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Staying Sane During College Applications

Nailing the Application

This is what impacts whether your kid's file lands in the "Yes" pile.

  • Transcript. The GPA should be solidly within the specified range, and your teen should be taking the most challenging courses possible and doing well in them. The more selective the college, the more emphasis there usually is on getting A's in advanced courses.
  • SATs/ACTs. Most colleges accept both, so it's wise to have your child take the PSAT and ACT in fall of junior year to see which she does better on, then focus efforts there, says Laura Wilson, founder of wilsonprep.com, an affordable online coaching service that's gaining popularity around the country. Poor test takers may wish to consider the 760 test-optional schools listed on fairtest.org.
  • Extracurriculars. Schools generally favor students who dedicate themselves to a few key passions at the leadership level rather than dabbling in many. If your high school doesn't offer an activity that interests your teen, encourage him to organize one. "Colleges like resourceful students who create opportunities," says Elizabeth Wissner-Gross, author of What High Schools Don't Tell You (Hudson Street Press). But they also value work experience, so don't worry if your kid opts for a paying job at the mall instead of joining a lot of clubs or teams.
  • Letters of recommendation. These should be lined up by mid-September, since teachers write them on a first-come-first-served basis. By far, the most memorable ones share specific anecdotes that reveal a student's character beyond what appears elsewhere in the application, says DelPropost. Ideally, at least one should be from a recent teacher in whose class your kid excelled, but don't rule out a teacher who witnessed your child struggle academically. For instance, someone who watched your daughter falter in physics but stick with it to nab a B can genuinely praise her work ethic and refusal to give up.
  • Short-answer questions. Pay close attention to the one that asks, "Why do you want to come here?" According to Wissner-Gross, it's critical. Your teen should seize the opportunity to show why he's a great fit for the school, by mentioning precise things like courses he'd like to take and why, particular professors he wants to study with or observations from a campus visit.
  • Essays. These should reveal a remarkable element of your teen's personality and something she cares deeply about. When we brainstormed what makes Amy unique, her list included "afraid of clowns," "played on boys' teams" and "only wakes up to sports radio." Since she's an aspiring sportswriter, her best essay was about playing on all-boy teams at camp and how doing so prepared her for a career in a male-dominated field. "I always urge my students to focus on something only they can write about," says Sanchez. The results come from the heart.