We all start races for different reasons.
Some racers set out to improve themselves.
Some racers set out to feel more of a bond with their friends.
Some racers set out to participate when they see everyone else is already starting.
But many racers set out before even learning the proper course route or knowing where the finish line is, and they do so without understanding the strength of the other racers they are competing against. Yet they still have hopes of winning.
From a college counselor/adviser’s perspective, the racers in that last group merely have delusions of winning.
When starting the college planning race, winning means more than just getting accepted into your favorite school. Instead, winning should mean getting into the right school for your continued growth. Every high school senior’s growth is unique, and there is not a neat, narrow prescription for what that looks like in each individual.
College Admissions committees look for that uniqueness. In fact, they celebrate that uniqueness! Imagine being that weary admissions reader in search of the next great leader…the next great innovator…the next great changemaker…pouring through hundreds of student applicants and essays each admissions cycle. I certainly recall what that was like.
Now, as a college counselor for Prime Academics and other Silicon Valley college counseling firms, I find that many high school students start this college prep race making a huge mistake from the very start. Regardless of how early they begin, high school students and their families don’t take into enough account the training and preparation that other students are also doing -- students who possess similarly stellar GPAs, high standardized test scores, extracurriculars, leadership roles, community service, awards, and more.
Some high school seniors never realize their college application shortcomings until after they have lost the race–and failed to get into their favorite college…much less the right college. Students, don’t assume you just need to be better than your friends at school. Don’t misjudge this race as a sprint during the fall of your senior year; consider it more like a marathon full of obstacles, hurdles, and other unforeseen challenges. Experienced college counselors know this course better than you can even imagine. In fact, this race resembles a giant maze. By October of each year, I hear from lost students who sprinted off with the wrong instructions, only to recognize that they need to ask for the proper directions shortly before their favorite college’s deadline. Get the proper instructions and insights about the entire process before setting off prematurely in the wrong direction!
My own student-clients have always revealed that their high school counselors and English teachers are partly to blame for that; they reinforce the wrong things for college prep. That’s because most of them have never actually served as college admissions readers or committee members before. Your personal statements and other college supplemental essays aren’t a writing sample or homework assignment; they are the difference in whether you get into your favorite college.
This is no longer your parents’ college application process. The world is different. The availability of career planning and college planning information (not to mention the reliance on online portals like the Common App, Coalition App, ApplyTexas, and the University of California with their different set of essays) changed the landscape.
Not every high school student will follow the exact same route and at the exact same pace as everyone else racing to the finish line. Whether you are now an incoming senior or you are still an underclassman, accept that hard truth before you race off into the college application maze.
It’s never too early to ask for the right instructions, but it can certainly be too late. Educate yourself on how to prepare for the college application process early on; if you do, by the time you click the submit button on your applications as a senior, you'll be confident you did everything you could to maximize your chances of getting into your favorite school.
Kenneth received his Bachelor's degree in Finance, Marketing and Communications from the University of Virginia, and his MBA from UCLA. He served as a reader for the admissions offices at both UVA and UCLA. Prior to his current career in college consulting and high school teaching, Kenneth worked in film & TV creative development for a number of Hollywood studios and award-winning production companies (most notably Disney).