While the requirements and the competition to get into college continue to ramp up, stress levels can be tamped down thanks to some old-fashioned time management. Encouraging students to focus on the entire high school experience—from the first day of freshman year until the day they graduate—can help make the transition to college worry-free, experts say.
Of course, a mastery of Zen breathing couldn’t hurt either.
Since the beginning of time, the official kickoff of the college application season starts at the beginning of junior year, but the groundwork can and should be established earlier.
“We want to make the most of their education, not building up their stress,” says Jake Talmage, director of college counseling at St. Paul’s School.
Rather than delaying options and obligations, students ought to launch volunteer and extracurricular efforts early in their high school careers. Administration officers realize when students pad their records at the last minute.
Then in January of junior year come the SATs, which prompt the prospective college student to compose that list of preferred places of learning. Here admissions counselors urge caution: Don’t go for status; use common sense. Ignore “reach schools,” universities that students concede likely may be beyond them.
“One of the things I tell students is that you are unique and so should be your college, that it’s OK to be different,” says Heidi Reigel, director of admissions at McDaniel College. At the same time, she stresses that students should not recoil from sticker shock, noting that the majority of incoming freshmen are not paying full tuition.
One more challenge for students will be negotiating the early application deadlines. It used to be a Dec. 1 deadline. Now Nov. 1 is the norm, with some deadlines coming as early as Oct. 15. These are usually binding decisions, meaning that the applicant guarantees they’ll attend the school in return for an early decision.
To combat the sense of dread that comes with the pressure of a big decision, big tuitions and life-changing circumstances, schools like St. Paul’s have established a late summer boot camp application week during which incoming seniors work full days writing essays and filling out applications. That way, says Talmage, students can focus on getting the application done, including the all-important essay, during the dog days of summer, allowing the seniors to relish the full experience of their last year at school.
Christopher Wild, an admissions counselor at Goucher College, says essays still remain an important part of the acceptance equation, and urges students to stay away from composing cliché or laundry lists of achievements, or praising parents and coaches. He says admissions officers are most
impressed by authentic storytelling. For example, one of his favorite stories described a young woman’s encounter with a homeless man in India, who gave her a paper doll. “It was a great essay that told me a lot about this student without overtly saying it,” Wild says.
Then comes the all-important campus visit, which is as much a rite of passage as getting a cell phone or driver’s license. Local college admissions counselors urge students to take advantage of Maryland’s diverse landscape from state schools like College Park to small liberal arts schools like Washington College on the Eastern Shore—these trips provide students a great opportunity to figure out their preferred environment. A special bonus tip, says Wild, avoid visiting a campus during the summer when all universities, big and small, feel more like ghost towns than thriving hives of higher learning.
Wild loves to point to his favorite headline, “High School Students’ Agony,” from a The New York Times article that declares this time is an unprecedented era of study and worry for the pre-college kids. The article was published in 1957, he adds. He notes that acceptances at many colleges make up about two-thirds of the applications. The takeaway, he says, with more than 3,000 colleges, there’s bound to be a right fit. That’s why he suggests that students apply for the schools that will make them happy, and provide a personality fit.
“I remind students that you’re going to have to live there for four years,” he says. —Charles Cohen
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