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Small Things May Make a Big Impression on Colleges

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Small Things May Make a Big Impression on Colleges

High school students have to impress colleges with numbers – GPAs and test scores – but some small things might improve their chances, admission experts say.

“Some colleges do not prioritize informal impressions – they just want a rock star application,” Jennifer Ziegenfus, the senior assistant director of admissions of Maryland’s Towson University says. “But there are often additional steps a student can take to improve the quality of their application.”

College admissions offices traditionally look at grades, test scores, recommendations, essay responses, and activities, but there may be more to it. Ziegenfus and other experts note that impressionable humans screen those college applications – and often it’s the admissions person with whom the student has communicated. Impressions count, she says.

“Be genuine,” says Mitch Warren, director of admissions at Purdue University. “Contrary to some assumptions, colleges aren’t looking for ways to keep students out. We’re looking to make a good match, so tell us about the real you.”

Ziegenfus pays close attention to early “demonstrated interest,” which could mean a visit to the college or a college fair or a request for information, or an email. She is impressed when a student shows a specific, early, well-researched interest in her school; asks good, clear questions; and “tells me why they’d love to come here.” They should be enthusiastic, she says, but concise.

“Of course formally applying for an early decision (ED) is the strongest demonstration of interest,” says Lori Potts-Dupre, an educational consultant in the Washington area.

She also notes that colleges collect data – including email contact and other social media connections – and use sophisticated research to predict which students are likely to apply, get accepted, and attend.

“Some schools track how many times a student clicks on their website,” she says.

Anita Carpenter, the college counselor at Downers Grove South High School in Downers Grove, Ill., says this is one time when teens can show off their social media skills and connect with colleges and their representatives on Facebook, Twitter, and other services.

But she and other experts remind students that even online they should be polite and professional. And they should be careful about their own social media sites that are visible to colleges.

“Also, this is not the time for a student to be humble. Brag a bit,” says Bryn Campbell, associate director of admissions at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “Students forget to tell us about accolades, awards and new accomplishments. Even if they have a video or a piece of work they are proud of, they can share it separate from the application and we’ll add it to their file for consideration.”

(One option: The website zeemee.com allows students to save and share information about themselves beyond what’s asked for in the college application.)

Warren reminds students that admissions representatives expect to communicate with adolescents (not their parents) and are forgiving, but want to see energetic, interested and interesting applicants who have “made an impact in their space.”

“So, if there are unique ways in which you have made a difference in your community, school, religious organization, part-time job or volunteering, let us know about it. We want to know about you.”

[Want more? Here's four high school mistakes that will blow your job chances later.]

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