Everything You Need to Know to Get Your Kid into College

It's easy to dread the college admission process, even as a parent. You don't want to be too overbearing with your teen's application essay or SAT prep but also did they choose an essay topic or take a practice test yet?? We hear you! Admission pros share their insider tips to help your teen conquer the applications and help you relax (a bit).

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Photo illustration by Sarina Finkelstein; Steve Wisbauer/Getty Images .

If you're the parent of a high school student, the college application process likely looms large. The pressure on your kid (and by extension, you) can feel pretty overwhelming. Even though you may have gone through it yourself when you were a teen, things have changed. "When most parents applied, they applied by hand writing their applications, applying to one or two schools, and getting in...today it is so much more than that. Because more people are going to college than ever before, competition has gotten fierce," notes Neha Gupta, founder of College Shortcuts.

Not sure what you really need to know to help your kid land a spot at a top-choice college (without partaking in any sort of admission scandal)? You can stop stressing. We went to the experts for their very best tips on how to do just that.

SAT or ACT? Pick One Test

The two standardized college admissions tests, the SAT and the ACT, are different in significant ways, and many students will do better on one over the other. The common advice has been to just take both, but Hafeez Lakhani, a college admission and test prep professional in New York City, disagrees with that approach. "To use a sports analogy, if I only have a fixed amount of time to reach a certain level of excellence, should I train rigorously in both soccer and basketball? Or should I focus my time on one, taking myself from good to great?"

Similarly, your child can increase his or her odds of earning the highest possible score by preparing exclusively for one test. Virtually all U.S. universities accept scores for either. Lakhani advises taking a practice test for each. (Many high schools administer one or both for free to sophomores, as a sort of trial run.) "Identify, even before seeing your scores, on which test you felt more comfortable," says Lakhani.

The ACT is widely known to be more time-compressed, meaning the student has to work at a faster pace—but many students feel the questions are more straightforward, notes Lakhani. Another major difference is that the ACT has a science section, which the SAT does not. "The science section does not require memorization of scientific facts so much as the ability to interpret charts and graphs related to scientific studies," adds Lakhani. As to the SAT, math questions tend to be "wordy," and an essay is not required, as is the case with the ACT.

What is an adversity score?

You may have heard about the new "adversity score" that will be shown to colleges along with a student's test score. Since it isn't being fully phased in until 2020, many parents are confused as to how it may affect students. Lakhani explains. "The Environmental Context Dashboard, commonly referred to as the adversity index, is meant to give colleges context on the level of adversity experienced at your school and in your neighborhood." This is calculated based on publicly available demographic data, such as income levels, the percentage of families with single parents, education levels, and the number of AP classes offered. "In reality, however, it oversimplifies context...and shows nothing about individual circumstances," insists Lakhani. The College Board says the score will give admissions counselors context to the quality of education and access or adversity students have had that could have played a part in their ultimate test score.

Since the adversity index is only part of the SAT, not the ACT, some parents are wondering if that could be a factor in deciding which test their child should take. Probably not, says Lakhani. "My view is that colleges will understand the flaws in the adversity index and decide to assign it little value. Additionally, colleges will have some sense of the socioeconomic class of an applicant from the application, so scores from either test will be seen in context."

Are admissions tests still required?

We are hearing about colleges going test-optional, but Lakhani advises proceeding with caution before going that route. "The SAT and ACT show problem-solving ability, a somewhat different indicator than academic record, which evaluates how you did on past coursework. Problem-solving ability is a skill in wrestling with new problems given the tools you already have." Admissions counselors without a test score may wonder whether your student's academic record says enough. So if you do decide to opt out of submitting test scores when applying to a college that allows for it, "be sure to include other elements in your application that really show what you contribute to an intellectual community," urges Lakhani.

Show Uniqueness on the Application

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blackwaterimages/Getty Images.

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"The top point I emphasize to my students? Differentiate yourself from the other applicants," asserts Paul Satriano, a lead guidance counselor at West Babylon High School on Long Island, NY. "Strong grades and standardized test scores, along with challenging coursework on your transcript, remain key factors, but admissions officers in selective universities are looking for students who also have drive, passion, and a desire to succeed."

And applicants don't have much time to make it clear that they check those boxes. Admissions officers spend about seven minutes reading an application, says Gupta.

Students should clearly call out any activities or roles they've played, whether in school or in other settings like religious or civic organizations, that show they can think independently and have been active in the community. Even teens in the tippy-top of their class need to highlight what makes them unique. "Remember, they may be in the top 10 percent at their high school, but they're competing against students who are also at the top of their classes, not only from all over the country, but the world," adds Satriano. "Every student needs to strategically showcase what sets them apart."

For Extra-Curriculars: Think Quality, Not Quantity

While it can seem like the student who was in marching band, drama, student council, the art club, the peer-to-peer mediation group, and on the soccer team may have an edge, more isn't necessarily better. "I always try to steer my students into leadership roles within the school, as opposed to taking a passive role in every club under the sun," says Satriano. "This can really display a student's dedication and ability to make an impact on those around them." So if it's a choice between spending time running between three teams or clubs, or taking on a bigger role in just one, the latter may well be the way to go.

The bottom line is that colleges are looking for students who will make them look good. As Gupta puts it, they are asking themselves, "Will we have something to brag about when they graduate and do amazing things in the world?" And it's the students who have been leaders at school who will seem more likely to do that.

Play Up a Part-Time Job

Did your teen work the counter at the local sandwich shop, bag groceries, walk dogs, or mow lawns? Don't make the mistake of thinking time spent earning money doesn't count. "I've had admissions counselors tell me that a kid who has successfully held down a part-time job, while still pulling good grades and participating in sports, clubs, or other activities, stands out from the pack," shares Satriano. "It shows they can manage their time well. Most college students will take a part-time job at some point, and if you point out that you're already used to balancing schoolwork with other commitments, that's a definite plus."

Let Someone Else Proofread Your Kid's Essay

Why not you? Because your kid is probably less likely to write an attention-grabbing essay if mom or dad is going to be reading it. "Students can be scared to talk about the raw, difficult, painful stories if the parent is the one checking the essay, but those kinds of essays are the ones that typically get them in," says Gupta. A teacher, guidance counselor, favorite aunt or uncle, or even an older sibling or cousin who was always good at writing are better picks to eyeball the finished product.

Apply Early Action or Early Decision

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Applying to a dream school early action or early decision (a binding commitment to attend if accepted) can tip the scales, as competition is thinner. "Most parents don't realize that if their child applies early action or early decision, it can make all the difference in whether they are accepted," notes Gupta. "Because so few students actually turn in all of their work ahead of time, the admissions officers have more time to review the early applications versus the regular decision ones in the tens of thousands."

You may well have been dreaming of your "baby" happily going off to college since, well, she was a baby. Now that the day is approaching, it's completely normal to have some worries mixed in with the excitement and pride. Just take a deep breath, and keep doing what you've been doing...standing by her or his side with good advice and support. "I like to use this scenario with my students and often suggest parents do the same: If there is one seat left at a college, and it comes down to you and another student with the same GPA and test score...What will make that admissions counselor choose you?" concludes Satriano. "There is no right or wrong answer, really. Just really think about that, and position yourself carefully, before you click submit. That thought process will pay big dividends when the 'I am delighted to inform you…' letter arrives."

Cue the hug (from your kid) and the tears (yours).

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