Prep Talk Blog > June 2009

Truth: If you choose a college only because of its high ranking in publications like U.S. News & World Report, you could be making your decision based on a very limited view of the school. The ranking criteria used by U.S. News, Princeton Review, and the like are usually based on student retention, faculty-to-student ratios, actual graduation growth and even the alumni giving rate.  

While you want your college to be a solid educational institution, you also want to evaluate your options based on what campus life is like. That may require scheduling a campus visit or overnight stay for a first-hand look. In addition, a college with a strong academic concentration in the major that interests you most could also be very important to you. After all, most of us want a job upon graduation and a school that can prepare you to achieve post-graduation goals is key. So keep in mind, there are many factors beyond prestige that come into play when choosing a college experience that fits you personally.   

First of all, choose a school that fits within the criteria you have set for the ideal college. For instance, many of the top-ranked schools are on the East Coast. If, however, you know that you want to stay close to home in the Midwest, choosing a top-ranked school in New York may not fit the boundaries you’ve set for the right college. If you haven’t made a list, here is a place to get you started.

You can also use the rankings to your advantage. Think of it as a great way to do more research. If you find that College X is known for their journalism program, which interests you, ask questions specifically about this program. Find out why they are so highly ranked. What is it that sets them apart? Why should you go there before choosing another school with a similar ranking? If they don’t have satisfactory answers to your questions, it’s time to move onto a different school.

Finally, do your own research. Going to sites like the National Center for Education Statistics and college admissions blogs like George Mason's Not Your Average Admissions Blog are two great ways to start.

Bottom line, search for a college that is appropriate for you. Rankings will be meaningless if you’re not at a school that is true to your interests and needs. If you don’t know what those important needs might be, here’s a breakdown of reasons why some current college students chose the colleges they now attend.


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Truth: Actually, your college admissions essay is your chance to write about anything you wish. What’s more, you don't even have to write an essay! You could submit a dramatic screenplay about your first summer job and how you saved the day when the ice cream shop you worked at ran out of ice. You could communicate your passion for student government through a poem. Subject and format aren’t set in stone (though you should make sure to stay within the word count). Most applications have very open-ended essay questions and as long as you answer them, feel free to get creative. In fact, you may get bonus points for presenting your essay in an interesting way.

How many times would you be able to read an essay about what someone learned in high school?  Imagine reading about the same topics in the same format 300 times! That's the position most admissions officers are in. Make your essay stand out among the hundreds of others that sound the same. Here are some tips on how to write an essay that ‘wows’ the admissions committee:

Write from a different perspective. Some successful essays throw the personal narrative out the window. For example, instead of talking about how you helped an elderly person in their time of need, write your essay from the elderly person’s point-of-view.

Avoid listing. Many prospective college applicants think that making a list of all of their accomplishments will place their essay on the top of the pile. However, to create an essay that interests the admissions department, you should actually tell a story and have a clear, direct focus. Lists are boring and redundant since these achievements are likely listed elsewhere in your application.

Write with a hook. What’s a hook? It’s what makes your essay stand out in the crowd. What’s different about your essay? How will others remember you? If there is something that makes you unique, tap into that. Are you known at school for being great with people? Do you have a knack for baseball and help coach a little league team? What is it that makes you stand out and how will it make you stand out while you’re in college?

Still have writer’s block? Check out the following:

Take a look at Essays That Worked for College Applications, a helpful book which features 50 excellent examples of essays written by students accepted at some of the country's top universities.
If you want your essay to stand out, refer to this unusual, yet effective example called Eating Eyeballs.
See what Tufts University is currently asking its applicants.
Want to try your hand at a provocative essay question? Check out the University of Chicago admissions website for examples.
Stay up-to-date with all things related to finding the right college for you with the MyCollegeOptions blog.

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You work hard to set yourself apart from your classmates and are feverishly planning your strategy to get noticed among the thousands of college applications that will be sent next fall. It might surprise you, then, to find out that it pays to be common—by using the Common Application, that is.

The Common Application lives up to its name in a big way—you fill out one college application (which also means writing just one essay!) that can be submitted to over 340 colleges and universities across the country. That’s right—all those teacher recommendation forms are the same, too. Even if you’ve got a dozen or so colleges on your wish list, the odds are very good that they might all be Common Application members.

With the Common Application, both high school seniors and transfer students can create user accounts on the website and submit the paperwork online—easy for you and good for the environment, too. (You also have the option of downloading, printing out, and mailing in the application forms.) The only bummer about the Common Application is that you’ve still got to pay the application fee for each school, but the time you save is money saved.


Some students might be leery of using the Common Application, fearing that they might insult the colleges to which they are applying if they don’t use their regular apps. News flash—schools that offer the Common Application WANT you to save time. It’s the very reason they sign on to become a member of the Common Application in the first place. Admissions counselors realize that the mounds of paperwork that high school seniors must endure takes time away from more important things like school work. In fact, there are 124 colleges and universities (and counting) that have made the Common Application their only application. These “exclusive users” include such collegiate titans as Yale, Carnegie Mellon, and Smith, as well as great state schools like University of New Hampshire and University of Virginia.

The new online Common Application goes live on July 1st. Why not take a look and see which of your prospective schools are BFFs with the Common Application? Then, start planning how you’re going to use all that free time that you’ll have now that you don’t have to write so many college essays.

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Truth: Absolutely not. Do you realize that about 70 percent of students enrolled in college change their majors at least once? Seriously, it’s not the end of the world if you don’t know what you want to be “when you grow up”, much less know exactly what your major will be before checking out some colleges.  

Think of it this way. The first half of your college years will be spent taking general education classes. Those are foundation classes like Introduction to Biology and English Composition. General education classes are basic overviews of many subject areas and offer you the chance to see what career fields and options are out there. 

Don’t be discouraged if your friends seem to already know what field they would like to go into when they graduate. It’s a known fact that most college students change their majors at least once if not more than that, so you’re doing just fine. 

As you begin taking your general education classes, here are some things that can help make choosing your major a bit easier:    

Take note of the classes that are interesting to you and why.
Talk to current students already in the major and gather their feedback.
Search online to learn more about what that job can be like once you have your degree. (The Occupational Outlook Handbook is a great place to start.)
Make an appointment with a professor who teaches some of the courses.
See what the job market is like for people with the degree you wish to earn (America’s Career InfoNet has some great information!)

Once you have your list, you’ll be able to narrow down your choices in a way that’s not so overwhelming. Bottom line: find a school that will help you succeed and achieve your dreams. Discovering your major (once you get there) will be the fun part.  

Have you already begun looking at specific majors to study? Tell us in the comments about some of the subjects that sound interesting to you and why!

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Now that you're psyched about the opportunites offered by college fairs, make sure you're prepared to get as much out of the event as possible. It's easy to get distracted with a seemingly endless array of options or to get intimidated by the hordes of students in attendance, but you'll be able to network with the best of them if you go with a gameplan and keep in mind the following advice:

Go with some idea of schools to "visit", but stay open-minded. You don't want to show up with no clue about what to do or who to talk to, but don't limit yourself to a pre-determined list either. Make sure you get to talk to representatives from all the schools you're strongly considering, and leave some time to look around for interesting colleges you haven't yet considered (or perhaps even heard of).

Don't rely on your parents to ask questions, says one admissions counselor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. You're the one who's going to be attending college so you should be responsible for taking charge of your own future.

However, don't ask obvious questions either. The Inside Scoop asks, "Can you imagine the agony of being a college rep standing behind a table for two hours, being asked repeatedly: 'What SAT Subject Tests do you require?' 'Do you offer financial aid?' 'What GPA do I need?' 'How far from NYC are you?'" Make the most of the fair by inquiring about things you can't figure out on your own through a Google search.

Focus on whether the school fits your needs, not whether your transcript fits a certain criteria. The College Solution quotes several admissions officers who bemoan the number of students overly concerned with statistics on the average SAT or GPA needed for acceptance. Though college admissions can certainly get competitive at some schools, representatives can't tell you on-the-spot whether your specific academic history is enough to get you in, especially when high schools have different ways of weighing. A whole range of other factors, including how you do on the application essay and interview, will determine the school's eventual decision.

Check out the freebies. According to Dave Carpenter of The Associated Press, counseling and resource centers at the NACAC college fairs offer free advice to students looking for specific information on subjects like standardized testing and loan options. This is your chance to get the admissions counseling that can sometimes cost thousands of dollars.

Write down your contact information. If you have a great conversation with a representative and are really interested in their school, make sure you leave the necessary information for them to get in touch with you later. Chris D'Orso, Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Stony Brook University, notes that many students nowadays prefer to take some information and to reach schools on their own, instead of writing down their contact information. This can be frustrating for an admissions officer who's interested in establishing a relationship with you.

For more tips on how to make the most of your college fair experience, check out this guide from the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Image by Gould Library and used under a Creative Commons license.

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