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Smart Ways to Improve College Admissions Chances

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Smart Ways to Improve College Admissions Chances

While college application time is just about up for most high school seniors, it’s not too early for juniors to get started on the process – and improve their admissions chances at the same time.

I recently chatted with college bound pro Allison Lopour who is a managing director at Collegewise – the nation’s largest college counseling organization.

Allison has personally helped over 500 students find and apply to the right colleges, so I knew she was the perfect person to discuss the admissions process with.

I’m a firm believer that we should always be learning and the best way to do that is to connect with your peers and have a conversation.

I wanted to pick Allison’s brain on how the process worked (if there were any changes for the new year) and what ways high school juniors and seniors can better prepare themselves for acceptance.

Here’s what she shared in our chat…

What happens after students hit submit on their applications?

Allison: As soon as the application work ends for the students, colleges kick it into high gear for reading season! Apps, rec letters, test scores, and transcripts are flooding in and colleges spend weeks matching everything up the right student.

But students still have some important work to do: keep those grades up and be sure to check your applicant portals regularly for updates from colleges. Some release admissions decisions there before snail mail arrives, and some release in online portals only.

Do all colleges follow the same process?

Allison: Hah, if only! Colleges are all different, and have different processes and timelines to match. That’s why it’s important to keep an eye on those portals and read all (yes, all!) of the communication your colleges send.

Even colleges within the same systems (like the UC or ApplyTexas colleges) will operate a little differently so it’s important to watch the dates, requirements, and details.

What are some specific things admissions officers are looking at when they review applications?

Allison: Most colleges do a true holistic review, which means they take everything into accounts. Class rigor, grades (not GPA), activities, essays, testing, rec letters, and the impact you’ve made.

Some make decisions based solely on academic performance–classes, GPA, and test scores. That smaller group of colleges is typically explicit about that: “You need this GPA and this test score to be admitted.”

When listing activities and accomplishments, should it go chronologically? If not, what’s the best way to list them?

Allison: I always encourage my students to list things in order of their importance to the student. If you could only do one activities, which one would it be? That’s the one to list first.

Brevity and clarity are also key here! The Common App only allows 150 characters total to describe the activity and your personal involvement. That’s less than this tweet! So use that space wisely.

The free Common App guide from Collegewise does a deep dive into the whole app, and ten (!!) pages just on the activities section. You can download the current guide here:

Why is it important to have a balanced college list?

Allison: Basically, because you’re not a psychic… but seriously? To cover your bases and to give yourself options. Students should absolutely push themselves and apply to colleges that are a reach for them. If you don’t get a single no, you didn’t shoot high enough.

But likely schools are important too! Ideally, students apply to no more than 8 colleges – a couple stretch schools, a few match schools, and a couple likely schools.

Plus, a balanced list of colleges that are truly good matches for students means a higher likelihood you’ll be admitted AND a better chance at merit scholarships from colleges you already love. Bonus!

How can high school juniors start setting themselves up for better admissions chances?

Allison: Oh man… how much time do we have?! First, focus on school. 11th grade academic performance lets colleges see how likely you are to succeed in school. Work hard and show them what you’re capable of!

Junior year Collegewise counselors start the meaty research that leads to a balanced list (and happier kids+parents!). Start researching now and be thoughtful about what a “good fit” is for you. Some good questions to start with:

Lastly, get a jump on testing. Waiting until the fall of 12th to start testing can be stressful, so plan ahead. Take a practice test or two, prepare thoughtfully (aka, not a bazillion hours of studying), test once or twice, and then move on.

When it comes to admissions essays, what are some ways students can stand out from the rest?  

Allison: Stop worrying about impressing your admissions reader! The second you starting asking yourself, “Will this sound good?” you’ve stopped thinking about what’s actually true and important for you. Instead, just be honest.

I could talk about essays for hours (literally) but let me point you back to the Common App guide and some Collegewise counselors with great tips of YouTube! and

What are some resources students and parents can use to help simply the admissions process?

Allison: Never underestimate planning ahead. Contrary to popular belief, the admissions process does not start in the fall of senior year. Students who plan ahead have happier and less stressful application processes overall. Start now, be thoughtful about your choices, and trust your gut.

Also – ask the pros! Your school counselors can be a GREAT resources. Reach out and ask questions! Plus your admissions officers, test prep pros, and independent counselors are all there to make this process run smoother.

There are lots of great (free!) resources out there. And, of course, here’s a shameless plus for the Collegewise resources:

Does applying early affect a student’s chances of admission?

Allison: It can. For some students, applying early action or early decision can significantly improve chances of admission, but have some financial implications (both good and bad!). Get good advice and make the choice that’s best for you both academically and financially.

Rolling admission schools absolutely benefit students! The sooner you apply, the sooner you’ll hear the good news. I love when a student can start senior year with the first admit letter under their belt already.

What is one last piece of advice you’d like to share with students and parents today as they go on the college application journey?

Allison: Don’t let this process make you miserable. It’s too easy to focus only on the most selective schools, or to feel like this process is only a success if College X says yes. That sets you up for failure and disappointment.

Pick schools that are right for you (which might not match your friends!), spend time on your applications (last minute does NOT help here!), and write essays that sound like you. And then take a deep breath. It’s going to be okay – I promise!

Your colleges will decide whether or not you’re admitted. Then it’s up to you to decide whether or not you’re successful there. Think about what you want your college education and life to look like, and then go make it happen. You’ve got this!

Wrapping things up…

The college admissions process can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. You just need to know a few tips, and get started early. And remember that even if you’re applying for 1/1 or 1/15 deadline, you can submit your application well in advance.

Learn more about Collegewise here:

Join the conversation every Thursday for the #CollegeCash Twitter chat at 5 pm PT/8 pm ET.

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