A number of years ago, a very smart admissions dean started her introductory letter to anxious high school seniors with some very good advice: "Relax, take a deep breath, and be yourself."
That advice is just as relevant today. What has changed is the world of college admissions. A surge in the population of 18-year-olds, known as the baby boom echo, has propelled college and university applications during the past decade to record levels. High school seniors have responded to this increased competition by applying to three times as many colleges as students did in the past -- up from five or six in the 1980s to as many as 15-20 today.
As a result, many colleges and universities nationwide have enjoyed applicant pools overflowing with qualified candidates -— students who could absolutely succeed on a given campus if only they could get their foot through the admissions door.
Stop here. Relax and take that figurative deep breath. (We'll get to the being-yourself part in a moment.) The field is easing up in this extreme annual competition. The baby-boom-echo population is receding -- maybe not as fast as the hairlines of the original baby boomers, but the trend has started. The wave that's been buffeting admissions offices crested with the high school class of 2008.
This decline will continue through 2015 nationwide and will last even longer in certain regions of the country, such as the Northeast and the Midwest. It's just 1 percent or so a year, but that will still go a long way toward relieving some of the pressure that has built up on the admissions front.
What's more, not everything is at the whim of the population, the school, or other uncontrollable factors. Here are some suggestions for taking some control of the often mystifying admissions process:
Don't Believe the Hype
The media always seems to present admissions issues in the extreme. Two years ago, news stories made it seem like students should steel themselves for massive disappointment due to the overwhelming competition.
Then, last year, in the wake of the economic meltdown, media stories pounced on the cost of college, warning that no one could afford private higher education; therefore the entire population would be enrolling at the local community college. Neither of those projections proved to be correct, but the media hype can certainly heighten anxiety and lead to an unrealistic idea about the process.
Recognize That Students Control Much of the Process
Students decide which colleges to consider, where to apply, and, ultimately, where to enroll. Colleges control only one of the big four decisions: who gets admitted.
Yes, that's a key decision, but too often, students and parents see the admissions process as something that is being done to them, rather than something they can control. Students should take charge of the things they can. It will give them a different and more positive perspective on the entire process.
Help Students Stay Alert and Self-Aware
This is really a life lesson, and one that is better learned earlier than later. Coach students not to sleepwalk through high school, and certainly not to do so through the admissions process. Colleges want students who will take maximum advantage of what they have to offer -- academically and beyond.
So, the sooner students begin to take personal responsibility for their high school academic performance, their extracurricular activities, and so forth, the better their chances of impressing the admissions panel. It's never too early to develop good habits of mind and to apply those habits to daily life.
Recognize That the High School Record is the Coin of the Realm
The single most important piece of paper in the application folder will be the high school transcript. Colleges evaluate the transcript in terms not only of grades earned but also trends in grades -- an upward trend is good -- and they pay particular attention to the strength of a schedule.
Students often ask me, "Is it better to get an A in a regular college-prep course, or a B in an AP or honors course?" The answer, of course, is that it's better to get an A in Advanced Placement or Honors classes. Barring that, it may actually be better to get a B in the more rigorous course, because colleges want students who choose to challenge themselves academically and who can handle those challenges successfully.
Encourage Students to Cultivate a Passion
Here's where being yourself is essential. Once an admissions committee decides that a student can be academically successful, the next question often asked is, "What's the hook?" The hook refers to extracurricular energy a student brings that will make a campus more vibrant during the four years the student is there. The hook can be community service, elected leadership, athletics, performing arts, writing for the school paper, a part-time job, or any number of other activities.
The key is encouraging students to find something they love, commit to it, and be able to explain how they've grown as a result of that activity. Often, it is the hooks that tip the balance among otherwise equally qualified candidates. And colleges today are looking for depth and sustained commitment rather than breadth and superficial involvement as they evaluate the hooks. In other words, focus on quality, not on quantity.
Emphasize That Interest Counts
This issue is somewhat controversial, but in a crowded, competitive marketplace, a student's interest in a particular college can count as another important factor in admissions decision making. Students should visit the colleges on the top of their list -- and make sure the admissions office knows they've been there. And if one college is a clear-cut first choice, know that on many campuses, early-decision applicants are admitted at a rate up to double that of regular-decision candidates.
College admissions will never be a completely relaxed process, and it probably shouldn't be. It's an important passage in the lives of young people, a major marker on the road to adulthood, and it should be taken seriously.
However, the population changes that have already begun may ease the pressure at least a bit for students and parents approaching this big passage. So, help students heed this advice: Be positive, have a sense of adventure, and put your best foot forward -- and relax, take a deep breath, and be yourself.
Christopher Hooker-Haring is the dean of admission and financial aid at Muhlenberg College, in Allentown, Pennsylvania.