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Choosing a College: Top 10 “Greatest Hits” of College Admissions

Finding Your College: Ten Helpful Tips

By Diana Simeon

So, you’ve got a sophomore or junior—or maybe even a senior—and you’re wondering how to choose a college. Where can you find out what you need to know about college admissions? Right here. We’ve got a top 10 college application tips from a veteran college counselor. Here goes:

1. There are 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S.

If you read the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, you might think there are only 20 to 30 colleges. But there are thousands of colleges at which your teenager can be happy—and successful.

2. Don’t encourage your teenager to fall in love.

Don’t make them fall in love with ANY college if …

  • She’s younger than 16. Your teenager will change a lot in the next few years.
  • Don’t encourage your junior or senior to fall in love with an elite college, where the chance of admission is slim.
  • And, finally, don’t encourage your teenager to fall in love with a college you can’t afford.

3. Yes everything counts, but don’t panic if your teenager stumbled early on. 

Colleges do look at an applicant’s entire high school transcript, but they also love to see growth. So if your teenager got low grades early in high school encourage him to finish strong. That’s a trend admissions officers like to see.

4. There are no “right” extra-curricular activities.

Some parents ask, “What activities do colleges like?” The answer: Colleges like what your teenager likes—and they especially like what your teenager is passionate about—whether that’s sports, debate, cooking, or Medieval reenactment. Also, two to three activities is plenty.

5. Paid employment is a positive.

Admissions staffers do not value extra-curricular activities over employment (contrary to popular belief). Volunteering can also be impressive to an admissions committee but only if it’s meaningful to your teenager.

6. Encourage your teenager to focus on what she can control.

Grades, test scores, the essay, letters of recommendation. These are the aspects of the college process your teenager can improve.

7. And discourage your teenager from worrying about what she can’t control.

There’s no going back and fixing that bad grade from 10th grade. Instead, focus on writing a fabulous essay, keeping up this year’s grades, or improving an ACT score.

8. Understand that so-called “institutional priorities” are also outside of your teenager’s control.

These are factors like legacy status, race, gender, religion, geography, development potential—i.e. can you donate a building?—that colleges use when putting together a freshman class. For example: students from the Midwest have an advantage at east and west coast colleges simply because they come from a region that is underrepresented at those schools.

9. Reading is the most powerful thing your teenager can do to prepare for the college process.

Strong readers perform better on standardized tests, as well as academically overall. Encourage your student to read 20 to 30 minutes a day.

10. Make affordability a part of the process from the beginning.

Thanks to recent legislation, colleges are required to be much more transparent about how much it will cost a family to attend. Do the research. Understand if you can afford a particular school before your teenager applies.

Good luck to you and your teenager as you try to choose one “right” college.

This top 10 is based on a presentation by Terry McCue, director of college counseling at Hathaway Brown School in Cleveland, Ohio. Watch the entire 20-minute presentation by clicking here.

Diana Simeon

Diana Simeon is an editorial consultant for Your Teen.