Recently, I was offered an advance copy of “Finding Your U – Navigating the College Admission Process,” by Katrin Muir Lau and Judith Widener Muir in hopes that I would be willing to write a book review. I am always willing to do that as one of my goals with My Kid’s College Choice is to recommend great resources to help you and your kids figure out the college search and college admission process.
Finding Your U is one of those great resources. It covers all the basics of the college search and college admission process, including:
How to decide where to apply
How colleges decide who to admit
Paying for college and the financial assistance that’s available
What to do after decisions come in
It even has a section with tips for international students.
In the chapter How You Decide Where to Apply, there’s a great checklist for your student to use early in the college search process to determine what type of college is a good fit by answering yes or no questions about location, academics, student body and campus life. This chapter also covers the best ways to learn about a college and the best ways to make contact with colleges, including tips for college visits. It also offers suggested resource books and websites for learning more.
The chapter How Colleges Decide Who Gets In is the best part of the book. It is all about the college admission process. It covers everything about the college application and what schools are looking for. I especially like the Essay Examples where the authors show good opening sentences and best ways to cover specific topics. This chapter also covers the Activity Resume and Letters of Recommendation, with tips and examples. In addition, the chapter covers Interviews, Demonstrated Interest, Special Interests and Sports. Basically, everything you need to consider to be prepared for applying to colleges is covered.
Overall, Finding Your U is a good and quick read for families who are new to the college search and college admission process and need to know the basics. In one place, you can learn all of the things that you would need to find through separate articles and resources on the internet.
There are lots of articles and websites devoted to helping your student prepare to write college application essays, but what if a school he or she is applying to doesn’t require an essay? Applying to “no essay” colleges is a different ball game because your student doesn’t have that opportunity to express himself/herself through words. How do students set themselves apart when they don’t have the opportunity to explain through college application essays why they want to attend the school, what makes them unique, or what has been a defining moment in their lives?
These questions have been running through my head as my middle daughter prepares to apply to University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, which does not require any type of essay or recommendation letters. I had to think through this logically to determine how she can present herself in the best light through this application.
Don’t automatically assume that only the only schools that don’t require college application essays are the ones that are easiest to get into. University of Minnesota – Twin Cities only accepts around 40% of applicants and their middle 50% ACT range is 26-30. However, schools that are the hardest to get into, let’s say 30% or lower acceptance rate, will require essays, either through the Common App’s standard essay questions, that plus additional supplemental essay questions or their own unique application with essay questions. However, according to CollegeData.com, about 60% of colleges don’t require college application essays at all.
Tips For Applying to “No Essay” Colleges
Look at the college’s acceptance rate – is this school easy for anyone to get into or will they accept most applicants?
Does your student need to stand out? – Check the school’s admission statistics for ACT/SAT score and GPA. You can usually find this information in the Admissions section of the college’s website. Sometimes it is broken out by school or program offered by the college. Tougher programs (like Engineering or Science) will usually have higher test score and GPA ranges. Compare your students test scores and GPA to see where he or she falls. If he or she is within the middle 50%, this should provide a comfort level that admission chances are greater.
Find out what the school focuses on when assessing a candidate for admission – these are often called the primary and secondary admission factors and can also be found in the Admissions section of most college websites. If you can’t find them there, check CollegeData.com, as it has these listed for most schools. For example, University of Minnesota – Twin Cities lists coursework, GPA, ACT/SAT scores and class rank as their primary admission factors. Their secondary factors include outstanding talent, achievement or aptitude in a particular area, strong commitment to community service or leadership, exceptionally rigorous school curriculum (AP, IP, college-level courses, honors courses), military service, contribution to the diversity of the student body, first-generation college student, and a few others.
Focus on the admission factors you can control – GPAs, test scores and courses taken are pretty black and white. Things like leadership, community service, talents/abilities/aptitudes are more of a gray area. These things can still be highlighted to put the student in a better position for admission. These are mostly highlighted through the activity listing and in some cases, recommendation letters. If the school requires or allows recommendation letters, have your student think carefully about who should write these and make sure the writer is well-versed on the student’s accomplishments. Here’s a great article to read on this topic: How to Get a Great Letter of Recommendation. For the activity listing, first see what the college accepts. Some will just give you space on the application to list activities. Others will allow a supplemental submission of an activity resume. The more opportunity the student has to explain accomplishments within a particular activity, the better.
Can you submit other supplemental information? – Find out if the school accepts portfolios, samples of work related to what the student wants to major in, or other things that will allow the student to make a stronger case for admission. If you can’t find this information on the school’s website, have your student email an admissions counselor to find out about it.
Applying to “no essay” colleges does’t mean students won’t get to tell “their story.” They just need to get a little more creative in figuring out how to tell it. Also, gauging where the student stands within the range of the school’s typically admitted students is very important – the higher the better to provide a confidence level that your student will be admitted. If your student’s statistics are on the lower end of typically admitted students, he or she will need to really focus on tips #4 and #5 above.
There are several methods of finding merit scholarships for top students. Whether you are looking for merit scholarships for top GPAs, merit scholarships for top ACT scores or SAT scores, or a combination, it will require some research time to find the best opportunities for your student.
Merit scholarships come in all sizes, from a couple thousand dollars or less to a full ride. The largest sources of merit scholarships are the colleges themselves. Yes, there are private scholarships out there, but most of these are smaller in dollar amount and the competition is intense.
Colleges offer merit scholarships to attract top students. Many colleges offer specified dollar amount merit scholarships for top ACT scores (or SAT scores) and/or top GPAs. These merit scholarships come in two varieties – automatic and competitive. What I mean by automatic is that the college states that any admitted applicant with specified statistics will receive a merit scholarship. This usually requires a certain ACT/SAT score and GPA combination (or a range). Some schools publish the exact amount for certain score/GPA combinations and others just say the student will receive a merit scholarship within a specific range of amounts.
Colleges that offer competitive merit scholarships don’t promise anything. The student competes with other top students for specified scholarships. Some colleges offer both automatic and competitive scholarships.
One important thing to keep in mind – the most competitive colleges in the country generally do not offer merit scholarships. Why? They don’t have to. I am talking specifically about colleges with acceptance rates below 30%. These schools already attract many more talented students than they can admit. They don’t need to try harder! These schools mainly focus on offering need-based aid to talented students who cannot afford to pay sticker price. You will find a few exceptions out there where a top tier school will offer a merit scholarship for top ACT scores or SAT scores and top GPAs, but these tend to be competitive, not automatic.
Best Ways to Find Merit Scholarships for Top Students
The College’s Website – If your student has specific schools in mind, check the college websites to find out what the schools offer for merit scholarships. Usually you can get to this information through the Admissions area of the website or the Financial Aid area. Sometimes it is easiest to just find the search box and type in “scholarships” to see what you find. Many schools offer scholarships for both incoming students and current students, so you may have to dig through a few layers to find merit scholarships for incoming students.
Scholarship Search Engines – The scholarship search engine that is best for finding merit scholarships offered by the colleges is Cappex, formerly MeritAid.com. This site used to allow you to search for schools by state, but now it appears that you need to look for a specific school to find merit scholarships. It is still my favorite overall scholarship search engine. It is especially useful for finding private scholarships because it will tell you how difficult the entry is and how much competition there will be for a specific scholarship. Other similar sites to check out are Scholarships.com and FastWeb. These sites include some merit scholarships offered by colleges in addition to private scholarships.
Online Merit Scholarship Lists – One method for finding merit scholarships is through lists that websites have compiled. I have found these on College Confidential, prepscholar.com, thecollegematchmaker.com and thecollegiateblog.org. They tend to list only full tuition and full ride merit scholarships. These lists are not extremely complete and tend to be outdated.
Full Scholarship List – This is my own listing of full tuition and full ride merit scholarships, available to download through my website. I schedule updates to the list twice a year, summer and around the end of the year. I include links to the college websites so you can get full details on each scholarship. I provide the list in Microsoft Excel so that it is sortable, filterable and searchable (other formats are also available). It requires a large amount of my time so I charge $2.99 to download it, with all profits providing merit scholarships to deserving students.
Use scholarship lists and search engine to find merit scholarships at schools you may not have considered. Use the colleges’ own websites to find out what merit scholarships are offered at schools your student is already looking at. There are lots of available merit scholarships for top students. You just need to put some work into finding them.
As parents, we want to see our children succeed and it burdens us greatly when they struggle. One of the most frustrating things for a parent of a high school student is to watch him or her wrestle with the ACT or SAT test. Some students just naturally ace the tests, destined for top scores. Other students have dreams of high scores and end up frustrated, wanting to give up after a few disappointing test results.
I am currently living with this frustration. My middle daughter had very high hopes and has struggled with her ACT score. She has taken the test several times and has one great subject and four that have varied several points and are lower than she hoped. She probably has one more shot in September or October and then it’s college application time. In desperation, I went back to my email to search for contact information for Danh Le of Underground Academy. He wrote a guest post for me last year, Why SAT and ACT Tutoring Makes Sense, Even for Smart Students. We exchanged a few emails regarding my daughter’s situation and his advice makes a lot of sense.
Danh Le said that the best way to improve your scores is to understand why you are getting questions wrong and learn how to get them right. He said it makes sense to retake the same practice test 2 or 3 times until you really understand how to answer questions correctly.
Looking for additional test strategies online, I found PrepScholar. Dr. Fred Zhang, co-founder of PrepScholar, echoed this same idea as one of his five strategies for improving your score, “For every single question you get wrong, you MUST understand WHY you got it wrong, and you MUST know how to avoid this mistake in the future.”
This will require an investment of study time. And study time requires motivation. Fred Zhang talks about students needing internal motivation. Parents forcing kids to study or developing some type of reward system typically produces less success than kids having the internal motivation to ace the ACT test or SAT test. Zhang says breaking your goal into small manageable goals is one of the best ways to stay motivated.
Then it’s a matter of committing to enough study time. According to Zhang, “40 hours spent on the ACT, studying in the right way, will likely boost your score by many points.” Time alone will not do the trick, so it is important to focus on studying the right things. This will require finding a focused study program or creating your own using books or online resources. It will be centered on improving areas that need improving. Check out my ACT Prep Resources if your student is focused on the ACT test. This spreadsheet compiles a variety of available ACT test prep resources.
In my case, I have 2-3 months to pep talk my daughter into understanding why she needs to get re-motivated to study and to commit to a plan of action, studying the right things, and understanding the answers she gets wrong. This is not ideal. If you can successfully coach your child to work on ACT or SAT score improvement after the first test, you will have a longer time window for improvement and a better chance for a greater score change.
Much has been written about what high school students should be doing the summer before senior year to prep for the final college search and college application process. These are my top 5 tips for parents who have a rising high school senior and parents who want to plan ahead for when that time comes.
College Search Prep Tips for Summer Before Senior Year
Find a great college summer camp/program – Colleges all over the country offer summer programs for high school students. These are usually interest/major focused, like art, architecture, creative writing, engineering, etc. These programs are often open to younger high school students also, but the summer before senior year, you want to really focus in on the right one. The right one will most likely be at a school your student hopes to attend. This gives your student great exposure to the school and the school great exposure to your student. For a competitive school and/or program, summer program attendance could give your student a “leg up” in the college application process.
Plan college visit road trips – Summer vacation often involves college visits when you have a rising high school senior. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as you plan in some fun too. Summer road trips are the easiest way to see schools that are farther than 4 hours from home and it’s often possible to hit a few schools in one trip.
Study for final ACT/SAT tests – Sit down with your student to decide whether or not he or she needs to take a final ACT or SAT test in the fall of senior year. This usually depends on how satisfied he or she is with current highest scores. If it would be beneficial to take one final shot at the test, summer can be a great time for focused test prep. Help your student find the best test prep resources and agree on how much time per week should be devoted to study.
Start college application preparation – Have your student start writing down ideas for college essays and activity lists. I saw this great post recently from College Essay Guy about brainstorming “everything I want colleges to know about me.” Your student should start researching the college application process required for colleges he or she wants to apply to. You should be able to find the applications online (or find out the school uses the Common App) to review the requirements.
Finalize the college list – Talk to your student about how many schools he or she wants to apply to. Most counselors will recommend a mix of “safety” schools, “match” schools and “reach” schools. The College Essay Guy recommends applying to 9 schools and breaks them down like this: 3 match (61% chance or greater of admittance), 3 maybe (26-60% chance of admittance), 3 reach (5-25% chance of admittance). Others often recommend 5-8 schools. No matter how many your student will apply to, finalizing the list before fall is beneficial so that he or she can jump right into the college application process.
The summer before senior year offers your student an opportunity to do lots of advance preparation for the upcoming college application process. The more you can narrow the college search and prepare for the steps ahead, the more stress you can avoid during senior year.
Parents and students often wonder about what ACT score or SAT score is considered “good.” The answer is, that depends. Today, I am going to focus on ACT scores. The answer to what is a good ACT score will vary based on the measurement you are attempting to make.
What is a good ACT score for my child?
That will depend on your student’s unique abilities. If your school district uses the Explore test and Plan test, this will give you and your student a projection of the ACT score he or she is on target for. The Explore test is typically taken in 8th or 9th grade. It covers the same four subject areas as the ACT – Math, Science, Reading and English. The Explore test results indicate the Plan test score the student is on target for. The Plan test, typically taken in 10th grade, also covers the same four ACT subject areas. The Plan test results indicate the ACT score the student is on target for.
Taking the Explore test and the Plan test can help identify areas that the student needs to study further in order to boost his or her ACT score. I will cover that topic further later on.
If your school district does not offer the Explore test and the Plan test, you can find practice ACT tests and have your student take those. This can be done at anytime, even middle school.
So I have told you how you can project your student’s likely ACT score and know what areas to study, but I haven’t told you how to know if those projections are “good.”
In order to know if your child is on target for a “good” ACT score, you will need to know what type of school he or she may want to attend. A good ACT score for an ivy league school is going to differ a lot from a good ACT score at the closest public university in your state.
What is a good ACT score at the colleges my student is looking at?
Luckily, this information is very easy to find. It is usually available on college search websites, like CollegeData and Big Future, as well as the college’s own websites. The sites will provide the middle 50% of ACT scores for admitted freshmen based on a recent admission year. This means that of all the freshmen admitted that year, 25% had scores below this range, 25% had scores above this range, and the other 50% fell into this range. If your student’s score falls within or above this range, this will increase his or her chance of being admitted.
In addition, the higher your student’s ACT score falls compared to the middle 50%, the greater your student’s chance of being offered merit scholarships from the school will be. In fact, some schools even offer full-tuition and full-ride scholarships for high ACT scores. Typically, these would be scores in the high 20s and in the 30s.
Check out my Full Scholarship List to see the details on many schools that offer full-tuition and full-ride scholarships for high ACT scores. You can even filter for a specific minimum ACT score.
Let’s look at an example.
Let’s say our example student currently has a 27 ACT score.
Let’s say the student is comparing three schools – Pacific Lutheran University, Stanford University and University of Arizona.
The middle 50% of ACT scores at Pacific Lutheran is 22-29.
The middle 50% of ACT scores at Stanford is 31-34.
The middle 50% of ACT scores at Arizona is 21-27.
Based on the 27 ACT score alone, our example student has a pretty good chance of admittance at Pacific Lutheran and University of Arizona. The student would not have a good chance at Stanford and should probably cross it off of his or her list.
In addition, the student’s merit aid chances are pretty good at Pacific Lutheran and Arizona, assuming these schools offer merit aid. If I was the parent of this student, I would check both schools’ websites to see what they offer for merit scholarships. Stanford does not offer merit scholarships because they do not need to. They only offer need-based scholarships.
How Can My Student Boost His/Her ACT Score?
The best way to increase the ACT score is through ACT prep. There are lots of different options for this – private tutors, ACT prep classes, online prep materials and ACT prep books. The cost varies greatly between the $20-$30 range up to several thousand dollars. I have not seen any definitive evidence that one method is more successful than another. The most important thing for the ACT prep to include is full-length sample tests. It is best when these tests include actual past ACT questions. My free ACT Prep Resources spreadsheet will give you an idea of what type of prep resources are out there and how much they cost.
Bottom line – What is a good ACT score is going to vary both on your student’s abilities, the types of schools your student is interested in, and your hopes for merit-based aid. Use Explore, Plan and practice ACT tests to gauge the ACT score your student is on target for and use ACT prep materials to help your student improve his or her score.
Some of you who have found my website will be at the very beginning of the college search process. You will be looking for help on where to start. I provide articles and resources to help with that, but I don’t expect that you will stop there. There is so much information out on the web to help. The problem is, it can get very overwhelming very fast.
Michelle walks you step by step through what information is most valuable on college websites and how to find it. Having searched hundreds of websites while creating college lists for my own daughters and to find scholarships for my Full Scholarship List, I know how hard it can be to find what you are looking for on college websites. Following Michelle’s guidance will save you time and frustration.
Michelle encourages looking beyond schools that are ranked highly on college ranking lists and build your own list based on what’s really important to you. She states, “If you want to get the best possible education at the best possible price, you need to be prepared to set aside some of the preferences that students [traditionally] use to create their college lists that can dramatically affect the number and quality of their choices.”
She talks through two options for creating your college list – having a blank slate and having some schools in mind. These options require different approaches. For the student who already has some schools in mind, she provides tips for finding similar schools.
Michelle digs deeper than the articles found on the web with advice on creating your college list. She will explain things like why you should seek out the college newspaper to help you decide if a college is a good fit.
Full Disclosure: I do not receive any type of compensation for recommending this book or sending you to Amazon to purchase it. I am not a member of Amazon’s affiliate program and therefore receive no type of payments from Amazon. I consider Michelle Kretzschmar to be a trusted resource and authority for providing college search advice and I am always happy to recommend her content to my readers.
Since starting my Full Scholarship List, I have been looking forward to using the profits to provide scholarships. This week, I had the opportunity to present my first My Kid’s College Choice local scholarship to a confident and bright young lady.
Below is the winning essay written by Beth, who will be attending University of Illinois Urbana Champaign this fall. The essay prompt was “What I learned about myself during my college search.”
A Time for Personal Growth
I have always believed that high school is a time of personal growth, the time where we learn who we are as people, not just as students. And while that is true, I never realized how concentrated in college searching our growth is until I experienced it for myself.
Growing up in a small town, it is easy to take on the general identity of the population and accept your surroundings. As children, we have no say in where we live and what we do. It is determined by our parents and the area we live in.
This all changes when you are asked to choose the place you will spend the four years [of college] at, though. Large or small? Urban or rural? State or private? All of a sudden you have choice after choice thrown at you. After living eighteen years with little permanent commitment, it is terribly difficult and daunting to make a decision that will impact your entire life.
It is during this time that we grow as people and learn about ourselves at a rapid pace. To make the required decisions regarding college, we have to look deep into ourselves to discover what we want. And as cliche as it may sound, it’s true.
For me personally, I discovered just how multifaceted and conflicting my personality is. As soon as I think I know what I want, I question the choice and refuse to make up my mind. I want this and I want that, but it is impossible for me to have them both, leaving me with an annoyingly hard decision. I learned that the only solution to these conflicts is balance and inflection, and that no one by yourself can make the decision.
I have also learned the significance of taking leaps of faith. Choosing a college is hard, and with the inexplicable fear of commitment that I have suddenly developed, it has become nearly impossible. With all the second-guessing I have put myself through, I realize that now is the time to take that leap of faith. I know that I will be happy no matter where I go, it is just semantics at this point.
My recommendation to everyone searching for his or her perfect college is simply this: keep your mind open. You got into this search thinking that you know exactly what you want, but you could be completely wrong. Take it from someone who knows. I entered my college search with these preconceived notions and ideas. I thought I knew exactly what my perfect school was, and ignored the schools that failed to meet those ideals.
At the end of my college search, right now, I regret that. I regret not being open to each and every college I visited, not looking at them with an open mind. Each college has its own advantages, ones that you may never think of until you visit. So do not allow your “perfect college checklist” to cloud your view because sometimes your perfect college is nothing like you imagined.
My middle daughter has a week left before the end of her Junior year of high school. She will soon be a “rising senior.” That means that college applications are only a few months away. She has recently decided what she wants to major in and this has helped with narrowing the final college list. However, this isn’t critical. It’s fine if your student doesn’t know what to major in. It just means that you want to look at schools that offer lots of options and a path to help him or her figure out a major.
I have helped my daughter work towards a final list of schools she will apply to. Her list includes 5 schools. She has her top school figured out and if she could, she would only apply there, but that is not realistic because the program she is interested in only accepts about 30% of applicants. Our next step is making sure she visits the other 4 schools before college applications are due.
How Parents Can Help in Figuring Out the Final College List and Preparing for College Applications
Make sure you understand your student’s college “wish list” with respect to things like school size, location, potential majors, and other qualities he or she wants in a school.
Help in the search for colleges that meet the “wish list” criteria.
Attempt to schedule at least an initial visit to each school prior to when applications are due in the fall. If your student has a major in mind, be sure to visit that department.
Help your student to include reach schools, target schools and safety schools on the final college list. You want to make sure there is at least one school that’s a sure thing and a few that are pretty good bets. It doesn’t hurt to have one or two that are a bit of a stretch. You can base these determinations on where your student falls compared to the school’s most recent admitted student statistics for GPA and ACT or SAT scores. This information should be fairly easy to find on the college website. If you can’t find it, have your student contact the admissions office to obtain this information directly or work with his/her high school guidance counselor to find out.
Keep track of the schools and their application dates on a list. My college search spreadsheet template can be used for this if you add a column to track application dates. In addition, make sure you track each school’s application criteria. this includes whether the school uses the common app or their own customized app and what the student is required to submit (transcript, test scores, recommendations, etc.).
Make sure your student stays in contact with each school to display demonstrated interest. This should include things like visits, contacting the admissions office with questions, stopping at the school’s booth at college fairs, and meeting with a rep if one comes to your student’s high school.
Planning ahead for the final college list will avoid a lot of stress and scrambling when college applications have looming deadlines. Plus, it will give your student time to visit and reevaluate if he or she decides not to apply to any of the schools on the list.
May 1, National Decision Day, has just passed. That causes a transition time in the college search process. High school seniors drop out of the process. They have finished the college search and college selection. They are on their way to a new phase in their lives and are focused on getting ready for next fall.
For high school juniors, it’s coming down to crunch time. College applications are just a few months away. It’s time to figure out where to apply and to take those final steps towards having great college applications. You should be transitioning from “searching” to “applying.”
High School Junior College Application Prep Steps
Sign up for the June ACT or SAT test (if needed)
Start building an activity resume/accomplishments document for college applications
Ask teachers for recommendation letters (to either complete before the end of the school year or by the start of school next fall)
Start finalizing your list of schools to apply to
Schedule summer visits at any schools you want to apply to, but haven’t visited yet (summer visits aren’t the best for seeing the campus in action, but you can always do a more in-depth visit senior year)
Start looking at college applications on the college websites to see what you need – essays, recommendation letters, portfolios, etc.
Check out the Common App if any of the schools you want to apply to accept it
For high school sophomores, it’s time to get serious about the college search process. Junior year will be the year to figure everything out.
High School Sophomore College Search Prep Steps
Start prepping for ACT and/or SAT tests, if you haven’t already