Cardinal Education provides a concise yet informative guide to the college admission process in the November 2011 issue of Parenting on the Peninsula. We discuss topics such as intended major, extracurricular activities, and essay writing. 

College Application Do’s and Don’ts

With so much conflicting information out there about what makes a successful college application, it is nearly impossible to avoid the stress, confusion, and anxiety characteristic of your child’s senior year of high school.  Parents, don’t despair.  A few helpful strategies will give your future graduate a leg up on the vast majority of the applicant pool.

One of the first bits of information that college applications require is your son or daughter’s intended major.  Beware that this information can drastically influence the level of competition for admittance.  Intended majors in premed, business, engineering, economics and political science are very popular and are therefore called impacted majors, meaning their competitiveness will adversely impact your student’s chance of admissions.

At many universities, you are free to change your major freshman year.  So choosing a non-impacted major that speaks to your student’s interests will increase his or her chances without limiting opportunities upon admittance.  Schools like Cal Poly and UC Berkeley, however, make changing to certain majors very difficult, so it is critical to research each school’s policy before making this decision.

Another critical portion of college applications is the extracurricular activities section.  Here, avoid simply listing activities and the positions your student has held in them.  Both the Common Application and UC Application provide space to elaborate upon your student’s dedication and involvement.  Use this opportunity to indicate any and all related awards, leadership roles, and achievements.

Colleges also love to see that your student knows the value of a dollar.  Be sure not to leave out any work experience even if it is an entry-level position moving boxes or serving fries.  Such experience demonstrates maturity and work ethic that colleges respect.

The common application requires a short essay about the activity that means the most to your son child.  Whether writing about football or Model UN, your student should reflect upon the activity in a personal way, using anecdotes to illuminate his or her contributions, and explain its positive impact on his or her personal growth, rather than explaining the activity itself.

Finally, most college applications require a personal statement.  This is an opportunity for your student to give a face to the GPA, test scores, and achievements.  Here are several suggestions to keep in mind while embarking on this essay of self-discovery:

  • Show, don’t tell.  Anecdotes work well to illustrate your character and personality on an intimate level while demonstrating your writing skills. For example, instead of saying how much you helped someone through volunteering, share stories that show this.
  • Avoid listing awards and achievements that are already present in the rest of your application.
  • Avoid self-pitying essays about an illness, accident, or death in the family.  Unless you can reflect on an experience in a mature and intellectual way, it is best to avoid such emotionally provocative topics.
  • Avoid odes to mentors or role models.  The essay, after all, should be about you.  Listing facts about famous athletes or scholars that are already well-known defeats the purpose of writing a personal statement.
  • Essays about hardship are okay.  However, do not dwell on adversity with anger or bitterness.  Instead reflect on how it has shaped you as a person, always ending with a positive message.
  • Don’t be scared of topics surrounding diversity.  No matter your ethnicity, there are many ways of being diverse.  Everyone has had unique experiences that contribute to unique perspectives about the world.

Students are often hesitant to share their essays with parents.  For this reason, I encourage seeking out other resources to make sure your student’s application essays will give him or her the best chance of admission.  While professional consultants can give great personalized insight, teachers can be helpful in these matters.  Most importantly, do not procrastinate on applications.  They need careful planning and deliberation to be successful.  After all, colleges assume this will be your child’s absolute best work, and they will determine the next four years of your son or daughter’s life.

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