Applying to College Shouldn’t Be On One Person’s Shoulders
by: Keo Oura Kounlavong-Sabath, Director of College Counseling
If you’re asked to bring a cake to an important event, do you turn to the family recipe, which has been passed down for generations, and get baking? Do you pull out the box of cake mix and the tub of frosting for your homemade cake recipe? Or do you pick up your cake from the local grocery store? Either way you will have cake, but you can’t deny that the process looks different in each of those scenarios.
Applying to college is a lot like making a cake. There are a lot of ingredients needed and specific directions to follow. Miss a step or exclude an ingredient and the results can be disastrous! But what happens when one ingredient such as SAT or ACT test scores, like nuts in a cake, become optional? Or a pandemic impacts your ability to visit college campuses and participate in activities? How does Harrisburg Academy help you deliver the best college application possible?
Important Ingredients in a College Admission Application
Just like cake recipes, admission applications and their requirements are different for each institution, even more so during COVID. The ingredients list goes something like this:
Application with biographical information (completed through Common Application, Coalition Application, Universal Application, or the college website)
Application fee ($0 - $150.00 per college)
High school transcript
Self-Reported Academic Record (SRAR)
SAT or ACT scores
School counselor recommendation letter
Teacher recommendation letter
What is Important to the Colleges (a.k.a. The Cake Judges)
Figure 1: Information from the NACAC Admission Trends Survey on the factors considered when applying to college
What to do about the rest of the important factors given the impact of the pandemic on the whole process? You gather your team and tackle each element creatively.
Due to ingredient shortages, like SAT and ACT scores, colleges and universities had to embrace a holistic review of applicants. Even large institutions like Penn State
who received 95,999 applications university wide during the 2020-2021 admission cycle have reevaluated their process. They too have become test-optional. What does this mean? Approach your college application like making a tiered cake.
Each layer is separate, and distinct, but important to the stability of the entire structure.
It’s your essay, biographical information, and activities list on the application. This may be the only point in the application process that your voice gets to be heard.
Take your time with the essay prompts.
Have a couple of trusted reviewers look at your drafts.
Make sure there aren’t too many cooks in the kitchen with you. The essay has to have your tone and voice.
Write to tell your story, not to show how smart you are.
Optional is not really optional. Use every opportunity to tell your story.
List your activities in the order of importance and with the one you have done the longest first. The Common Application doesn’t give you a lot of words to use in the description section of the activities. Colleges know this, which means use action verbs to list your contributions to your club, activity, or sport. Be direct and get to the point.
Don’t forget the part-time job or taking care of family members such as younger siblings. These two things could be preventing you from participating in sports or school activities and that is okay. Explaining how you spend your time is the focus of the activity section. It is something only you can do accurately.
Your transcript tells part of your story, but it’s the most important part. Being a student is your full-time job and your transcript is your work history. How did you show up to work every day? Were you willing to take on new challenges? Make sure it's accurate and you know the information. A transcript is different from a grade report. Those are snapshots of your work ethic and effort during a school year. You can make adjustments to your study habits and classroom behavior after receiving a report, unlike a transcript which is a final report. Students often forget to explain that dip in grades one year or an atypical grade in a subject. Even the decision to not continue four years in a world language or history class should be explained. Was there a schedule conflict? Did your interests change? You have a section in your application to explain this, take advantage of it. At Harrisburg Academy, your team of teachers and the college counselor help you address those dips and moments of growth in a positive way for your application. We help tell your story of growth as a learner.
Recommendation letters make up the next layer by supporting the information you have presented in the other layers. A good recommendation letter doesn’t just list adjectives and activities, but provides examples to support those words. This is a challenge in public schools where the student to counselor ratio exceeds the American School Counselor Association (ASCA)
recommended 250 students to one school counselor ratio. The national average caseload for a counselor is 424 students. At Harrisburg Academy, during senior year, that ratio is approximately 20 students to one counselor.
Choose a teacher that knows you well both inside and outside the classroom. Having this additional point of contact can help your teacher write a strong letter for you. It’s not always the teacher you got an “A” in their class. Choose wisely, carefully, and early! As a result of small class sizes and the seminar setting found in our classrooms, Academy teachers have specific examples to reference when writing recommendation letters. Knowing our students comes naturally in our classroom settings, but also extends outside of the classroom. They are involved in our school community and often provide a coach’s, advisor’s, or mentor’s perspective about a student.
Frosting the Cake
How do you hold it together and make it look appealing?
Know your deadlines! The process officially opens August 1 of your senior year with the Common Application and Coalition Application’s release of the application for the admission cycle. Guess what? You can set up your account before that date as a junior. Our students do this during the college prep class in the spring semester of eleventh grade.
Apply at least two weeks in advance of your deadline. Did you know you should plan to apply to Penn State by November 1? If your heart is set on Georgia Tech, then it's October 15 if you live out-of-state. Applying to college is about each student developing a plan and timeline to achieve their end goal. At Harrisburg Academy, our college counselor meets with each student and their family, customizing the college application process.
Visit and connect with the colleges anyway you can. Plan to visit the campus over the summer if possible. Virtual visits have also become the new norm. Don’t forget those information sessions and high school visits. By checking your email (don’t forget the spam folder), you can demonstrate your interest.
At Harrisburg Academy, we add sprinkles on top of our cakes…
Essay questions focused on contributing to an inclusive community are less challenging to write. Our students pull from their International Baccalaureate (IB) experience, specifically the discussion tools learned in the Theory of Knowledge (TOK) course to provide specific examples to support their perspective regarding diversity.
There is one person that sees every layer of the cake; that’s the college counselor. So far this year, the Class of 2022 has written over 170 essays and over 140 of them have been reviewed to make sure that all other layers of the cake reflect and support each student. Students and families are not left alone to navigate the process. They receive help with scheduling application submission dates and individual support before they click the submit button for each application. We do everything together. We also plan everything out early.
Every teacher recommendation letter is reviewed by the college counselor. That’s 45 individual letters this year! More importantly, the review process confirms that every student is seen in the classroom. The teacher recommendation requesting process is seamless for our students. With a dedicated college counselor to facilitate technical aspects of that process, students can concentrate on other important ingredients of their admission application.
Partnerships with families in the process don’t start in the fall of senior year. They are expected and encouraged from the beginning of ninth grade. Individual family meetings happen on an annual basis, and not just during course selection time. During the eleventh grade college prep course, parents/guardians are encouraged to submit a personal evaluation of their student to the college counselor. This unique insight becomes invaluable during the college application process. The perspective of parents/guardians allows the college counselor to see the student through a different lens. Students often leave out experiences and accomplishments that they feel are “insignificant” or “just forgot about”. These personal evaluations provide families with the opportunity to contribute to their student’s story. During the eleventh grade family meeting, important factors in the college list are discussed from affordability and distance from home to admission selectivity and academic reputation for a major.
As an IB school, the Creativity, Activity, and Service (CAS) element of the IB curriculum adds additional sprinkles by helping students develop and participate in real-world experiences that align with their passions and interests. Student’s don’t just study what they are interested in, they go out and experience it. These experiences are invaluable during admission interviews and when answering essay prompts as our students can draw from real life experiences—not just refer to something they read about in class.
Standing out in the applicant pool has become more challenging each year as application numbers increase and the process is impacted by COVID. At Harrisburg Academy, being able to help students assemble their application from start to finish helps them stand out. Together, we help them effectively tell their story as an IB learner, leader, and a person of positive character.
Our International Baccalaureate curriculum develops a different type of learner, one who thinks outside of the box. We make our cakes using a can of soda and a box of cake mix. The combinations are endless and the result represents each individual baker’s experience.
Baking can be hard work, but in the end, when you follow the recipe, there’s no guessing. With the Academy, you’ll receive the personal focus needed to help you achieve your dreams, despite how the goal posts may be moving as a result of the pandemic. Whose help do you want when making that college application cake?