Thursday, May 30, 2019

Demonstrated Interest: Showing Colleges the Love

You've found your best match colleges, filled out the applications, and written thoughtful essays. You've sent your test scores and transcripts and gently nagged your harried teachers until they submitted their recommendation letters. That should be it, right? Check those things off your list, and your college application work is done.

But some colleges are interested in more than your academic and personal accomplishments -- they want to know how much you like them. They track what's called demonstrated interest, or the different ways you show just how much you care about becoming a student at their school. This can be useful information for colleges, because it benefits them to accept students who will will seriously consider attending if they are offered admission.

Demonstrating interest might feel like one more task in the already crazy and complicated process of applying to college. It's definitely work, but it's an opportunity to communicate to your favorite colleges that you are serious about becoming a part of their community.

So how can you show colleges that they're not just an afterthought you decided to throw on your Common App at 11:55 on the night of the deadline? You don't need to overdo it, of course, but if a college is high on your list, here are some ways to communicate your true feelings.

Super Quick & Easy 

  • When a college you care about sends you an email, open it. It seems a little creepy, but yes, they are keeping track of your opens. 
  • Take surveys they send and watch their videos. Again, creepy, but they're paying attention. 
  • Social media. Follow and like.  

A Little More Effort

  • Reach out to admissions offices by email to ask questions (but make sure they're genuine and not just things you can get answers to on the website). After you've established a connection with someone, be sure to send a follow up message when you apply, thanking them and letting them know that your application is headed their way.
  • Have a major in mind and want to know more? Contact academic departments with your questions. Office staff (and sometimes even professors) are happy to help. Do the follow up thing here as well. 
  • Want to make a real impression? Use the telephone to make your contacts. A conversation often feels a lot more personal than an email and will help people at the college really see you as a human who has the enough genuine interest (and courage) to make actual live contact. 

Really Going for It

  • Go meet admissions officers in person. Most colleges share their travel schedules on their websites. You can often meet them at college fairs in your area or at info sessions at your high school. Be sure to introduce yourself, ask any questions you have, and get their cards. A follow up email or call can help them remember you when application time rolls around.
  • Visit campuses. Of course, this can involve a lot of time and money, and colleges certainly don't expect that you can make these trips. But if it's possible, an extended campus visit where you take a tour, attend an info session, sit in on some classes, meet admissions officers and students, and experience the life of the campus and surrounding area is the best way to figure out if a college is right for you. If you can make a visit happen, be sure to sign up for the tour and info session online ahead of time or at the start of the tour...because (no surprise) the college is keeping track. Side note: If a college is within two hours' driving distance from your home, there's no excuse not to visit. You'll just seem lazy and indifferent, which is not attractive. 
Once you've demonstrated that interest, how do you make sure the colleges know about it? Personal connections will obviously be remembered (and noted in your application file), and the wonders (terrors?) of technology monitor most of the other contacts. You might also be given the option to list your "contacts" with a college on the application itself by checking off the ways you've learned about the school and noting the dates of visits and names of connections. Craftily working your efforts into an essay response is another way to provide evidence.

Not every college tracks demonstrated interest (large state college systems like the University of California and California State University, for example, can't be bothered), but increasing numbers of private and smaller colleges are eager to figure out how much they mean to you.  

So if you really do love a college, go ahead and show it; those clicks and calls could play an important part in bringing the two of you together. 

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Making the Most of Summer

Not so long ago, summer vacation meant hanging out at the local pool, working at a part-time job, and maybe taking a family trip where you spent half your time having fun and the other half wishing you had a different family. But today's teens all too often see summer not as a well-earned break, but as yet another thing they have to "maximize" to create college applications that will stand out from the competition. They stress about what they should do, if it's "unique" enough, and whether it will impress admissions officers. They feel pressure to do international service trips or find professors who will take them on as research assistants. These things can be awesome, of course. But the best approach to summer is often simple, and involves just three things: Recharging, learning, and having fun.

Recharging. A teen's life can be stressful and non-stop. The school year is packed with classes, homework, extracurriculars, and family responsibilities These days, adults and kids alike have to make a conscious effort to stop and rest. Adults and teens often have different ideas about what "resting" means. For kids, it could involve sleeping for long, hibernation-like stretches, relaxing in nature, pursuing creative projects, binge-watching Netflix, hanging out with friends, or (sigh) playing video games. Whatever they do to rest, it should result in an energy-gain, not an energy drain, and as long as it's part of a well-rounded summer plan, parents should do their best not to judge.

Learning.  Learning can mean many things. Maybe it's reading those books you haven't had time to enjoy all year. It could be studying for the SAT or ACT, taking an academic class in a subject you'd like to explore or one that will help you feel prepared for the coming school year. You could get a job at a local cafe, start that podcast you've been thinking about, launch a small business doing something you're good at. Take a cooking class, be a lifeguard, make an app, learn to silkscreen t-shirts, visit all the regional parks in your area. Learning doesn't have to happen in a classroom or a research lab: valuable opportunities to grow intellectually and personally are all around you. And here's a secret: Colleges are interested in hearing about whatever you do, even if it's not an "organized" activity. It gives them great insight into who you are and what kinds of talents and interests you'll bring to their campus.

Word to the wise: Avoid the temptation to overload. Summer is only ten weeks long. You can't do everything. Pick two learning activities and make the most of them.

One more thing: If you're planning to apply to a competitive major that you're passionate about, use part of your summer to deeply explore that subject so you can show colleges that your interest is genuine (and so you can confirm that interest for yourself). This is especially true for majors like engineering, business and the arts. Invent, launch, create, collaborate! At competitive colleges, you'll need to demonstrate your "strong interest and aptitude" if you want to have the best possible shot.

Having Fun. Ideally, whatever you do to recharge and learn will bring fun along with it. But it never hurts to make room for even more fun, either planned or spontaneous. Enjoy the long, warm days of summer, and don't feel guilty about it. Sure, you could spend all day everyday doing "productive" things to add to your resume, but in the long run, you're likely to accomplish more and be inspired to give your best effort to your activities if your life is balanced and you invest in creating your own happiness.

However you choose to spend your summer, it should reflect what's right for you. If you think taking on an intense, competitive internship will help you recharge, learn and have fun, go for it. If you want to study for the ACT while road tripping with your family and then learn how to use editing software to make a video documenting your travels, that's great, too. Keep in mind that the best summer opportunities don't have to be complicated, and they are often just a bike ride from home.

Don't worry about what colleges want to see on your applications; focus instead on what will bring you the greatest personal reward. Colleges welcome students who are curious, self-aware, and willing to take risks in order to learn and grow. What that looks like is up to you.