Help on the College Application Process for High School Kids
Competition for spots at colleges and universities is tighter than ever. But families are getting an edge with admissions counselors, test prep services and lots of early planning.
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As a high school junior, Amanda Palmer was one of those teens who knew exactly what she wanted to study in college and what she hoped to pursue eventually as a career: autism research. Her grades were stellar – but she and her parents, Amy and David Palmer of Birmingham, knew that wasn't necessarily enough to get her into the perfect college program.
They also knew that finding the right fit for Amanda, both in academics and environment, wasn't going to be easy.
Who would do all that research? Vet the different schools? Find out what she should do to fortify her transcript and increase her chances of acceptance?
A friend had a recommendation: Meet with Jane Williams, owner of College Admissions Consulting in Birmingham, who has 20 years of experience helping teens and parents navigate the college application process.
The Palmers met with Williams during the summer before Amanda's junior year at Birmingham Seaholm High School to begin gaining an understanding of how to proceed. Working with Williams and private ACT tutors to glean test-taking tips and strategies, Amanda eventually applied to – and was accepted at – Vanderbilt University in Tennessee on a full academic scholarship to study her passion. Now a junior there, Amanda is thriving.
The college odds
Looking back on the application process, the Palmers feel that while they certainly could have helped their daughter to navigate the process without outside aid, Williams was invaluable in saving them time, helping to develop a strong college list and keeping the family on track with deadlines and deliverables.
"I can imagine parents spending 40, 80 even 100 hours looking at colleges, identifying each school's individual deadlines," says David Palmer. "It's a tedious process."
According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, or NACAC, approximately 3.28 million students graduated high school in 2010-11 – up from 2.5 million a decade prior. And, the U.S. Department of Education notes, the total number of college students is expected to increase an additional 13 percent between 2009 and 2020. The sheer volume of college-bound high school graduates is one significant reason why the college admissions scene has become more competitive than ever.
According to Williams, other factors like The Common Application – an online app used by 488 colleges and universities across the country, including the University of Michigan, Albion College, Alma College and Kalamazoo College – makes it much easier for students to apply to multiple colleges by using the same application.
Jason Whalen, a counselor at Clarkston High School, notes that technology in general has contributed to the increase in the number of colleges and universities to which students are applying.
"In the past, colleges mailed all of their marketing materials to kids, which is so much more expensive," he says. "Now, it's not only less expensive but easier to market electronically. Kids' email boxes are inundated where our mailboxes used to be. As a result, colleges from all over are reaching out, and students are drawing interest from faraway places. Three kids from Clarkston High School ended up at the University of Alabama last year.
"Kids simply are exposed to more and are applying to more schools."
A result of this combination of circumstances is stiff competition for spots – and what can be an emotional and often stressful journey for students and their families in securing one.
Thanks to the advice of friends with kids a few years older than her own, Cathy Lambert of Livonia began thinking about the college application process well before her eldest son Ben's senior year at Livonia Stevenson High School. Beginning his freshman year, any time her son completed community service hours or earned a certificate for volunteering or leadership activities, Lambert tucked those away in a folder that she dusted off when it came time to begin the college application process.
In addition, when Ben was still a junior, Lambert attended the free workshops and college nights offered by the high school to begin understanding the process – including things like early admissions, rolling admissions, deadlines and other details. Later that year, she accompanied her son on campus visits to his top two schools of interest: the University of Michigan and Michigan State University.
"It was these campus visits and the college nights at the school that really helped us understand timelines, options and what we needed to do to help Ben position himself well for admission," she says. "I highly encourage parents to start early like we did."
On that note, as soon as the applications for both schools went live on Aug. 1 before Ben's senior year, Lambert and Ben went online to get started.
"Once senior year starts, a million activities begin for these kids," she explains. "So I encouraged Ben the first day that he could to take a look at the application and the essay questions and just to start thinking. I stayed on top of him, so that he got his applications in before the chaos of senior year began."
Lambert was familiar with independent college consultants and knew people who used them. But she didn't feel it was necessary to get one for Ben, who had a grade point average above a 4.0, highly competitive ACT scores and, on paper, all the criteria seemingly most important to his two schools of interest. Turns out she was right. Ben was accepted to both universities and is currently a freshman at MSU.