“From the Horse’s Mouth:” Insider Tips for Applying to College
Would you buy a new phone without first doing research and looking to find the best deal? Probably not. So why would you make the most important decision of your life so far—which college to attend—without finding answers to critical questions? Have you thought about the four-year graduation rate? What is the typical student debt load? These are questions to consider.
The New Visions community engagement and college readiness (CECR) team is helping students prepare for college through a multi-pronged approach. CECR provides monthly professional development opportunities for guidance counselors, college culture-building activities for grades 9-12, a series of college fairs for students in grades 11 and 12, and a week-long pre-college boot camp at SUNY Herkimer. In addition, CECR develops partnerships with colleges that provide college-credit courses and campus visits for New York City high school students and hosts forums that connect high-achieving students with representatives from selective colleges so they can have honest and direct conversations.
These “High Achiever Forums,” which so far have been hosted by Dartmouth College and Macaulay Honors College, allow parents and students who are exceeding college readiness benchmarks to ask questions without fear, and to learn directly from an admissions/financial aid representative about the school and the college application process more generally.
Even though the “High Achievers” series has just launched, the impact has already been felt. After several of her students attended the Macaulay Honors College event, Rene DaSilva, a guidance counselor at New Visions Charter High School for Humanities III, noted that her “scholars learned how important it is to advocate for oneself, do comprehensive research, and ask lots of questions” to find the right fit.
These events give parents and students direct insight into the mind of a college administrator. Success requires students to not only to get into college, but the right college. That starts with doing research and asking the right questions.
Macaulay Honors College High Achievers Forum
Earlier this fall, Alimmay (Ali) Kamara, associate director of admissions at Macaulay Honors College, came to speak to over 50 students and parents from New Visions schools. Ali hoped that students would “come away from the event empowered, motivated, and more knowledgeable" than before about the college process.
Macaulay is the honors college of The City University of New York (CUNY), allowing students to design their own major or select from over 475 options within the CUNY network. The school wants its students to be successful both inside and outside the classroom. For this reason, all students receive a full merit scholarship, free transportation, a MacBook, faculty mentoring, and career/internship placement support.
Ali was kind enough to share what he’s learned from working in the field for over fifteen years. His suggestions are excellent starting points for any college applicant:
Tips on the General College Application Process
Do the research. Look at the mission statement of a school. "By knowing what the college is looking for, you can help prepare yourself." Look at admission stats, as well. Understand average test scores and grades to see if the school is one you should realistically apply to. Even if you have a stellar average, you may get rejected because you do not know the type of student a school is looking for.
Focus on quality over quantity. Don't apply to more than 10 schools, even if your school provides fee waivers. Some students apply to 30+ schools, spreading themselves too thin.
Find someone who is at the school where you want to go. Ask for an honest opinion of the school and its programs. Find and tap into a vast network of people who are willing to help.
Visit the schools you’d like to attend before you enroll. A college representative can't give you all of the information you will experience on a tour. Only by visiting can you get the true experience. If you can’t afford a visit, reach out to see if financial aid for school visits is offered for prospective students. Many schools have "Fly In Programs" for students with merit-based needs.
Your essays are critical and help humanize your application. This is where you speak directly to the college recommenders. Your essay should be "original, organic, and have a bit of a wow factor. You want to take some risks, but you also want to be very careful about what you say. This is not the time to make jokes. Stay away from cliche phrases, like ‘I'm the best in my class.'" This is your chance to speak directly to the members of the committee and tell them why they should select you. "It's okay to brag a little," because you want to stand out from other applicants.
Meet with and ask the right questions of college representatives. Don't just look to meet college representatives at college fairs. Email them to set up meetings with them directly. Come prepared with questions about financial aid, admissions, majors, and support provided after graduation. "The graduation rate is important, but you should also ask questions like, ‘How much will come out of my pocket?’ and ‘What is your employment rate after six months of graduation?’ If you're not inquisitive, college reps will sell you anything. Afterall, it's their job to sell the college.”
Be strategic and plan ahead with your recommendations. You want to find teachers and individuals who know you well. Provide them with a “brag sheet” on all your accomplishments, both in and out of school, as they may only know your work in a particular course. Give your recommenders plenty of notice before the deadline and provide stamped, addressed envelopes for them to mail in.
Come prepared for the interview. Research doesn’t stop once you apply. If you’re fortunate to receive an interview, come prepared with questions and in-depth knowledge of the school. You should also let your personality shine through. This may be simple advice, but it’s often forgotten —smile and stay positive. Speak articulately and confidently. You have to be able to convey your message. "If you're not going to sell you, who is going to sell you?"
Tips on Securing Financial Aid
Every student should apply for FAFSA. FAFSA stands for “Free Application for Federal Student Aid.” The application is open to all students seeking funding from the government to pay for college.
Do comprehensive research on financial aid. "Schools are a business and some will cost you anywhere between $48,000-$68,000 per year, depending on where you go.” Even with a merit scholarship, there are still some things that you need to pay for, such as books and food. You need to know and forecast what costs to expect.
Read the fine print to make sure you qualify before applying. Many people do not get scholarships that they apply for because they do not closely read the criteria to see if they qualify. Focus your attention only scholarships you are eligible for.
Talk to your parents. Some companies provide tuition reimbursement, including aid for family members in some cases. This money is often not advertised; only through asking questions can your parents find out whether this benefit is available to them at their workplace. Your parents should start by asking their Human Resources departments whether the company provides tuition reimbursement for family members. Some companies may consider starting such programs because enough individuals ask for them.
Talk to your fellow community members. Ask if your local church, civic organizations, rental company, or any other local company/organization offers any scholarships. "Turn over every stone you can find. You'd be amazed by what you will find."
- Find the decision makers and meet with them. Once you’re in college, seek out college administrators. If you're in school and doing well during your first semester, set up an appointment to meet with your Dean of Enrollment. Ask if he/she can recommend any scholarships for you or recommend someone else at the school to speak with regarding scholarships. Meeting with your dean in person makes you stand out, as he/she may be involved in the scholarship process. It also puts a face to your application. When you leave, send an email, expressing your thanks for the meeting.
These are just a few high level tips that young people sometimes forget as they apply to college. What additional tips do you suggest? Join the conversation on Twitter using #CollegeTips now.