Students should get personal in college application

Published On: Oct 17 2013 11:15:06 PM EDT
Applying for college
BERKLEY, Mich. -

Reva McDowell, a senior at Berkley High School plans to study engineering in college next year.   She admits going away to college can be stressful.

"It's a little nerve racking, but I've never been afraid to go away from home" said McDowell.  

McDowell will apply to Michigan State University and Grand Valley State University. For the essay portion of the application she will not be writing about her interest in engineering, instead she will focus on something completely different.

"I'm going to write about my hobby of photography," said McDowell. "It's just something that got me excited and I show a lot of interest in doing that."

Her decision on her essay topic could help McDowell stand out from other applicants in the growing piles on college admission desks around the country.

"Young people would be at such an advantage if they would just talk about themselves, as opposed to an event.  A lot of people think they have to talk about this significant event or traveling to Africa or really impressing them with what they did when really it's just about them, talking about themselves in a more personal manner" said Bullis.

As a counselor at Berkley High School, part of Lori Bullis' job is guiding students through the college process.  The counselors begin with the freshmen class.

"It's really just kind of figuring out who they are in the ninth grade and becoming good students and getting involved," said Bullis.

Bullis said 10th grade continues by making sure they're making the right course selections and really doing the best they can for them.   She said that's also when some of the test preparation begins. She said there is a lot of focus put on the 11th grade.

"Then 11th grade, that's sort of known as the most important year because it's the last year that they get to represent themselves as student on a transcript," said Bullis.  "So if they struggled maybe ninth and tenth grade, we encourage them to really do their best in the eleventh grade because universities will look at what's called the upward trend, so if they started off a little rocky in the ninth grade but then in the eleventh grade they really turned it around and did really well then they might consider them for admissions."

Bullis said colleges look at grades, the rigor of classes, test scores including the ACT and SAT, extracurricular activity and leadership.

"That's kind of called 'the hook' right. What is that thing that makes the admissions officer sort of begin to be able to differentiate you from the rest for the pool," said Bullis.

The essay is where students can show the impact of their extracurricular activities and leadership.

"I think sometimes students forget this is their opportunity to share something about them that's different than all the other information in the application," said John Ambrose, a director in the office of admissions at Michigan State University.   

Ambrose suggests students write about how their experiences affected them to show a different side of themselves.

"What was it about football or soccer that really changed your life and what is that really moved you and maybe it's not so much that particular game winning kick or touch down but maybe it's more about something that happened at practice or something else involving  a team where it really sparked what it is you want to do with the rest of your life," said Ambrose.

McDowell's mother, Nancy Glen and her father, Ralph McDowell have tried to teach their children the importance of being involved in the community.

"We firmly believe about doing extracurricular, kind of giving back to your community," said Glen.

"We want them to be well rounded, we want them to be able to work a room and go into situations, social situations, business situations, and be comfortable and be able to handle themselves," said Ralph McDowell.

Students should know that it is not necessary to be involved in several activities, that colleges can see past a long list of achievements.

"They read thousands of applications, so they know when a kid is interested or when they're kind of just faking it to pad their college resume," said Bullis.

Bullis said it is about making a significant contribution or showing leadership skills and that can be demonstrated as a captain of a sports team, creating a new club or being an Eagle Scout.    

"The thing that makes an admission officer who reads thousands of applications go 'Wow, how did that high school student accomplish that at such a young age?" said Bullis.

McDowell is running the yearbook and playing basketball.

"My parents have stressed that test scores aren't everything, and so my test scores aren't that high so I think it's good that I have a strong essay and strong extracurricular activities to help that also," said McDowell.

Glen advice to other parents is to let their children take the lead in the application process, but still check in to make sure they are meeting their deadlines.  She also said parents should let their children enjoy their high school experience.

"Let them do it because I think what's happening is there's been a lot of focus, and its just our culture now, is the drive to where you're going to get in, and in a lot of communities that's the big piece of it as opposed to enjoying the high school experience for, in and of itself," said Glen.

The application process can create stress on the relationship between parents and students.

Bullis recommends parents get together with their teen once a week to make sure they're on track with meeting deadlines.

"We found that parents that say 'You know what, Wednesday lets grab a pizza, lets sit down, lets talk about college. It's the only time I promise I'll talk to you about college,  but I just want to check in,' seems to work really well for parents," said Bullis.

Experts also stress students and their families tour colleges to help find the right fit because all schools look great online but students might discover what they like better while being on campus.

"In choosing a college, you really want your child to be in a place where your child will have success and you want them to be in a place where they are safe, where they are happy and they are healthy and I think that is ultimately the goal for our family that our kids will be successful," said Glen.

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