College Tips From an Admissions Counselor

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Ever want to know what happens after you’ve turned in a college application? Do you find yourself wondering if you put the right information, if you have enough credentials for a specific university, or just that you followed the directions? The college application process can be stressful and time consuming when you want to have everything fashioned to a T. Luckily, we were able to get insider tips from Rocio Rangel, an admissions counselor at St. Edward’s University, who graciously answered some of the most important questions on how to successfully apply to college. Ms. Rangel represents a private university and says that although the process is different from that of public universities, there is a similar sentiment in accepting the best applications. So don’t sweat it, show your stuff! Express your accomplishments and state your values to get accepted into a place that is well suited for your future.

What do you look for first in an application?
St. Edward’s is a small liberal arts private school. Because of this we take the time to review each student holistically. We want to see a student’s high school transcript, their ACT and/or SAT exam scores, their application essay and their extracurricular activities. We want to see that a student has the potential to be successful within our curriculum. We also want to see that the applicant has a desire to explore the world and to make a difference.

What are your expectations when reviewing a college essay?
Mainly we are wanting to get to know the student. The essay is an opportunity for a student to showcase their personality and their creativity. Of course, we want to see good grammar and spelling, and that they clearly answered the question. It sounds obvious, but having had this position for more than 4 years now, I’ve seen many students who were on the cusp of being accepted, end up denied or wait listed due to an unreadable essay. We always encourage students to have their essays proofread and edited before submitting them.

How do you make an essay really stand out?
Students who clearly state their opinion or write have an interesting perspective on an issue always stand out. I want to be able to learn something new about that student that I didn’t already know from their resume, or list of activities in which they’re involved. Although, it’s also not a good idea to stand out for the wrong reasons. We’ve heard stories of students who choose write about inappropriate topics. Students must remember that the college application process is a serious process, and much like an interview, there are topics one should avoid. This however, does not mean that a student should worry about having a position on a question that contradicts my own. While reading essays, no admission counselor is passing judgement on a students political or religious leanings. We want to see that a student can clearly articulate their view, regardless of our own.

How crucial are GPA’s, SAT scores and standardized test scores?
Very. ACT or SAT exam scores are important in combination with a students grades. Grades are especially important, as well as the types of classes a student decided to take on, versus what the school offered. We are usually able to see a school’s profile. If the school offers AP, IB or Honors classes, and the student opts not to take any, we want to know why. We want to see that a student pushed themselves academically. We also want to see that in their senior year they continue to push themselves. Taking a fourth year of math or science or foreign language reflect well on a student. Of course this is also an exercise for the student to find a good balance. If they are making Cs and Ds in all of their honor or AP/IB classes, then they might need to take regular courses unless they are able to dedicate the time needed to take those higher level classes and receive As or Bs.

Does community service matter? Why?
Here at St. Edward’s, we averaged about 75,000 hours of community service last year. Service is part of our campus culture. As a smaller school, we’re looking for students that are a good fit for our campus. We want students who will take advantage of the opportunities we offer. That being said, we also understand that some students, depending on their background, have less time than others to dedicate to service. For example, I do come across students who need to help their parents with a part time job or who take care of younger siblings. Because of our holistic approach to applications, I’m able to measure that student differently than I would a student who has the resources to go out and be involved in service.

What is the deciding factor between two similar applications?
Timing is everything. As an admission office, we are trying to create a class of about 800 freshman who fits our campus. If a student applies early, then we still have those 800 spots to fill. However, as our May 1st deadline nears, competition is higher. It also depends on the applications. Are these similar applications from two very strong students with a good essay? Then, we accept them both. However, if these similar applications are students that are right on the edge of our requirements, then their essay will be essential or how we make our decision.

What is the worst thing you can do on an application?
Never plagiarize the essay. We do not have tolerance for academic dishonesty, especially if a student attempts it from the very beginning. Also, never ignore a glaring weakness in the application. A student must remember that many times our office makes a decision on a student based solely on their application. If a student had a terrible semester with regard to his or her grades, then address it in an additional essay. Don’t assume that we’ll understand what happened. And as I mentioned before, students should stay away from any content that could be considered “TMI” (Too much information).

Why do you think college is important?
For students like me, college was a gateway to a better life – a life out of migrant work. For other students college can be a time to explore their potential and to have the experience or make the connections to what will ultimately make them happy. College is so much more than just training for a career.

What advice would you give to students if their parents can’t afford college?
There is help out there to go to college. There’s financial aid, pell grants given through the state and Federal government (with the FAFSA). There are scholarships given out by private organizations, schools and universities. St. Edward’s on average awards students more than $17,000 to attend in scholarships and grants. This is all funding that is given to the student with no obligation to pay it back, so long as they can consistently be a good student. And then, there are always education loans. These do have to be paid back, usually six months after a student has stopped attending school. There are ways to find money with the right guidance.

As a teenager, I was able to get scholarships to attend the university through my local church and my high school that helped pay the balance between what the university offered and what was left to be paid.

What can middle schoolers start doing to prepare for college?
Focus on getting good grades and on becoming eligible for honors, AP or IB classes once they are in high school.

What should high schoolers do to prepare for college in their freshman, sophomore and junior year?
Once again, it’s all about good grades and taking challenging courses. Once a student is in their junior year, it is a good idea to give the ACT or SAT a try. This gives students the time to re-test in their senior year in order to improve upon those junior year scores, if needed.

What advice would you give to a student if their parents are afraid to let them leave home for college?
College is a time to put those values your parents gave you to practice. It’s also a time to become independent. If it had not been that I left home to go to college, I would never have known how to pay my own bills, or what it meant to provide for myself. There’s a great sense of pride in that.

Do you have any extra advice for those applying to university their senior year of high school?
Apply early. Get those college applications in by the fall semester, so you can breathe a little easier in the spring semester. Also, check your email and voice-mail and reply to your admission counselor. Students miss out on a lot of great opportunities simply by not checking their email regularly.

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