With college application season in full swing, higher education reporter Tracy Jan asked Brad MacGowan, director of the Career Center at Newton North High School, for some tips to help high school seniors as they navigate the nerve-wracking and often bewildering process.
Q. How many colleges should students be applying for? Do they need "safety" schools for financial, as well as academic, reasons?
A. Most students applying to four-year colleges should apply to about eight colleges. This might seem like a lot; however, many colleges reject or wait-list many academically qualified candidates these days, so a few extra applications might be a good idea for academic and financial reasons.
Financial aid offers can differ from college to college. I strongly suggest having at least two academic “safety schools” (I prefer the term “likely schools”), and students in the New England states should also have one or more in-state public colleges and/or universities on their lists (financial safeties) and be sure to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). Our public colleges and universities in this region are excellent, and we should take advantage of the lower cost and great education offered at these institutions.
Q. MIT is among the colleges that recently did away with the traditional long essay in hopes of generating more authentic responses. How should students best answer the essay questions, whether it's 300 words or 900 words?
A. I think it helps if students have a target word count for their essays. I suggest 250 to 500 words. The key thing about the essay is that it has to say something about you. Look at the essay as an opportunity to say something about yourself that may not come through in the other parts of your application, transcript, recommendations, etc. It is not all about you, but it is about what is meaningful and important to you.
Q. Who should applicants ask for recommendations? Their favorite teachers, those who teach classes they do the best in? Or teachers who have seen them struggle in some academic areas?
A. The right answer could be any of these as long as it is a teacher who can say something about the student as an individual who is engaged and wants to learn. One student might ace the tests, but not be a major contributor in the class. A rec from this teacher might not add much to the application. Another student who is not the top scorer on the tests, but who is a real leader who adds a lot to the class discussions, labs, and group work, might want to get a rec from the teacher of that class.
Q. With social media being the norm for high school students, what should applicants be aware of these days? Should they "clean up" their Facebook, MySpace, Twitter pages, and direct admission officials to those pages? How should they be presenting themselves on-line? Do admission officers even have time to look?
A. See what the individual colleges on your list are doing with social-networking sites. For example, some of the colleges that you are applying to might have a “no-friending” policy, while others might allow it. If you use social-networking sites to show your activities, interests, and efforts, then let people know about them.
Some colleges (and potential employers!) do check out applicants’ Facebook accounts, while others do not. Use common sense and good judgment with everything you put on-line. Don’t post anything that you would not want a college admissions officer, not to mention a potential employer, readers of The Boston Globe, your grandmother, etc. to see.
Brad MacGowan is Career Center counselor/director at Newton North High School. His articles on college admission issues have been published in the Journal of College Admission, Professional School Counseling, the NACAC Bulletin, and College Counseling Connections. He has a doctorate of education from Boston University and is past president of the New England Association for College Admission Counseling.
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