When my niece asked me to help her apply to colleges, I gladly volunteered not knowing the process itself is one of the biggest challenges. Understanding the college application process, I learned, is like looking at one of those funky pictures to test if you’re colorblind. You know a number is hiding somewhere in that dotted thing, but since you can’t see blue or green, it all comes out as splotchy mush.
Grades, extracurriculars, personality, essays — they all have their place in the college admissions crucible. But it’s no longer just about filling out an application and waiting by the mailbox. It’s a code, and those who can crack it have a higher chance of being accepted. Seriously, the process is so convoluted these days that there are actual professionals whose only job is to help you navigate it.
But she’s my niece, and I am awesome. This was a quest, and if a lifetime of playing video games has taught me anything, I rock at quests. If there is a dragon to fight then I’m your guy.
Don’t let your Common App be common
The first thing you realize on this quest is that you are not fighting just one dragon in a dark cave. Instead, there is the one dragon you know about and another 20 lurking in the darkness. If you didn’t swear before, now you will learn how.
Before we begin, a book recommendation: The Price You Pay for College: An Entirely New Road Map for the Biggest Financial Decision Your Family Will Ever Make by Ron Leiber. This is your quest map, and you’ll refer to it often.
Everything starts (kind of) with the Common App. This is the generic application many universities use. But not all of them. Some only use parts of it. Some universities also have their own application process that is separate (or in addition to) the Common App. See, even the beginning is complicated.
There are questions and essays in this app, which brings me back to the only things I remember about my own experience. An essay! I can write an essay! No, you can’t. Your kid has to write the essay. But as dads, we get to help. And in this case, one of my fellow Kansas City Dads Group members had the expertise I was looking for.
Andy Arends has worked in admissions for years. He told me, “The Common App makes it easy to blanket apply to many different colleges, but take the extra step and tweak each application. Relate your lived experience to your academic interest, and then take it one step further. Explain how you will use that college experience to change the world.”
That’s solid advice. Now we begin to get some behind-the-scenes action steps. I love knowing so many dads. This is the power of our community.
“Avoid being vague,” Andy told me. “Stay away from superficial discussions of a college or major. Show deep knowledge or a very specific experience.”
What to look for in a college: good fit, rentention
But there’s more to getting into college than looking good on paper.
One of the best pieces of advice I received from many dads who have been through this, and also from Lieber’s book, is that picking a college is about looking at its overall value. You should consider how will the college fit with your life, not how you fit with theirs.
“You need to start with retention rates,” said another college admissions expert. (Note: Many asked me not to use their names in this article, which you know means they are giving us the good stuff.)
The retention rate is the percentage of a college’s first-time, first-year undergraduate students who return the next year. Retention rate, she said, tells you more about a community and the people who go there than many other factors. It shows the commitment of the student body. The more comfortable you feel, the better your chances of finding your community. For my niece, this was a big factor. She wanted a college where diversity mattered.
Second, several people recommended your child develop a relationship with the college recruiters. Basic networking matters even here. It won’t guarantee that you’ll get into the school of your choice, but it can’t hurt to have your name front and center.
Apply when and to how many colleges?
But still, one of my biggest questions was when to apply.
“Early. The sooner the better,” said another college admissions expert who works for a D1 school. His point: the college application process is competitive. When you apply early, you will have less competition for a limited number of spots.
Also, the earlier you are accepted, the better your chances at getting more financial aid. All the college admissions people I talked to and Lieber’s book backed this up. (Paying for college — that’s a whole other process that seems separate from this rigmarole. That will take a whole other article.) But know that almost no one pays the full sticker price for college. Even the wealthy work the system. But what you can do is play financial offers off each other. At that point, it’s a negotiation.
This means your kid needs to apply to more than one school.
“Reach for two dream schools,” I was told. “Then two you feel confident about, and two that you are sure that you can get into.” This is exactly what my niece did.
Big choices after college application process success
My niece and I followed all that advice throughout the fall semester of her senior year. She wrote an amazing essay. She applied early, sending applications to at least six colleges. And the result was better than we hoped. She got into her dream school.
But now the challenge really starts. She received a full ride to a different school and numerous other generous financial aid packages from others. This is where the fun really starts because, again, it all comes down to the value question.
It’s not only where she will fit in the best and graduate. Now it comes down to how much she wants to invest in that future. Will the degree or program from her dream college give her a leg up in the world, or will it not matter? I can’t answer that question because the value here is her choice. Lieber’s book goes into this a great deal, and here with the college application process over, I still find myself reading those sections over and over.
The biggest truth, though, is that this isn’t my success. I was merely playing the role of Gandalf through this whole thing. This victory belongs to my niece. She put in the work, filled out the applications, and wrote an amazing essay. I was her hype man. At this stage in all of our children’s lives, I feel like that matters as much as anything else. But that doesn’t mean that my heart does swell with pride.
Our next step is to go through the financial side of how to pay for everything. I’ve written about how college costs have skyrocketed. It’s another quest, with more dragons, but I have no doubt my badass niece is up for the challenge. I’ll be her bard when she needs it.
College application process photo: © terovesalainen/ Adobe Stock.
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