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Do Teens Really Need a Perfect College Application?

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Last month I had lunch with a friend whose daughter, like mine, is a high school junior. The conversation turned to college and my friend expressed concern that her daughter, an A student with a strong resume of activities, would not get into her first choice schools because of low SAT scores.

This is not an uncommon worry for parents and teens as they embark on the college application process. Whether it is school grades, standardized test scores or a resume of activities that doesn’t jump off the page, what can teens do to help their application shine?

Colleges Do Not Expect Perfection

Lisa Sohmer, Director of College Counseling at the Garden School, says, “No one, adults included, has a perfect resume. Colleges don’t expect an applicant to be perfect. What they are looking for authenticity—a student that seems genuine. Grades, activities and recommendations should match up and illustrate that the student is connected to their school and their community.”

While grades and standardized test scores are key components in student’s college application, these are not the only factors. Colleges are looking for students that will be good additions to their campus. Strengths beyond academics— athletics, music, writing, etc—are important too. Students need to find way to emphasize their passions so that colleges can see why they would be a good fit for the school.

Always Be Truthful

Across the board college experts agree, the worst thing to do on a college application is to lie. “You don’t want things on your resume that don’t align with your recommendations or other parts of your application. Always be truthful and don’t embellish,” advises Sohmer.

There is no need for a student to draw attention to a flaw. For example, if a school requests that a student send the results of all the standardized tests taken, then the student should do that. But if they ask for only the best scores, don’t send anything else or be concerned that school will somehow find the other scores in cyberspace. If they did not ask, they are not going to look for it.

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Accentuate the Positives

Students can use the essay questions and personal recommendations to shed light on their positives. Christine K. VanDeVelde, college speaker and coauthor of the book College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step, says, “This is the place to put your best foot forward. It is an opportunity to let college know the most important thing about you. Colleges are looking to find out your character— who you are and will you fit in.”

Some students may worry that they haven’t done anything worth writing about or haven’t “accomplished” anything. Says VanDeVelde, “Students worry that the topic isn’t ‘special’ enough. But it is not suppose to be a reiteration of your accomplishments or resume. The best essays give the reader a clue about the character of the writer.”

The same goes for recommendations. Teens should not ask the department head to write a letter on their behalf if they don’t really have a relationship. Choose the people that really know the student and what he or she is capable of.

Honest Explanations Can Help

If there is a compelling reason for a blip on a teen’s resume, let the college know that in the additional information section of the application. For example, if a teen could not participate in sports because they needed to take a part time job afterschool or they had mono and their grades suffered for a semester, explain this on the application. A guidance counselor or other teacher writing a recommendation may also want to touch on these issues if they are relevant.

Most important for parents, let teens know that they are more than a resume. Being a teen can be very stressful, especially during the college application process. Parents need to help their teen feel confident. Says Sohmer, “No one is perfect and teens need to realize that no one expects them to be. Instead they need to be honest and forthcoming about who they are.”

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