Applying to college can be scary. Naturally, we rely on the more educated people around us to provide insight into the overwhelming process of attending (and getting ready to attend) college. College admissions officers can be a great resource when beginning the college hunt, but they may not always be able to give you all of the information you need.
Different admissions departments may be able to tell you different information; there is no uniform university admission department. So, what can you go to the admission office for? Admissions officers can give you advice on the application process as well as surface knowledge of other university departments. However, they can also connect you to other members of campus who may be able to answer the questions that they can't.
Admissions officers may not be able to give you all of the information you need, but here are some tips from our group of experts.
1. It's not all about a 4.0
When in the home stretch of your senior year, don’t get caught up in trying to get that 4.0. Yes, your GPA is important, but don’t let it take over your life. So many students cram a bunch of AP and IB classes in at the last minute (I know I did!) in hopes that it will give them the extra edge when it comes to getting into their dream school. In all fairness, it might.
However, more important than your GPA, are the classes you take, “A student’s GPA, but more importantly their transcript, is the most important factor to us. The transcript (from 9th grade, on) tells us a story. It answers the questions: what type of environment was the student in, what types of classes did they take, did they challenge themselves within reason (no, we don’t need to see that you’ve taken every single AP or IB class your school offers), did they diversify their learning by taking a wide variety of classes…?” says Kaitlyn Rice, an admission counselor at Willamette University.
2. Getting involved shows your personality
Extracurriculars are an invaluable addition to your college application; they have the ability to make you stand out amongst a sea of applicants. Even if you’re someone who doesn’t have a stellar GPA, having a unique application can give you that extra boost and somewhat make up for your GPA. (Maybe mention something about how being in an extracurricular can show parts of your personality/interests that a GPA—a numerical unit—can’t reflect on its own!)
“Make yourself unique ... Every college you apply to has people with good grades therefore you need to have stuff that makes you stand out from the crowd,” says Zaynah Javed, a first-year student at UC Berkeley.
If you’re not sure where to start, joining clubs, student leadership, or volunteering can be great ways to beef up your application.
In addition to looking great on your resume, all of those experiences can also help you gain experience and insight into the world post-high school.
3. Your workload is going to shift in college
One of the most difficult things to prepare yourself for is how your workload is going to shift once you start college. Though this is something that college student faces, it isn’t discussed very often.
“Many first year students are unprepared for the radical differences in their schedules, workload, and time management both require,” she says. “While most high schools operate on a system of 7-8 straight hours of classes, college students only have a few hours of classes every day. Their time is far more open and flexible— but the workload out of class often greatly increases compared to high school.”
Even though college demands less of you when it comes to physically being in class, it somehow is still capable of taking up more time. Everyone manages their time differently, so it can be difficult for admissions officers to advise on college organization. Regardless, it’s best to start revamping your organizational habits before you’ve started your first year. Some helpful tools for maintaining an organized schedule include getting a planner that you’re actually excited to use and a white board for your room—and utilizing your phone. Calendar. (Those reminders can be a lifesaver!)
4. Electives can make your transcript more well-rounded
Most high schools allow you to take some elective classes during your last year. Before you make any decisions about what electives you want to fit into your schedule, consider how they’ll look on your application. If you’re applying to an English program, what will a chemistry elective add to your application?
In some cases, it may be helpful to tailor your elective choices to fit the major you want to pursue. That being said, if you’re hoping to be an English major and you really want to take one last chemistry class, go for it!
“Knowing that college admissions officers do weigh how relevant your high school courses are to your perspective major, high school students can easily explain in their admissions essay(s) why they chose to take certain classes and how they will help their college studies,” says Chelsea Jackson, a junior at Iowa State University.
Though it’s important to take classes you think will help you with your major, Rice says that a diverse transcript may make you more appealing to a liberal arts college, “we know you will have a wide array of classes you’re required to take at Willamette (as is the case with any traditional Liberal Arts institution), so we need to know you’re setting yourself up to be successful in this type of environment.”
While having high school elective classes that help aid your future major is important, if you’re attending a college that promotes a liberal arts curriculum, a wide variety of classes may give your transcript a diverse edge.
5. Don’t trust the acceptance rate
While visiting campuses and searing potential colleges online, you’re bound to get caught up in the acceptance rates of your top-choice schools—but it doesn’t always make sense to look at them as a defining factor in your college hunt.
“Generally speaking, I try to be as much of an open book as possible, but the one topic I don't address on my own is the idea of selectivity as suggested by the ‘acceptance rate,’” says Rice. “The fact of the matter (for WU at least) is that the percentage of students that we admit is based entirely on simple mathematics. If we know we need to enroll a certain number of students—remember, enrolling is different than accepting."
Though the accolades you discuss in your application do play a role in whether or not you’re accepted into a university, the actual percentage of students admitted relies heavily on how many students the school is able to admit. To an extent, your acceptance letter may depend on the amount of people who apply to your university of choice.
6. You’re going to need time to adjust
Even though you may feel completely prepared for the experience ahead of you, heading off to college can still be a whirlwind of new experiences. No matter how many articles you read or people you talk to, it’s still difficult to gauge how your professors will be, or how high of a workload you may have.
When talking to admission counselors, it may be important to consider asking them about the teaching environment at the school.
“The expectations of faculty here are extremely high. Students coming in are often times high achievers already, so they can and do adjust, but I think a deeper introduction to the expectations of classroom participation, writing standards, and research/internship opportunities outside of the classroom would give students the chance to get even more out of their time at WU,” says Rice.
Certain programs, like pre-college summer programs, are designed to help you integrate into a college atmosphere. However, if you’re unable to attend one of those programs, university staff can give you useful insight.
7. The college that holds the most clout may not be the college for you
One of the most common misconception that Rice sees has to do with how students view specific, more selective, universities, “students stress themselves out about getting into the “best” college, which people all too often define as the ones with the lowest admission rates. If students would channel their energy into considering the college that will help them in authentic pursuits in both academia and co-curriculars, they will find the place that’s best for them.”
It's easy to get sidetracked by the college that looks impressive, or the college that the people around you want you to go to. Be careful not to get lost in all of the pressure associated with choosing a university; it’s important to focus on the college that fits your needs the best.
If there’s something university-related that you’re curious about, don’t hesitate to contact an admissions officer from your university of choice. “Admissions officers at the very least will not judge you for any questions or concerns you have and, in fact, may actually be impressed that you're holding them and their school to high standards and are self-possessed enough to make sure their process and school is a fit for you, too,” says Zeilinger.
Even if they aren’t able to answer your question, they’ll be able to direct you to the right person.