Oct 29, 2014

The sad truth about 'VIP' college applications

"S" has been heavily recruited this year by colleges.

This year, my cat “S” has been swamped with any number of 'VIP' college applications offering all kinds of special enticements for a simple submission.

They read something like this:  Your achievements in high school have impressed us, which is why I’d like to personally invite you to apply to XXX College with your exclusive Dean’s Select Application.

And the benefits are almost irresistible:

  • No application fee to pay
  • No long essay to write
  • Priority scholarship consideration
  • An expedited admission decision

Sound familiar?

Sometimes also disguised as "fast-track" or “priority” apps, these personalized invitations to apply are designed to lure seniors into submitting streamlined applications, often with waived requirements or promises of on-the-spot decisions. And the temptation is great for overworked and stressed-out high school seniors looking for an easy admit to college.

But be aware.  These applications can be a trap.

Just because you receive one of these special invitations doesn’t mean the college is particularly interested in you.  Colleges purchase names, by the thousands sometimes, and mindlessly mail them to anyone appearing on the list.   

They haven’t assessed your qualifications, they have no idea of your “fit” for their institution, and they don’t really care if you are remotely interested.

They just want your application.

“I feel like it sets up false hopes,” explains Nicole Gracie, an independent educational consultant, who primarily works with student athletes on the west coast.

And why are colleges so anxious to get your application?  Because “selectivity” has become such an important metric in rankings, and the more applications a college receives, the more selective it can appear simply by rejecting the overflow.

Yet there can be consequences for the applicant.

First, quickie applications don’t provide an adequate opportunity for you to showcase your special accomplishments and unique skills.  Sure, it looks nice to have your name preprinted on the form and the offer to skip the essay seems like an attractive bonus.   

But if you’re a borderline candidate or if your grades and scores don’t tell your full story, you may be doing yourself a disservice. 

“If I catch my students before they impulsively act on fast app offers, I recommend against them,” said Larry Blumenstyk, a New Jersey-based Certified Educational Planner (CEP).  “For the well qualified student, they are meaningless….For the marginal candidate, a fast app does not permit as full a picture as a complete application.”

And these applications should not be considered automatic offers of admission. 

“Unfortunately, most students feel flattered to receive them, thinking the college only sends to those students who are a sure thing,” adds Ginger Driver, an independent college consultant from Houston.  “I think it’s just another ‘fishing expedition’ on the part of colleges, and they don’t have the students’ best interests at heart.”

If you want to forego a more “holistic” review of your credentials, fine.  Just be aware you could find yourself on a never-ending wait list or you may be asked to submit additional information including that essay you thought you were avoiding.

And just because you complete the streamlined version of the college’s application doesn’t mean you can skip sending official score reports or forget about having your school counselor send a transcript.  All too often, students submitting these applications neglect to alert counselors and teachers.  Or they fail to arrange for standardized tests to be sent.  These oversights can cause awful snafus and also result in wait list or rejection if paperwork isn’t completed on time. 

The bottom line is do not apply to a college just because they appear to be recruiting to you.  Do your homework and understand what you’re getting into.  And if you still think it’s a good idea, make sure you follow-up with your counselor and meet all remaining requirements for admission.

“S” can’t imagine what all the fuss is about, but she knows enough to view these invitations with a little healthy skepticism. After all, she’s just a very average house cat.

Oct 27, 2014

12 key ways to make a college fair work for you

With the availability of virtual college fairs or other internet conferencing opportunities, it can be tempting to take a pass on the crowds and skip attending the annual gathering of colleges at the local community or convention center.

But that would be a mistake.  While sometimes hectic, college fairs present unique opportunities to make much more personal connections with colleges on your list.  And there’s no better way to establish a relationship than to start a face-to-face conversation.

There are a few basic rules, however.  First, lose your friends and don’t consider a college fair a social event. Do a little advance planning and strategize about schools you’re going to visit and what you’re going to say. 

Don’t wander the room aimlessly. Be purposeful and serious about the business of getting to know colleges. And take notes on what you have learned.

“Students shouldn’t just start at one end of the fair and work their way down a row of tables,” explained one veteran organizer. “They should target colleges in which they are interested and not waste time standing in long lines for colleges they know are visiting their high schools in coming weeks.”

And never miss an opportunity to make a good first impression.  It’s quite likely that the smiling face on the other side of the table will be among those reading your application.  So show your interest by returning the smile, making eye contact and being polite.

If a college fair is in your future, consider these 12 ways to make the experience work for you:
  • Register.  For fairs offering opportunities for online registrations, feel free to let them know you’re coming by signing up. Not only will it save time, but for some fairs you’ll be rewarded with a handy barcode you can use to leave contact information with college reps.
  • Print labels.  Print labels with your name, mailing and email addresses, phone number, high school, year of graduation, and area of academic interest—if you have one. Then use the labels to stick onto college-interest cards or lists. This simple tip will leave you more time to have “meaningful” conversations with college reps. And even if you know the fair is “automated,” bring a few labels as colleges frequently appear at the last minute and don’t always have access to the barcode system.
  • Bring a backpack. Although many colleges are going “green” and don’t make as much print material available, a fair is still an opportunity to collect glossy brochures and handouts. Be prepared with a backpack or something similar to cart the stuff home.
  • Be organized. Draw up a list of colleges with which you intend to make contact. If a map is provided in advance, note locations in the conference hall and think about how you’ll get from one exhibit to another. 
  • Ask questions. Don’t look foolish by asking for information that’s readily available on the college website or in print materials.  Do a little research in advance of the fair and have 3 to 5 questions ready to ask on issues of importance to you. Probe for insight and ask follow-up questions to deepen your understanding.
  • Elevator pitch.  Every college applicant should have an “elevator pitch” in which you sum up interests, goals, qualifications, and what you might bring to a college community. But be aware that face time at a college fair will be limited, and the pitch should take less than a minute or no longer than an average elevator ride.
  • Explore. Try to visit with schools you might not have considered or whose names seem less familiar to you. Fairs offer low-risk opportunities for broadening your horizons.
  • Attend information sessions.  Many fairs offer workshops for you to learn more about college search, application completion or financial aid.  This is your chance to ask questions and become better informed about the application process in general.
  • Take notes.  Bring a pen and notebook or a smartphone/tablet.  Fairs can be chaotic, but try to take a minute to make note of any information you think is important.  It may be a detail you want to follow-up later or you may hear something that makes a school especially attractive to you.   These tidbits of information can be very useful when it comes to answering the question of why you want to attend a particular college.
  • Get business cards. For those schools in which you know you are interested or those schools where you made a great connection with the rep, get a business card. Follow-up with a brief email after the event referring to your conversation. Thank you notes are always appreciated.
  • Sort through the material. After you get home, sort through the information you received. Read it even. Then use this information as a basis for further exploration—check out websites, get on mailing lists, or plan a campus visit.
  • Start early. Don’t wait until fall of senior year to attend your first college fair. Get familiar with the “fair scene” by visiting local events early in your high school career.

Oct 24, 2014

13 very smart ways to connect with colleges you can’t visit

An important part of deciding which college to attend is finding good fit.  And without doubt, the very best way to investigate fit is to actually get on campus and see first-hand what a school is all about—academically, culturally, and socially.

This fact isn’t lost on colleges, which go to great lengths to get prospective students and their families to campus.   But at the same time, colleges also recognize these trips aren’t always feasible.

Getting to campus can be enormously expensive and time-consuming, and no one expects you to visit all the colleges on your list, especially those that aren’t within a “reasonable” distance of home.

If you find you can’t visit all the colleges you are seriously considering, try a few of these “next best” alternatives for making campus connections:

1.  Get on the mailing list. Colleges maintain mailing lists for the purpose of communicating directly with students. Take advantage of the opportunity to receive information and learn more about colleges you are considering by “intentionally” getting on mailing lists. But be aware that once you agree to receive these communications electronically, you need to open your email.  Colleges have software that allows them to see if you dump their messages directly into trash.  Yes, colleges can be annoying to the point of spamming prospective applicants.  But in the era of “big data,” you need to know that colleges have the capability of tracking your response to what they are selling.

2.  Subscribe to college blogs.  Many colleges are opening lines of communication through blogs. Bloggers can be admissions staff or students who have agreed to write regular columns on their experiences. Both can be enormously helpful in understanding the college, its community, and the process for submitting a successful application.

3.  Attend college fairs. Colleges and universities typically send admissions staff or alumni representatives to fairs all over the country. There are regional fairs or fairs centered on a theme or an alliance of colleges. Although they can be hectic, college fairs are great opportunities to make connections and pick up some glossy brochures.

4.  Sign-up for school-based presentations. In the fall, colleges send admissions representatives to meet with high school students on their turf. These events are generally organized through student services or the college/career office. Be sure to keep up with the schedule of visits and sign-up for presentations that interest you.

5.  Try the virtual method. Colleges are increasingly participating in websites designed to support “virtual” visits to their campuses. The most popular of these sites include CampusTours.com, ecampustours.com, and YOUniversityTV.com. You can even attend a virtual college fair at CollegeWeekLive.com or view a college lecture via podcast through iTunes U. YouTube offers some professionally produced marketing pieces as well as a huge sample of student videos. And finally, check out live on-campus webcams, which som more enterprising colleges use to give viewers a sense of “being there.”

6.  “Friend” a college. Many colleges have built their own Facebook “fan” pages, which they use as tools to display videos, pictures, and news articles about their schools.  With creative use of Facebook, colleges keep in touch with potential applicants as well as provide them with important information and invitations to events.

7.  Tweet. For the most part, colleges don’t expect their Twitter accounts to necessarily result in active exchanges with high school students. They’re happy to establish these forums to pass along newsworthy items or basic information. By following a few colleges, you can use Twitter as a tool for gathering data or keeping abreast of deadlines.

8.  Work the local network.  Touch base with friends coming home for Thanksgiving, relatives, and neighbors—see what they know.  Many have visited the campuses in which you are most interested and have useful information and impressions. Or ask admissions offices for the names of local alums who may be willing to spend some time with you. 

9.  Check out campus media. There’s hardly a college in the country that doesn’t have a student-run newspaper. Most also have campus radio and/or television stations. What better way to keep up with campus goings on—without editorial oversight from the admissions office or college marketing. You can find most newspapers online, and with a little creative searching you can stream a live radio or TV broadcast.

10.  Sign up for an online class.  One of the side benefits of the massive open online course (MOOC) movement is the ability to take college-level classes without leaving the comfort of your living room.  If some of the colleges on your list are offering online classes through Coursera, Udacity, or  edX, you can get a feel for some of what goes on in classrooms on campus by signing up and actually taking or auditing a course—you might even learn something useful!

11.  Attend a reception. A local or regional college reception is less of a social event and more of an off-campus information session. Don’t go for the food, but consider it another opportunity to meet admissions staff, ask questions, and pick up more marketing material. You’ll also get a good peek at the competition—students from other high schools in your area who are likely to apply to the college sponsoring the event.

12.  Schedule a local interview. Many colleges are expanding their capacity to provide off-campus interviews either conducted by admissions staff or alumni in the area. Although the staff interviews are largely extensions of the service offered on-campus, alumni interviews usually kick in after you’ve submitted an application. Either interview may be “informational” or “evaluative.” Regardless, don’t neglect this very important method of connecting with the college of your choice.

13.  Personal communication.   It may seem old fashioned, but don’t forget the power of personal communication.  At many colleges, you will have an assigned admissions counselor who visits your high school (see above), staffs the local college fair (see above), and reviews your file.  Networking can be a very powerful tool in the admissions game, so if they’re open to it, get to know your admission counselor.   This is not a license to badger overworked staff.  But if you have questions and feel comfortable making a more personal connection, don’t hesitate to call or email your area representative.