Building Blocks

By Adela Penagos, PhD, President

It was a rather mundane Wednesday morning when I picked up the phone. After the typical greeting to a potential client, the voice assertively explained to me that he was “Mr. Highly Selective University Alum” and was looking for someone to help his daughter, a rising senior, get into his alma mater. I listened attentively, asked many questions, and explained that I work with students very closely to ultimately create a diversified targeted college list, which benefits the students, as it provides them with options characterized by various degrees of selectivity. Furthermore, I underscored my advising philosophy and followed-up with my intake questionnaires. As it is my practice, I asked for the student‘s transcript. The father had described this young woman as someone who had won many academic accolades and was in the top 5% of her class. Once I received the transcript and school profile, I learned that the young woman was a very strong B+ student and in the top 25% of her class. There are many universities that will be a great fit for this student; nonetheless, the father’s alma mater is unlikely to be one of them. More importantly, by the time someone becomes a rising senior, there is very little room for me to work with the student in grades improvement.

When a student’s dream is to attend a highly selective college (those accepting less than 20% of the applicant pool), the student needs to be fully aware that these schools are a reach for everyone. However, there are certain ways in which a student can stand out in a college application process and build certain habits throughout high school that will help him or her be a stronger college applicant. These traits, even in our instantaneous high-tech era, cannot be acquired overnight.

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How do you stand out in your college applications beyond your grades (which are the foundation of your profile)?

1. Be passionate. 

Find one thing that you want to learn or a skill-set you want to develop to great depths and dedicate a significant time to it throughout your high school years. One of the most passionate students I have worked with developed her passion for economics while working during a summer at an Indian reservation in Montana. Subsequently, she spent another summer researching economic issues with a university professor. By learning of the disparity between various populations, she developed a great understanding of her potential major. While she is aware that she might change her major in college (roughly 60% of students do), she decided to immerse herself into something she loved to do. It might take you time to discover what you are passionate about, but 9th and 10th grade is high school is a great time to begin exploring potential interests.

2. Understand your uniqueness.

While it is important for all of us to be able to relate to those around us and build community within our families, schools, and neighborhoods, it is equally important to be self-aware.  As you engage in various activities throughout high school inside and outside the classroom as well as during summer breaks, ask yourself, Am I doing this because I am genuinely interested in it or because is the latest fad in my peer group? Colleges want to see clearly that you are comfortable in your own skin. One of the most memorable stories of one of my advisees was a student who decided to spend his entire junior year in a program abroad offered by his high school. Originally, he was planning to study in Italy for a semester, but by December, his interest in Art History and his self-discovery journey was such, that he knew he wanted to return to Florence for the spring semester, even when his 13 peers were returning to their home campus.

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3. Initiate Communication.

The way you communicate with your teachers, administrators, coaches, and other members of your high school staff right now is creating certain habits in the way you will communicate with individuals in similar positions in the in the future. It is important that you are comfortable being your own best advocate (as opposed to having your parents take on this role). When you do not understand something in class or practice, respectfully, ask the needed questions to reach solutions. Developing these skills early on will enable you to show initiative when you are engaging with college representatives at college fairs or during college tours, schedule possible interviews, and in the long run your faculty and college administrators.

4. Love Learning.

My friend’s nonna wisely predicted that she was going to be in school until she was walking with a cane. While my friend is still very healthy, she thrives in a college setting (where she is a faculty member) because every day is a new learning experience for her. She wasn’t her class valedictorian only because she aimed to get all As and chose the most rigorous curricula, but because she took what she learned in her classes beyond the classroom. One of her favorite activities was tutoring her classmates who were struggling in the sciences and helped them improve their grades. As a result of her efforts our peers in 9th grade got at least a C or better in these courses. She mastered new topics by reading on her own about difficult scientific concepts and was able to show on her applications to both undergraduate and graduate programs that she would be a terrific teacher since she is able to explain the principles learned on her classes and research very clearly to others.

5. Decide How to Invest Your Time.

There are not enough hours in the day to do everything we want to do. The most successful students I have worked with are the ones who have very clearly established goals and learn early on that they need to practice saying, no. It is much more important to commit to fewer things, but to do them well, than to aim to do everything at the risk of not achieving to your full potential; not getting enough sleep; eating poorly; and keeping an unhealthy life-style. One of the best practices adopted with students I work with is a time investment journal. Start small, by recording the daily investment of your time during one week at first. By the end of the week review your findings with someone who can help you understand how you can maximize your time and strategize to get rid of any time wasters. Figuring out where your time is going now, will allow you to better decide where to focus your energies to achieve your goals without being overwhelmed and experiencing burn out.

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While we are extremely fortunate to live in a country that has over 4,000 colleges and universities, the more you build on your skills, passions, and experiences, the better chances you will have to open more doors for your future applications. Remember, if you plan early, you are providing yourself with the opportunity to have alternatives and end up at a college/university you can call home for four years and never have to say, what if…