dynamic and constantly evolving person. When working with a student over several years, a perceptive college counselor is likely to see changes ranging from subtle to essential. As a 15-year-old, a student may want to be a doctor and yet, as a 17-year-old, the same student may want to be a writer. More dramatically, these career aspirations can change at a moment’s notice. For example, an inspirational teacher can change a student’s direction by 180°, while a bad grade on a test can be enough to dissuade a student from pursuing what was formerly his favorite chosen pathway. However, at some point, you simply must stick a pin in the map and start moving in that direction—at least as far as college admission is concerned. 

While the direction a student chooses to pursue as part of the college application process may not be the ultimate pathway they take in life, it is still a good idea to have some direction, any direction. A great college counselor will provide sage advice based on his perceptions of the student’s interpersonal qualities and characteristics. Similarly, a great college counselor will provide his students with extracurricular and academic opportunities that may strengthen a student’s weaknesses, deepen a student’s interest, or move a student further along in a chosen or developing area of interest. Here, of course, we must make a distinction between working with the student over many years and helping a student navigate the application process beginning after 11th grade. Obviously, there is far more a counselor can do, and should do, when engaged over a period of two or more years, than he can do for a student from September through January of 12th grade.

Creating a strong college application is a bit like baking a cake. First, you need all the right ingredients. Then, you have to combine them in just the right ratio and bake them at just the right temperature. Even before you begin to assemble the ingredients, however, you must decide on the flavor of the cake you are about to bake. A student who has a passion for business will not be very well served by dedicating his free time to taking art or music classes. Sure, having some proven ability in art or music is very nice, but there are far better ways to use your time if your objective is to prove your passion for business. Creating a strong college application means looking down the road a few years and navigating the twists and turns before the opportunity to do so has already passed.  

Creating a strong college application is a process of constant analysis—guiding students through a series of steps, analyzing results, and adjusting as new information such as grades, test scores, awards, and accomplishments become available. This is one of the main reasons that many families hire private college counselors to supplement the services that they receive from their school’s college counselors. In almost every situation, a school counselor, while an excellent resource for providing the basic wireframe of the college admissions process, simply does not have the bandwidth to dedicate 40 to 100 hours needed by each student to fully manage the college admission process. With caseloads of 200 to 400 students each (the national average is more than 500 students per counselor), there simply is not enough time in the day, week, or year to provide this kind of personalized counseling. It is a school counselor’s main task to help students stay on track in order to submit their applications on time, to manage the recommendations of teachers, to write recommendations themselves, to provide a basic understanding of the college process, and to answer student’s basic questions as they arise.  

Finding a College Counselor to Help

While the particular idiosyncrasies and practices of college counselors vary greatly, there is one universal trait that defines all great college counselors: the ability to ask the right questions and to interpret the answers. I am not referring to common questions such as, “Do you prefer a large school or a small school?” or “Do you prefer to live in the city or outside the city?” No, I’m referring to the kinds of questions that provide insights into deeper, more individualized truths. These are the kinds of questions that require probing follow-ups that ultimately enable a counselor to make important recommendations that lead to the right choices for each student. It goes without saying that, initially, counselors should do a whole lot more listening than talking. Here are some examples of the types of questions that a college counselor should ask in the early stages of working with a student:

As for me in my practice, I deeply relish getting to know my students on a highly personal level. And it is not just the answers to strategic questions that provide the kinds of insights needed to make appropriate recommendations. It is the way that students answer the questions: with confidence and candor, or with apprehension and trepidation. With each answer, I am evaluating the student on a three dimensional chessboard of traits and characteristics. I am imagining the student with the surgeon’s scalpel, presenting opening arguments to a jury, spending the day perusing a petri dish under a microscope, being on the board of a multinational corporation, or opening up a restaurant on a busy downtown street corner. Indeed, I have had students go on to experience all of these things, and so many more successful and rewarding occupations that I can hardly remember them all. My students have become teachers, doctors, scientists, owners of restaurant chains, founders, CEOs, and financial advisors. They have worked for organizations such as Deloitte & Touche, Google, Facebook, and even the Boston Red Sox. Yet no matter where they ended up, they all began by answering a few basic questions.