1. Who should write my recommendations?
Most colleges require 2-3 recommendations, and they definitely aren’t looking for a ringing endorsement from your mom. Grandma’s kind words penned on a real estate pad from the fridge won’t cut it either. It’s important to ask people who know about you academically. Ask a teacher who’s seen you excel in the classroom, or at least can attest to you trying your best. Provide the teacher with a resume, explaining your schedule, grades, and job if you have one. This will paint a picture of what your life is like outside of the classroom. If you have any passions like sports or clubs you can also ask your coach or advisor to write the second letter on your behalf. Even if it’s not dealing with the classroom environment or grades their letter speaks to your character. Maybe you made it a goal to beat your personal best in cross-country and you did it! That’s a story admission committees would love to hear. As far as what your recommenders need from you, it’s up to you to provide the schools requirements, your resume, and a self addressed and stamped envelope.
2. How much value is placed on extracurricular activities?
Like I said, life outside the classroom is just as important as life inside the classroom. Of course a higher priority is going to be placed on your academics, because you are trying to pursue an education. Still, admission committees are interested in what makes you unique. Maybe you’ve started a club at you school, or you volunteer at an after school program on the weekdays. Wherever you spend your time and what you spend your time doing is a reflection of your character. They’re looking for people who will contribute to their campus beyond the classroom, so it’s important to use those slots on the application to explain to them what you can offer.
3. Is it okay if I have bad SAT scores?
The SAT and the ACT are one time events in a students academic career (unless you take them five times, then they’re five time events). While they’re still included in most applications, trust that the admission committees do understand their relevance. If a student excels academically and doesn’t do so good on their SAT, they’ll understand. Some people aren’t great test takers. To use a tired cliché: It’s a marathon, not a sprint. The high GPA you’ve worked hard to maintain and the three years on varsity track is more of a reflection of you than the four hours you spent sweating bullets, filling in bubbles on a Saturday morning. Some schools even allow you to opt out of including your scores in the application. Just trust me, they get it.
4. What if I can’t visit the college?
While it’s important to visit the college you hope to attend, it’s not always possible. Some people live by gut feelings, and walking the campus might be the final push they needed to say yes. There’s nothing worse than moving across the country only to realize you hate it. Still, it’s not impossible to make your decision without visiting. My roommate moved across the country based on a virtual tour, email correspondence and prayer. She couldn’t visit so she just trusted that the feeling she had was enough. It’s still important to do your research. Utilize the resources available. While a virtual tour is meant to pump up the school, it’s still worth it. Also do some online stalking (not literally stalking, just like a casual scroll through), maybe finding students who can give you a sense of the campus environment. There are also student recruiters who would be happy to talk to you. Ask them questions that make or break your decisions. Eventually you’ll have a feeling whether or not this is the right choice for you—go with it.
5. How many schools should I apply to?
I’m a pretty big advocate of the five school formula. Two safeties, two targets and one dream. Of course there’s room to customize, but it’s important not to go overboard. Don’t waste your time or your money. Edit down your initial list and do your best to be practical. If you’re rocking a 3.4 GPA chances are Harvard’s not an option. Think about who you are and who you want to be, and go from there. Of course there’s always going to be that dream school, and I’m all for applying there. If the fat envelope comes in the mail it’ll be worth it.
6. Are college interviews necessary?
College interviews aren’t usually required, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. An interview puts a face to your application. Sometimes words on paper just don’t cut it. Its just another chance to show who you are and explain what you have to offer. It’s scary, of course, because no one likes interviews, but it might be worth it. Plus you can visit the campus and get a sense of their values. Ask questions and defend the year you failed Chemistry. While you probably won’t have to interview, you might want to consider it.
7. What’s most important in the application?
YOU! I’m going to sound like your Mom, and I’m sorry, but what’s most important in the application process is that you be yourself. The more of you that can fit into those ten pages of paper the better. Avoid generic answers. Try and convey who you are in every question, even the sentence long ones. Remember that admission committees are looking through hundreds and sometimes thousands of applications. Accept the challenge. You know you want that school. This is your chance to make the school want you.