“Mistakes to Avoid in the College Planning Process”

By Peter Van Buskirk

As we head into the summer months a new batch of college applicants is gearing up for their “admission marathon.” Despite great expectations, happy outcomes will be largely dependent on the student’s ability to stay focused academically while avoiding some of the common mistakes that doom otherwise very promising candidates. The reality is students need to make good choices, build relationships with colleges and manage expectations.

Make Good Choices
The mistake: Many students assume they don’t have to worry about the admission process until they formally become applicants.
The reality: Students become college applicants the day they become high school freshmen. Everything counts. In fact, every day presents opportunities for decision-making that will have a bearing on how you live the next day—and beyond.

Key areas of choice involve academic preparedness, extracurricular engagement and the application process itself. While it is not healthy—or practical—to obsess on any of these, students need to understand their accountability for good decision-making. Choosing well at every turn strengthens the student’s credential and reduces the potential for discriminating admission committees to say “no.”

Build Relationships with Colleges
The mistake: Students don’t take advantage of opportunities to get on the “radar screens” of college admission officers before they submit their applications.
The reality: Admission officers are looking for evidence of engaged interest. In fact, they are keeping track of a student’s interest from his/her first contact through the end of the admission process.

The solution is to demonstrate interest. As you get to know colleges, make sure you get credit for the things you do. Get credit for attending information sessions and visiting campuses by filling out information cards/forms. More importantly, take advantage of opportunities to demonstrate your understanding of the “fit” that exists between yourself and the institution.

A key person in this equation is the admission officer responsible for recruiting in your area. Turn to this person with important questions that are bound to emerge as you learn about the institution and begin to prepare your application. Ask thoughtful questions. Be respectful and judicious as you extend yourself. While you don’t want to come to be regarded as a pest, the last thing you want is for admission officers to question the depth or sincerity of your interest.

Manage Expectations
The mistake: Students assume that the more “reach” schools to which they apply, the better are the chances of getting into at least one.
The reality: It rarely works that way—especially if financial aid is needed. Not only is applying, somewhat arbitrarily, to a long list of schools likely to be an exercise in futility, it distracts students from giving quality attention to the applications they submit to colleges that represent the best fits for them.

It is important to avoid confusing admissibility with competitiveness at a given college. The odds are that you will be admissible—you can do the work in the classroom—at most of the colleges that materialize on your long list. Will you be competitive, however? Do you possess credentials that make you among the most highly valued candidates?

The key is to manage expectations. Target places that make sense for you—colleges where your credentials put you in the top half—if not the top quartile—of the admitted student profile from past entering classes. This will be an indicator that you are squarely on the “competitive playing field” at that school and you are more likely to be valued for what you have to offer academically.

In the final analysis, there can be no outcome guarantees in college planning—and it is not healthy nor constructive to regard the process as a matter of acquiring a prize or a particular “destination.” You can, however, be careful to avoid some of the common missteps that plague potential applicants each year and, in the process, remain diligent in searching out places that represent good fits for you. I will dedicate this space to a further discussion of “fit” in the coming weeks.

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