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Chasing the College Acceptance Letter: Advice From Students and School Counselors

Graduation season is upon us, and for many high school students, the next step in their academic life will be college. In Princeton High School’s class of 2014, more than 93 percent will attendcollege. A proud moment and an outstanding achievement.

Gaining admission to college is extremely competitive today, especially because of the higher number of applications colleges receive. More and more students are applying to eight or even more colleges. Thousands and thousands of applications typically come into admissions offices, and they are from highly qualified students whose credentials often include 10 or more AP (advanced placement) courses, straight A grades, and the highest SAT scores, as well as those who are valedictorians, varsity athletes, editors of the school paper, and dedicated volunteers in the community.

Even students of this caliber are not always accepted at the first college of their choice. On the other hand, college and guidance counselors point out, there will be another college to match that student’s goals and interests, where he or she will thrive.

As Princeton High School guidance counselor Kyle Campisi notes: “Many colleges are reporting that they are receiving more applications than ever, and they do not have enough seats for all the qualified students. However, when these students do not get accepted into their top choice schools, they often discover the many other outstanding institutions.”

Application Process

Adds Patti Lieberman, PHS college counselor: “There is not one over-riding factor to get into college. Just as every applicant is unique, each college has its various standards for admission. We encourage our students to challenge themselves appropriately, get involved in those activities that they are passionate about, work hard, and have fun. It’s important to know what is important to you, as there is a college for everyone.”

What does it take to get that coveted letter of acceptance and how does one prepare in high school to navigate the college application process successfully?

In addition to Ms. Lieberman and Ms. Campisi, four students have shared their thoughts and their personal experiences in obtaining their desired college outcome. Working hard for good grades, taking AP courses, having a carefully organized plan and schedule, and focusing on courses and activities especially meaningful to the student are among the criteria this group of students identifies as factors in their success.

Three of the students, PHS Class of 2013, have now completed their freshman year at college, and look back on how high school prepared them. The other student is a current senior, about to graduate and embark on her college career.

“PHS prepared me well for college,” reports Rebecca Freda, who will be a sophomore at Boston College in the fall. She is currently in Dublin, Ireland, participating in an eight-week college intern program.

“I was prepared for the work load,” she continues. “However, the type of work I have had to do in college has been different than that in high school. There is much more reading and fewer small assignments. Instead, there are only a few larger assignments or tests. For example, I took an economics class in college where the grade consisted of three tests, and a political science course where the majority of our grade came from our performance on the final exam and the research paper.”

Deeper Understanding

Bryan Hill, also PHS Class of 2013, believes that he was well-prepared for his freshman year at Rutgers University. “I felt that PHS did a great job. The majority of kids enrolled at PHS are very strong students. Being in that environment just pushes you to do the best you can. With that, in combination with excellent teachers, it was easy to succeed.”

“The biggest thing I had to adjust to were classes where the final grade rests on two exams and a project. That was a little overwhelming for me. I had to learn how to be more effective studying, and shift from straight memorization to a deeper understanding of the material.”

Nicole (Nicky) Kratzer, PHS 2013, now a student at Elon University in North Carolina, also points to the challenging high school environment. “I think the expectations that PHS teachers and staff have of students really helped me excel and prepared me for college. I realized that it was not much harder than high school. I did not have a lot more work, and I was able to balance my school work with extra curricular activities. This is because in high school, there was always so much to do and so much on my plate, that from an early age, I had to learn good time management and how to prioritize certain things.”

Time management, setting priorities, and a definite plan and schedule were other factors nearly all the students targeted.

“A schedule was crucial for my success in my time at PHS,” says Bryan Hill. “Between studying and extra curricular activities, it became very easy to fall behind without an organized schedule. In fact, from learning how to do this at PHS, I was able to create and religiously maintain a schedule in college, to which I can attribute my success.”

“I am definitely the type of person who likes to be organized and have a set schedule,” points out Ms. Kratzer. “Every day, I would go to school, then go to practice, come home, eat dinner, and then do homework. I think that it was good that PHS used our sophomore year as the time when we should complete our community service requirement, so that when things got a little bit busier our junior and senior years, that component of our graduation requirement was already fulfilled.”

Available Time

And adds Rebecca Freda: “In high school, it was important to stay active. When I was doing multiple things, I did the best. This probably came from the structure it provided to my life. When I did not have a lot of down time, I knew I had to be productive with the time I had. It may seem silly, but I always put an emphasis on sleep. Getting a good night’s sleep was really important so that I had energy, and did not fall behind on my work.”

Stephanie Hauer, PHS Class of 2014 and getting ready to graduate, says that she has not had a specific plan, but “My numerous daily activities dictated and limited my available time to do school work, prepare for standardized testing, and write application essays. I feel what has helped me most in my college preparation was pursuing a highly rigorous academic curriculum.”

Ms. Hauer’s current courses include multivariable calculus and linear algebra, AP English IV, AP government and politics, accelerated physics, advanced French VI, architecture, and peer group leadership.

Counselors Patti Lieberman and Kyle Campisi meet individually with juniors and seniors for college planning and preparation, and to help find the colleges that match those factors that are most important to the students and meet their needs. They help the students establish a plan and time-line specifically for the college application process, as well as for their high school courses and activities. The counselors encourage students to start the application procedure in August of their junior year, and keep an organized calendar of dates for completing items on their list.

“We encourage students to share this calendar with parents to help alleviate stress,” note Ms. Lieberman and Ms. Campisi. “We run small and large group presentations, focusing on topics such as application time-lines, organization, the ‘how to’s, basic parts of an application, letters of recommendation, mailing procedures, college visits, testing, financial aid, NCAA requirements, etc.

“We also teach seminars about how to use Naviance, our college and career readiness software program. We run evening programs and morning coffee talks for junior and senior parents with the college counselor. College Application Help Group runs all fall on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday during daily break. We also send out frequent email and phone ñblast reminders. As a guidance department and school community, we stress wellness and time management.”

Top-Notch

As to the number of colleges students apply to these days, “Eight seems to be the ‘new average’,” report Ms. Lieberman and Ms. Campisi. “However, a few students keep it simple and apply to one school that has an Early Action or Rolling Admissions, such as Rutgers University, earn their acceptance as early as October, and are done with the application process.”

The students appreciate the help and guidance of the counselors during what can be a challenging and stressful experience, says Bryan Hill. “The guidance department at PHS was top-notch in my opinion. They were always friendly and so helpful. I enjoyed the times I had to go into that office, whether it was for a quick question or something more serious.”

“The college counselor gave me a list of some schools I might like based on the schools I had already visited and what I told her I was looking for,” adds Rebecca Freda. “My guidance counselor was also helpful. I could go to her for advice and support. During the year, the guidance department hosts representatives from different colleges, and this was helpful in getting a general idea of what the college was like.”

Nicky Kratzer points out that “The counselors are very helpful in the sense that they have been through the process for many years and know how it works. With so many different variables, such as size, class type, location, and cost, the counselors help narrow down the options.”

PHS senior Stephanie Hauer acknowledges the counselors’ help, while adding “Students at Princeton High School are expected to navigate the college process fairly independently. The school uses a computer program, Naviance, which shows each student how their GPA, SAT, and ACT scores compare to the accepted students at every college.” As far as the college application itself, the essays stand out as a source of anxiety for many of the students. The need to set themselves apart from so many other qualified students is clearly a daunting challenge.

Unique Essay

“The college essay admittedly gave me some anxiety,” recalls Bryan HIll. “I ended up creating 10 different drafts before I felt comfortable with the work. Luckily, I started in the summer!”

Adds Ms. Freda: “The common application essay along with the supplemental essays were important. There was pressure to have a unique essay that would stand out.”

Ms. Hauer agrees. “The college essays are tremendously important, as they provided an opportunity for colleges to learn information about students that the colleges would not otherwise obtain from any other medium. Also, many colleges use the essays to help determine acceptance to scholars programs. I was concerned about the essays because I understood their significance, and I recognized that my skills in math and science are much stronger than my writing skills, so I felt added pressure while writing my essays.”

Many high school students find that the biggest challenges confront them during their junior year, when they are often facing the SAT and ACT exams. Along with the college essays, these exams are another source of worry.

“Junior year is incredibly stressful for a number of reasons,” explains Stephanie Hauer. “While I took multiple accelerated classes and three AP classes during my sophomore year, I took even more AP classes during my junior year. In addition, junior year is the year that most students take the many standardized tests required for acceptance to college. During my junior year, I took the PSAT, ACT, SAT, SAT II (also known as the SAT subject tests; most colleges require a minimum of two SAT II scores in addition to the SAT scores), and multiple AP exams. Many students take these exams multiple times.

“Also, junior year is the year that most students spend a lot of time traveling for college visits to help determine to which schools they would like to apply.”

Stressful Semesters

Nicky Kratzer has a slightly different take. “I think it is really hard to say which year of high school is the most stressful. I don’t really think that one year is more stressful as a whole, but I think the spring of my junior year and the fall of my senior year were the two most stressful semesters. Junior year was hard because it was really important to do well in school and get good grades, but there was also the additional pressure of taking the standardized tests.

“But in the fall of my senior year, there was also the added stress of completing the actual college applications and writing all of the college essays, in addition to keeping my grades up and taking the ACT one last time. I took the SAT and ACT multiple times, but did not do as well as I should have when comparing it to my GPA and such because I was very nervous, and did not do well with the long standardized tests. This worried me a lot because I had heard that SAT and ACT scores were one of the most important parts of the college application.”

Adds Rebecca Freda: “I had heard that senior year was supposed to be easy, but I found it to be just as difficult as junior year. At the same time, everyone’s experience may be different, depending on the classes they take each year. And, while I did put a lot of time and effort into the SATs, what worried me most was keeping my grades up senior year.

“The first half of senior year was the most stressful because that was when college applications were due. The best advice I could give an incoming high school senior would be to start their college applications in the summer and make sure to get them done ahead of time because once school starts, the time will slip by, and all too soon, the deadlines for applications will arrive.”

The need to set themselves apart — whether by their essay, GPA, SAT scores, extra-curricular activities, community service, or special talent — was another challenging focus for the students.

“In most cases, the courses and grades are the most important factor,” note Ms. Lieberman and Ms. Campisi. “Your most selective schools want everything: the highest grades with the most rigorous courses, strong standardized tests, and evidence of school and community involvement, and something that distinguishes you from all the other strong applicants. On the other hand, there are some schools, particularly in the United Kingdom, where standardized testing (SATs, SAT IIs, and AP scores) is the most important factor to be a competitive applicant. In contrast, there are schools in the United States that are now test-optional, and students can choose not to submit standardized testing. And, having a special talent — something that is distinguishing and extraordinary, such as a highly recruited athlete — is a big factor for many schools.

Involvement

“Many colleges like to see that students are passionate about something (extra curricular activities, sports, club membership, cultural interests, community service, religious organizations, employment, etc.). It is not necessarily about having a laundry list of activities, but the depth of involvement in those passions. Leadership and longevity in those activities are additional factors that may distinguish a student.”

Ms. Hauer agrees with the importance of such activities and interests. “Colleges look for students who have multiple interests outside of the classroom and who have exhibited leadership and independence. Also, admissions offices use involvement in extra curricular activities as criteria to identify which applicants stand out among the many with strong academic and test score qualifications. Additionally, many application essay questions require an applicant to have engaged in extra curricular activities in order to respond to the questions successfully.”

Ms. Hauer’s own catalogue of activities, interests, accomplishments, and awards is impressive. Among them are  the 2014 PHS Gold Key Award, 2013 AP Scholar with Distinction, 2013 National Merit Scholarship Commended Student, 2013 U.S. Lacrosse Academic All-American, Rochester Institute of Technology-Creativity and Innovation Award;

Also, selected as a PHS Peer Group Leader, teacher’s assistant at The Jewish Center of Princeton for students in kindergarten through third grade, Member of Tichon Ve’od, a community service-based program serving the Tri-state area, co-captain of the PHS varsity girls basketball team, president of PHS French Club, founder and president of the PHS Food Blog, and coach for Princeton girls lacrosse, for girls in kindergarten through eighth grade. These are just some of Ms. Hauer’s achievements.

Her excellent academic record, multiple awards, participation in sports, community service, and cultural activities no doubt contributed to her acceptance at the University of Virginia, which she will attend in the fall.

“I am very excited about attending the University of Virginia,” she says. “I had many choices, but Virginia really rose to the top. I plan on majoring in mathematics, and Virginia has a financial mathematics concentration that really appeals to me. I am looking forward to exploring many new academic subjects, joining new organizations, meeting students and professors, and making new friends.”

So, the adventure begins. With advice from the college and guidance counselors and the students themselves, upcoming college students can gain insight and perspective into what lies ahead and how best to plan for it.

Counselors Patti Lieberman and Kyle Campisi offer a final thought. “We are here to support our students through the college process in various ways. We encourage them not to get over-involved, to stay balanced, to get enough sleep, to eat well, to focus on enjoying their moments while planning for the future, not to get so caught up in the ‘brand’ names, find the fit, and to do those activities that they love and are passionate about. Remember, there is a college for everyone.”

 

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