Whether you’re a freshman just starting high school, or you’re a weary senior about to submit your 20th and final college application, my favorite quote to summarize your college search + application process remains the same: “You don’t know what you don’t know.”
Every year, there are countless students who turn to me at the 11th hour a couple of days before the submission deadline because it has finally started to sink in that maybe they’ve been doing something wrong with their personal statement and all their supplemental essays. And yet these are only the second saddest group of students I encounter.
So then, who are the saddest students? Well, those are the ones who get rejected from their favorite schools without ever having understood what they should have done differently. These students made the assumption that the process is rather straightforward. They made assumptions that being the smartest student in their class should be good enough to get into their favorite Ivy League school. They made assumptions that their broad, cliché, tell-but-not-show personal statement would be still be good enough when packaged together with their GPA and SAT/ACT test scores. These students' parents made assumptions that the entire college application process and criteria are still the same as when they applied to college an entire generation ago back when mobile phones were the size of bricks.
The internet, technology, and social media have made the college application process more competitive than ever, with students applying from all over the world with access to vastly differing quantities and quality of information.
Just a few months ago, on November 1, I was visiting a new class of weary high school seniors at one of the top IB programs in the country; I could tell from their bloodshot eyes and slumped body language that most had been up all-night scrambling to complete their Early Decision and Early Action application essays. As I always do, I offered the students my best college counseling tips -- tips, insights, and secrets that I know typical high school counselors don’t know well enough to share with the students. But on this day, I distinctly remember one brazen senior who raised her hand and proclaimed to me, “Well, what good is any of this advice to us today? Now that I know my personal statement and supplemental essays make the very mistakes that you say to avoid, it’s not as though I can change them completely in the next 12 hours before the deadline!”
And sadly, she is absolutely right. Yes, what good is the advice I was giving if students only hear those tips, insights, and secrets when it’s too late?
That is exactly why when speaking to students of any age -- 6th grade through 12th grade -- it’s never too early for them to hear my advice. Because this isn't just about college admissions, it's also about personal growth and discovery of self. For the parent who thinks their child should wait until just before his/her senior year to start focusing on college applications, well, trust me:
You don't know what you don't know. In particular, you don't know what you don't know about:
What makes a memorable Personal Statement–and which of the 7 essay prompts would help you accomplish that.
Why you don’t have to be a gifted writer to still create a memorable Personal Statement.
Why the shorter supplemental essays are probably harder to write than the longer ones.
Why an essay anchored by a cliché or trope will do you no favors in demonstrating your uniqueness (especially for schools with less than 15% acceptance rates).
Why extracurricular lists should reflect purpose & value, rather than just quantity of activities.
Why community service and part-time jobs offer the type of experiences that sports commitments usually don’t provide.
Why not all GPAs are the same.
What types of Recommendation Letters might get read versus the ones that will get skimmed.
What you should be accomplishing during all your high school summers in order to show your inspiration and purpose behind your chosen college major.
How the University of California essays require an approach entirely different from your Common App schools.
Why all wannabe bankers and entrepreneurs don’t necessarily need to get into an undergraduate business program.
Why all pre-med majors don’t necessarily need to major in Biology or Chemistry.
Why the liberal arts colleges can be well suited for some driven, entrepreneurial-minded students who want to be just as successful as their Ivy-bound peers.
How many of these have you really paid attention to so far as you journey through high school with college looming ahead in the distance? These are merely a small handful of the ideas that most students aren't even aware of. The ideas that they didn't know they didn't know everything about. These ideas, however, will shape the biggest decision they'll make in the first 21 years of their life. #bigstakes
Unfortunately, too many students and families wait until the last minute to ask for the proper help. Don’t get help from just any counselor or tutor. Get someone with actual experience that understands the perspective of the admissions reader. That same admissions reader who must read 25-30 applications per day during the admissions cycle.
It doesn’t need to be Prime Academics. But if nothing else, hopefully, I’ve persuaded you to start asking experts to find out what you don’t know that you don’t know.