Ask Admissions, part II

For our Ask Admissions series, we’ve reached out to some of our favorite admissions and college guidance professionals for answers to very important and popular questions regarding college applications.

This week, we’re featuring more words of wisdom from Bev, admissions extraordinaire and possible secret wizard. If you didn’t catch our first installment of Ask Admissions, catch it here. 

How heavily do you factor SAT/ACT scores into your decision? Does it give an applicant an edge if they have scored well on both exams? 

Great question! This depends entirely on the college. The important thing to know is that your scores will never matter more than your grades. Colleges care much more about what you have done over the course of four years than over the course of four hours. Also, whether you take the SAT or the ACT is up to you. You can take both, but the majority of colleges will just figure out which one is higher and keep moving. I think it’s probably a better idea to figure out which test feels more like “your test” and focus your energy on one. The tests also have somewhat regional popularity. In the South, you’ll hear most admission folks give stats based on the ACT; in the North and on the West Coast, it’s the SAT. All of this is to say—don’t overtake the test, don’t let it color your belief in your abilities, and know that it is never the most important part of your application. There are over 800 colleges that are test optional in some way; you can learn more about them at fairtest.org. If you go test optional, know that 1) it means your grades do all of the heavy lifting and 2) the college might need something else instead (an interview or additional essays).

What would you say to a potential applicant who is wondering whether or not they should take the new SAT?

I would encourage them to take it once to see what they think of it. At this point, the PSAT and the new SAT are aligned, so they are already somewhat familiar with it if they’re beyond fall of their junior year. I often encouraged my students to take the SAT on the date immediately following the PSAT since they’re already prepared. If you’re curious how you’ll do, take a practice SAT first. You can find these in your guidance office, or online.

When is the best time for college visits? 

Summer before junior year can be a great time for preliminary visits—I call that the architectural tour. Does it look like somewhere you want to go? Do you see folks you would want to hang out with? Are you okay with how long or short the trip to get to the school was (always an important one that students often don’t consider—too close to home? Too far? Does it require multiple layovers?)? You can also wait until fall break of junior year without too much concern. I would do a second round of visits in the fall of your senior year; your list will be narrowed and you will be able to interview and spend the night (if either or both of those things are offered). If you can’t visit, find other ways to demonstrate interest. Find out if they’re coming to your school, speak with them at a local college fair, attend a reception, or ask for a Skype interview.

Are there any benefits to applying Early Action/Early Decision instead of applying for the regular deadline?

I’m going to start with the cons of applying Early Decision first, because I think they can outweigh the benefits, depending on your personal situation. The largest concern with applying Early Decision is that you are locked in to a contract (you sign it, a guardian signs it, and your counselor signs it) that says if you are admitted (and receive an appropriate financial aid package), you will attend.  The challenge I see with this model is that you don’t get the opportunity to compare other financial aid packages, which can be vital to some students’ college searches. Also, what you can pay and what your family wants to pay are often two different numbers—and the college only cares about the former. So it may be an appropriate financial aid package according to what the college says based on your FAFSA and/or CSS PROFILE, but that doesn’t mean it’s what your family was ready or willing to pay. Early Action is great, unless you have not done as well as you would have liked and are below profile. You may need your first term grades to show that you’re capable, willing, and able to perform at a level that aligns with the rigor of the college. If you apply EA, you lose that opportunity. The primary benefits are 1) you find out early, which means you could have a slightly less stressful senior year and 2) if you are below their average profile of an admitted student, you may be more likely to be admitted because you’re showing additional interest—and colleges want students who want to be there. My advice is to never make this decision without your family and your counselor. The folks who shouldn’t be a part of the conversation? Your friends. They are lovely and wonderful people, but there’s no such thing as a 17 or 18-year-old college counselor.

Outside of test scores and GPAs, what makes an applicant stand out? Are there any activities or service projects you look for when reviewing an applicant’s resume? 

I’m looking for students who care about something. I don’t necessarily care what it is, but it needs to be something that the student cares about. There’s debate recently on whether colleges are looking more for Renaissance people (folks who do everything) or specialists (folks who focus on one thing and do it exceptionally). It’s important to remember that we spend 95% of our time talking about 5% of colleges. The vast majority of schools just want to see that you care about something and have done so over the course of four years. For your more selective schools, I find that my students who have done something exceptionally or started their own project often fare well—but it’s because it’s a genuine commitment and not something they did to impress colleges. I promise, colleges can tell. We have a sixth sense about these things. Also, if you have significant family commitments (care for siblings, parents, grandparents) or a job, you should absolutely put these things on your application. They are essential to learning more about how you spend your time. The Common App even has Work (paid), Work (unpaid), and Family Commitment qualifications on the Extracurriculars section, a section which should be ordered based on how important the commitments are to you.

That said, if you are interested in a service academy, you need to have leadership inside and outside of school, church involvement of some sort is always a plus, and you absolutely need community service. Additionally, if there is some sort of honor council at your school, it would behoove you to run for it. They also rarely admit students who don’t have any athletic engagement whatsoever—so you’ll need to commit to at least one varsity sport.