College Apps: Rites of passage for many

December 17, 2002|by KEVIN CLAPP

They sit on the desk or kitchen table, taunting with their unending silence that speaks volumes.

You push them away; they don't protest, secure in the knowledge you'll be back.

Because they're not going anywhere, and they represent the biggest decisions in many high school seniors' young lives.

THEY are your college applications, seemingly endless pages of boxes to check, blanks to fill and circles to color. Some are short, others are long ... and don't forget those 500-word essays.

Unfortunately, while visions of sugarplums want to dance in your heads, the holiday season represents a last frenzied push to complete and send college applications in time.


Some institutions, such as Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pa., feature a rolling admission policy with no formal application deadline. Others, like Penn State Mont Alto in Mont Alto, Pa., don't have a firm deadline but strongly encourage early filing.

The penalty? Being held at a higher standard to gain admission.

Love 'em or hate 'em, the college application is a rite of passage for many teens, teens like 17-year-old Rachel Corballis, a senior at Smithsburg High School.

"The deadlines," she says, "definitely came up faster than I thought they would."

A 2001 survey, conducted by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, measured trends in college admission and said the most important factor influencing 2001 admission decisions was grades in college prep courses.

Sent to 1,600 undergraduate admission offices of two- and four-year institutions with student populations ranging from fewer than 5,000 to more than 10,000 students, more than 80 percent of respondents cited prep course achievement as holding considerable importance.

This was nearly a 3 percent jump above figures from a similar survey in 2000.

Other important factors in 2001 were class rank, admission test scores and grades in all subjects. Deemed less important were community service, work and extracurricular activities, and interviews.

Rachel is among the lucky ones; with an older sister in her first year at Bryn Mawr College in Bryn Mawr, Pa., she was able to get a jump on the process.

Still, there were bumps. The seven essays she wrote for her five applications - to Harvard, Yale, Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr and University of Pennsylvania - proved to be an exercise in tedium, easily shrugged off.

"All I know is my goal was to get all my essays written by the end of the summer and it didn't happen that way," Rachel says.

Instead, she began writing at the end of August, with each essay requiring four drafts.

"I kept pushing them aside to do other things," Rachel admits. "And it was hard to get them done."

At Wilson College, Dean of Enrollment Kathie Berard urges prospective students to be themselves. All too often, trying to write the perfect essay, for instance, yields a finished product with flash but lacking in personal substance.

"Rather than follow a model, if they talk about the depth and breadth of their experiences that's what's really important," Berard says. "I think sometimes, I don't know if trying too hard is the phrase, but they're following suggestions and advice and we're trying to see who they are."

Then there are the nitpicky details that can doom any application. Berard and Admissions Counselor Amy Steele tick off a laundry list of common offenses: misspelled words, spaces left blank, references to schools other than Wilson in the college essay.

Like demerits, these offenses add up in time.

"Their essays may be wonderful," Steele says. "But if they have a couple of words spelled wrong in every paragraph, that impacts."

"That's that attention to detail again," Berard says. "I guess we can't stress that enough."

With help from guidance counselor Krista Downs, Rachel has tamed the college application beast. Not so for many of her friends, though.

Many, she says, are just now completing forms and sending them away to colleges and universities across the country.

Of course, almost as bad as the mad dash to send applications out is the long, torturous process of waiting for acceptance. This is where Rachel finds herself, sitting on pins and needles as her chosen schools decide whether she is among their chosen ones.

The suspense is mounting, even if she wishes it wouldn't.

"I've been trying to forget about it all day," she says. "But it's kind of hard."

If Rachel has one word of advice for those getting a late start on the process, it would be to take a breath, relax and, hard as it might be, try not to stress out.

"Believe me, it doesn't help," she says. "Because you still have the same amount of work but you're 10 times more on edge."

Application tips for high school freshmen

It's never too early to begin preparing for college. The National Association for College Admission Counseling, on the Web, has these tips for freshmen in high school:

  • Build strong academic, language, mathematics and critical thinking skills by taking challenging courses

  • Meet your high school guidance counselor and discuss your plans for the next four years

  • Browse college literature or surf the Web to get an idea of what kinds of schools may interest you

  • Explore what high school courses colleges require

  • Research career possibilities

The Web site also has college prep calendars for the remaining three years of high school. Each are aimed at making the college search, application and acceptance process as smooth as possible.


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