Finding the Perfect Match: What You Need to Know About College

    Selecting a college can seem like a daunting task. There are schools to research, admissions requirements and deadlines to meet, essays to write, recommendations to get, college tours to schedule, factors to consider regarding tuition, campus size, location, extracurricular activities, and of course—the strength of the school’s academic offerings. Every application takes a considerable amount of time to complete, especially if you want to stand out in a sea of prospective applicants.   

    1. There are two words that can make the college search a lot more enjoyable: plan ahead.

    “Thinking about college early in a student’s academic career is, in my opinion, a smart thing to do,” says Kris Roach, director of admissions and financial aid at the University of St. Thomas. “Students (and parents) should work with their school counseling office to develop a four-year high school plan that prepares the student for the type of collegiate experience they think they desire—whether that’s to attend a highly selective national college or university, a respected regional college or university, or a community college.”

    The earlier you think about your future, the more time you have to research options, apply for loans and scholarships, and take the required courses needed (and maybe even take college courses for credit).

    Many colleges also have specific admissions requirements, like ACT or SAT scores, and if you plan ahead, you can take rigorous classes or college prep courses that will help you when it comes to taking these standardized tests (and by planning ahead, you can retake the test(s) if necessary).

    In addition to looking at test scores and grades, admissions committees also take into consideration the strength of curriculum. The rationale is that high schoolers who challenge themselves by taking more demanding classes are more likely to succeed in college. It’s a smart idea to take advanced or honors courses whenever possible.

    The kiss of death could be waiting until the last minute to start taking college seriously. Plan ahead, apply early, visit the campus to see if it feels like “home.” Treat high school as a career, with college as the next level.

    2. Yes, grades are important, but admissions staffers also realize students are more than just test scores. Standardized tests don’t paint the entire picture. You can show a complete picture of who you are by putting together a personal, genuine application that shows an abundance of co-curricular activities identifying leadership abilities, volunteerism, and a well-written essay. The essay should demonstrate what you will bring to the college community, define who you are as an individual, and “show” what sets you apart (get to the action and then reflect on the experience). What’s your hook? What makes you special? Tell the admissions staff something original. Once you’re done writing the essay, show it to a few different people for errors, content, and flow.  

    Your grades are set. Your test scores are set. Your essay and the interview are not already set, allowing you to really stand out. You don’t need to have a perfect record , but you do need to explain the blips.

    “For many students, there might be a portion of their secondary school record that merits an explanation—an unexpected dip (or rise) in their grades, a discontinuation with a varsity sport and/or a fine arts activity, a switch in high schools, an additional job or outside-of-school activity,” says Phillip Trout, a college counselor at Minnetonka High School. “Nearly all colleges include a question near the end of the application for a student to submit additional information.  ‘Is there anything else you would like to tell us?’  This information is best shared by the student applicant, rather than by a school counselor or teacher.  It makes it more personal when it comes from the student.”

    The interview is another way to show strong determination and persistence.

    “Successfully overcoming obstacles better prepares students for some of the challenges they may face in a college or university setting,” says Jobey Lichtblau, director of admission at North Dakota State University. “Conducting an interview with a student is always my preferred method. In my opinion, nothing helps more than a face-to-face conversation. It doesn’t take much time at all to make an assessment as to whether or not the time is right for the student to be successful in the college or university environment.”

    3. Helicopter parents, beware. Admissions counselors urge parents to guide students, but don’t become overly involved. Parents should help their kids prepare, but allow them to make their own decisions.

    “When students arrive on campus it’s easy to tell the students who had a family member do everything for them compared with the students who were required to take the lead,” Lichtblau says. “Students who were required to take the lead are much better prepared and typically don’t have a long adjustment period.  Students who had family members do everything for them are sometimes lost because they don’t know where to begin.” It’s a delicate balance, but important to encourage independence.

    “In order for a student to be successful in college, they need to be able to advocate for themselves, organize their time and take responsibility,” says Brian Jones, director of admissions, Minnesota State University, Mankato. “It’s going to be difficult for them to do that in a college environment when they are on their own if they haven’t learned how to do it in high school. Just like you teach your student to do laundry and cook some basic meals before they move off to college, you need to teach them how take responsibility for other areas of their life too. They should be prepared to fill out their own paperwork and make their own appointments.”

    College is meant for students to do their own research, find their own answers, and become independent. They need practice in order to succeed.   

    4. Rejections aren’t the end of the world. When one door closes, another one opens. There’s a “right” school out there for everyone.

    “The college search process is about a lot more than just getting in,” points out Jones. “Students need to think about how they can be successful in college and what type of environment is going to prepare them to be successful after graduation. Students really need to start the process by identifying what is important to them (distance from home, academic program, campus environment, etc.) and then looking for colleges that match those things. It is likely that there are many colleges that are a good fit for each student, but they need to be engaged in the search process to make sure the school they choose will be an environment where they can be successful.”

    For more advice, admissions tips, and interviews with college students, visit our education page.

    Common mistakes that drive admissions staffers crazy:

    • Be thorough. Carefully read directions and complete all portions of the application. Leaving information blank, not sharing the details of your academic history, not providing insight into your strengths and weaknesses, or simply being lazy in the process can all doom an application.

    • Think carefully about what is shared in the personal essay. If you wouldn’t share the essay with a respected family member, it’s probably not appropriate for an admissions committee.

    • Respond to requests for information in a timely manner.  Failing to respond could mean a delay in processing a student’s application, which could impact all kinds of important things (like the availability of scholarships).

    • Don’t wear shorts to the on-campus interview. Practice a firm handshake, eye contact, and answering questions directly.  

    • This is not your mother or father’s admissions application.  Students should complete the application process by themselves, for themselves.  

    • Double-check the name of the college before sending in the application. It is disheartening to admissions committees to read that Joe or Sally “must be admitted to school X because school X is his or her dream” when the application was sent to school Y. If you put down the wrong name of the school, it shows you’re not paying attention to detail.

    • There’s a fine line between making excuses and demonstrating self-awareness. Sincere descriptions of circumstances can help a student’s case if he or she can take ownership for the past and explain how his or her performance will be different in college.

    • Ask questions. Utilize the resources out there.

    Kevin Pattain

    Kevin Pattain, Minnesota State University, Mankato21, cognitive science major, Minnesota State University, Mankato

    When did you start thinking about college?

    I started thinking about college during my freshman year, but really got the ball rolling during my sophomore year. I started taking ACT prep courses, speaking with my counselor, and talking to my parents about what I had to do to prepare for college. I took the ACT in both my junior and senior year to assure that I could get a score to maximize my window of potential. Also, during my last two years, I took Advanced Placement courses.

    What were some of the factors you thought were important when looking at different schools?

    Initially, I looked at whether the schools offered my major, as well as any alternative areas of study (just in case I decided to change my major). Another factor I considered was the cost of tuition. Other important factors were extracurricular activities, student-to-instructor ratios, retention rates, diversity within the campus, research opportunities, and last but certainly not least, whether or not the campus had a welcoming feel.

    How many colleges did you consider before choosing Mankato?

    I seriously considered three, visited four, and applied to four.

    What was it about Mankato that you liked?

    Before visiting Mankato, I had heard they had a prestigious engineering program, which was initially my major. I was also attracted to the reasonable tuition, which was banded (it costs the same amount to take 12 credits as it does to take 18). I had heard that they had several recognized student organizations so I knew that I would be able to find a club or group to meet new people, occupy my time, and build my resume. These were all appealing features, but the icing on the cake had to be the overall atmosphere of the campus. I loved the fact that everyone was so friendly and welcoming, and the campus felt like home.

    Natalie Schlagel

    Natalie Schlagel, North Dakota State University21, management communications major, North Dakota State University

    When did you start thinking about college?

    I started thinking about college and began looking at schools my sophomore year of high school.  Most of the searching was done through college websites, just looking at majors and what Midwest schools had to offer. I didn’t become more active in my search until my junior year, when I began touring campuses. I started applying to schools the summer before my senior year and decided on NDSU around Christmas my senior year.

    What were some of the factors you thought were important when looking at different schools?

    I looked at distance from home, student-to-staff ratio, choices of majors, and different student organizations and activities. I wanted a college that was close to home, but far enough to get away. I didn’t want to go to a private school because tuition seemed too expensive, but I still wanted to be able to interact with my professors and gain relationships that could help in the future. I had a general idea of what I wanted to do, but I wanted options in majors just in case I changed my mind—which I did! I started out as a political science major and then quickly realized that wasn’t for me. Finally, being super involved in sports in high school, I wanted to stay involved in college and have options as to how I spent my free time.

    How many colleges did you consider before choosing NDSU?

    I was interested in a total of 11 colleges. I toured five of them and then applied to three.  

    What was it about NDSU that you liked?

    I loved NDSU because when I toured the campus, every person I met was friendly, nice, and helpful. This is what I now know is the “Bison Family” at NDSU. I felt that instantly, which made me fall in love with the campus, the people, the programs, and the activities even more.  I had a feeling like ‘I can be successful here. This is where I’m meant to be.’ 

    Mackenzie Davis

    Mackenzie Davis, University of St. Thomas22, business management major, University of St. Thomas

    When did you start thinking about college?

    I first starting thinking about college when I was a sophomore in high school. My sister is two years older than I am, and when she left for college I really started thinking about where I wanted to go.

    What were some of the factors you thought were important when looking at different schools?

    One of the biggest factors for me was location. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay around the Twin Cities or move to Colorado.  Other factors were the percentage of students who had jobs within a year after they graduated, and the overall atmosphere of the campus.

    How many colleges did you consider before choosing St. Thomas?

    I seriously considered four.

    What was it about St. Thomas that you liked?

    I love the size of St. Thomas. All of my classes have under 30 people in them, which makes you have a closer relationship with your teachers and helps you learn more. All of the faculty and alumni at St. Thomas really want you to succeed and will help you with whatever you need. I really love how it’s located in St. Paul, too.

    What advice do you have for high school students who are starting their college search?

    Make sure that you go to a school that you like, don’t just go somewhere because that’s where your best friend is going. College is a time for you to meet new people and be true to yourself.  If you know what you want to major in, make sure that your school has a good program in that area. You also need to figure out if you want to stay close to home or go out of state. I have friends who went out of state freshman year and wound up coming back to Minnesota their sophomore year.

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