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Preparing to Apply to College… from Home

Karen Spencer

Written by Karen Spenceron March 18th, 2020

Like many admissions officers, I was introduced to this line of work after having been a tour guide at Valparaiso University. I went to graduate school to study counseling in higher education and, while working in the admissions office at UVA, realized that admissions was my passion. As an admissions officer at Franklin & Marshall, I read and made decisions on applications from NY, CA, and CO, was in charge of transfer admissions, and was the liaison to all coaches during the athletic recruiting process. Moving to Georgetown, I continued to oversee transfer admissions and reviewed applicants from the Midwest, reading up to 1800 applications each year. I also acted as the liaison for the soccer coach, and led one of the business school admissions committees. During my time in the admissions world, I particularly enjoyed meeting with students, helping student athletes decide if they really wanted to play a sport in college, helping transfer students find a better fit at a different college, and helping students and parents debunk the myriad of myths that are out there regarding this process.
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Many of us are unexpectedly finding ourselves at home all day… and with a teenager. At College Coach, we regularly work remotely with high school students on their college application processes, so wanted to share some thoughts about how to make sure the weeks ahead are productive ones. While distance learning may or may not be an option for your student, here are some ideas that we’re sharing with our remote students to help advance their college processes and make the most of this unexpected down time.
  • Take a full length, timed practice ACT and SAT. Compare your scores and see how you feel about each test. Use that to make an informed decision about which test to take and which test prep you’ll need in the fall/winter.
  • If your test date was cancelled, you may want to take advantage of free test prep resources like Khan Academy to stay in practice. Save any more intensive, paid tutoring or classes for when we get closer to rescheduled test dates, as more immediate prep tends to be most effective at increasing scores. As always, keep reading—reading comprehension is the greatest skill to develop in preparation for verbal analysis and related sections of standardized tests.
  • As a family, visit (remotely) two colleges that are really different from each other and talk about the differences. Discuss what characteristics stand out, and why they are important to your student. Alternatively, go old school and buy a guidebook like The Fiske Guide to Colleges. Start reading about some colleges you’ve heard of or are considering. See what attributes stand out to you and which are a turn-off. See if you can find other colleges that match the flavor profile of schools that interest you.
  • Start searching for scholarships. The good news is there are a lot of options for outside scholarships, but that’s also the bad news—it can be a lot to wade through. Check out your high school counseling office webpage or Naviance system for local scholarship information. Start a larger-scale search at, create a profile, and see what scholarships might ultimately be a fit for you. Many have eligibility requirements that need lead time (50 hours of community service, a portfolio, or experience at sea, for example). Becoming familiar with those requirements early can maximize your options later.  So act early, and use the gift of time you’ve been given.
  • If you had thoughts as to which 11th grade teacher or teachers you were going to ask for letters of recommendation, now’s a good time to make the request. Teachers are home, and, though many are working hard on distance learning options for their students, some may have unexpected free time on their hands as school districts extend spring breaks or postpone classes due to technical issues.
  • Start crafting your essays. Essays are the part of the application process that takes the longest… by FAR. Students may have to write one or even 15(!) before they are done with their applications. (Rule of thumb: The more selective the colleges you are applying to, the more essays you generally have to write.) Doing a lot of work brainstorming and formulating your ideas for an essay on the front end will really make the actual process of writing on the back end much easier. The Common Application and the University of California system, for example, have already posted their essay prompts for the 2020-21 application season. If you know you are likely to apply to a school that takes one of these applications, you can get started—now! And like the Common Application, the Coalition Application allows for “topic of choice,” so even though they haven’t confirmed their essay prompts for next year, you can ultimately write about whatever moves you for that application!
It can be frustrating to think that your student’s progress regarding the college application process has been stalled indefinitely in a way that’s totally out of your—or their--control. Trying out a few of the above might remind your student that they still have power over many aspects of this process, and implementing a few of these ideas might make their summer and fall easier in the long run. College-App-Prep-101-CTA


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