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By Elizabeth LaScala

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About this blog: I post articles to offer timely and substantive college admission guidance on important topics and issues. Originally from New York, I have a B.S. from Hunter College in NYC and advanced professional degrees from the University of...  (More)

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Get Going on Your College Applications Now!

Uploaded: Jul 9, 2012
A San Ramon resident asks:

Hi Elizabeth!

I hate to get you involved in a dispute, but my husband and I need an expert's advice. Our son thinks he should get going on his college applications now. My husband says he is will spoil his summer. I say the sooner the better. We decided to ask you what you think.

~San Ramon Readers

Dr. LaScala: I say your son is crazy...crazy like a fox! Your son is smart to want to get started early. There are many reasons why. These include how competitive the admissions process has become, the importance of writing good college essays (which take more time than most students plan for) and the fact that the Common Application is available during the summer so you can start filling it out.

These days it takes more than good grades, high standardized test scores and a rigorous academic and extracurricular schedule to get an offer of admission to top four-year colleges. There are many qualified students and many more of them are headed to college. Between 1999 and 2009, enrollment in degree-granting two- and four-year colleges and universities jumped 38%, from 14.8 million to 20.4 million, according to the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. Many 4 year colleges are handling 30,000 plus applications each cycle. In addition, students appear to be more accomplished than ever, displaying extraordinary SAT and ACT scores, successful completion of a host of Honors and Advanced Placement classes and boasting grade point averages well above the one time maximum 4.0.

Each week I get calls from parents who tell me that their student has perfect grades, nearly or exactly 800 on each section of the SAT and an abundance of AP classes planned for senior year. As I grip the phone and take a deep breath, the parent adds that the student's college list consists solely of the top 20 colleges and universities in the country. And then, the inevitable question—"Can you help my son (or daughter) with the part of the hardest part of the application—the college essay?"

Colleges are reaping the benefits of their own successful marketing efforts and find they are inundated with applications from smart students. There are many ways colleges may handle the sheer volume of applications from outstanding students nationwide—and not all these strategies are good for applicants. Some colleges may outsource applications for a first review by individuals outside the college environment and not as familiar with the campus culture and institutional priorities; some reviewers may not be as well-trained or sufficiently experienced with the application review process due to time and budgetary constraints. On the brighter side, many colleges, I believe the majority, use both the time and staff needed to maintain high quality application review policies in order to identify students who are a good fit for their colleges.
Students cannot control how colleges choose to adapt to this competitive admissions environment, but students can do 4 things during the summer to help strengthen their applications:

1.) Create a well-balanced college list - A truly well-balanced list helps to decrease disappointing outcomes. This is the hardest part for students and sometimes especially their parents to understand. Setting realistic expectations is critical.

2.) Speak directly to the college in your college essay - The college essay or personal statement is now a bigger part of the admissions equation. The best essays reveal the student's personality and show the college that he or she has qualities that will make a positive contribution on campus and in the classroom. These essays give colleges clues as to whether the student will fit into campus life and whether he or she will thrive.

3.) Don't take on more than you can do - Most often, the student will need to write more than one essay and there is a direct positive relationship between the selectivity of the college and the number of essays and short responses required. Put more simply, the greater the number of highly selective schools students apply to the greater the number of unique essays they will need to write. This leads to burnout and takes a toll on quality of the applications as well as senior year grades and enjoyment of the student's last year in high school.

4.) Get Going on The Common Application
On Friday, July 13th at 11:59 pm EST, the 2011-12 Common Application online will shut down. The application for the next cycle, the 2012-2013 online Common Application, as well as many of the member colleges' individual supplements, will be available on August 1. (Some colleges take longer to post their supplements than others, especially if they are being revised for this admission cycle).
To help students can an early start during summer, The Common Application has a preview version available as a pdf. You cannot type in answers on the form, but you can print the form and complete it by hand. Go to to download the form.
In addition, The Common Application essay questions are for 2012 – 2013 as they were for the 2011-2012. So we know that they include the following:

A. Short Answer: Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences in the space below or on an attached sheet. (1000 characters with spaces)

B. Personal Essay: Please write an essay on a topic of your choice or one of the options listed below. This personal essay helps us to become acquainted with you as a person and student, apart from courses, grades, test scores and other objective data. It will also demonstrate your ability to organize your thoughts and express yourself. (250-500 words)

Students who want to get going in the summer can print, and fill in all of the data on a hard copy of the application, as well as select, write and edit the main essay as well as the short response item. Now that's being smart!

Elizabeth LaScala Ph.D. guides college, transfer and graduate school applicants through the complex world of admissions. She develops best match college lists, offers personalized interview and essay coaching, and tools and strategies to help students tackle each step of the admissions process with confidence and success. Elizabeth helps students from all backgrounds to maximize merit and financial aid awards. Visit; Call (925) 891-4491 or email at
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