Thursday, October 28, 2010

Navigating the College Admissions Labyrinth

By Karen Marks

The college admissions process can be daunting for everyone involved, including teachers and parents. It is easy to feel overwhelmed—the stakes are high, so much feels unclear and it is a big responsibility to advise students about their applications.

As Associate Director of Admissions for the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, and as a former member of the admissions committee in the undergraduate admissions office at Dartmouth, I read thousands of applications per year. I have also been an alumni ambassador for Cornell University, meeting with prospective students. I have seen how the process works from the inside, and I would like to share with you a few tips that will boost your confidence and your ability to offer excellent advice.

Start Early

First of all, it is really helpful to start early. How early, exactly? Freshman year in high school. I say this not to exacerbate stress or to create an unhealthy dynamic that creates programmed, artificial kids. In my experience, it is just the opposite—having a basic understanding of how the admissions process works allows you to craft a sane extracurricular and academic strategy and actually alleviates some of the anxiety that you might feel when a student looks to you, wondering if they should drop football so that they can take six AP courses and study Mandarin, even though they really love the clarinet and would rather focus on that. Freshman year is too early, in my opinion, to worry about which schools are a fit or to start taking practice tests. Instead, at this point you should encourage the student to get involved in their community, to assume leadership roles, to develop skills in a few areas and to challenge themselves, both personally and academically. It is also a great time for parents to educate themselves about the financial aid process.

Encourage Self-Assessment

Let’s say, on the other hand, that you are reading this blog with a high school junior or senior in mind, and you are just now starting to focus on college. The first thing that I would advise you to do is to help the student undertake an honest self- assessment. Specifically, reflect upon areas where the student has excelled, as well as any components that might raise flags for an admissions committee. For example, a student who had a rough academic term at some point might need to discuss this in the application, or to really focus on getting excellent grades. A student without extracurricular involvement might need to find an area of interest and start participating.

Identify Unique Attributes

It's important to determine what the student is really good at and/or really passionate about. Understanding what makes the student unique in the marketplace is tremendously helpful – crucial, really. Helping the student to spotlight their particular talents is one of the most tangible ways that you can help. Admissions officers read so many applications, and candidates stand out when they have a good understanding of their own strengths, which they can clearly convey. It can be advantageous to highlight something special and unusual that the student brings, like extensive international volunteer work, being a woman who excels in science or math, excellence in sports, music or art, or having overcome a challenging personal history. However, being well rounded and goal oriented is also a plus—the key is to understand what we are looking for and what will stand out to the committee, both good and bad.

Keep Tests in Perspective

Finally, please help the student keep tests in perspective. Yes, some people do better on standardized tests than others, and there is undeniably a quantitative component to our evaluation. However, there is always room for students whose numeric profile does not reflect their potential. In fact, many colleges and universities can fill their classes several times over with students who have perfect records, but we choose not to – because we are looking for interesting individuals who are going to contribute to the community. Your goal should be to help the student convey who they are, what they will bring and why they will excel, even if their test scores (or grades) aren’t quite as high as they would like them to be.

Although the process can be stressful, admissions consultants can work with you, providing thoughtful, informed advice that can help your student shine. As a college admissions consultant, my goal is to be as empowering and reassuring as possible, for the entire family. Conferring with an admissions consultant can be beneficial, as we can offer an objective perspective on your student’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as helping you to strategize about what to share, where to apply and how to tell your story.

Karen Marks is the Associate Director of Admissions for the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. She leads diversity recruiting for the school. Karen holds a BA from Cornell University and a JD from George Washington University. She offers college consulting services to a limited number of clients and can be reached at

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