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Good Question: How can you make your college application stand out?

If it’s not the test score that’s going to get you into school XY or Z, what is it going to be based on?
Published: Oct. 5, 2021 at 5:49 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - The last 18 months have turned the college application process on its head. Universities have stopped requiring SAT and ACT scores. Grading systems have been switched around depending on the pandemic. Extracurriculars and sports have been off and on depending on COVID cases.

A lot of opportunities to stand out have been hard to come by, so what can set your college application apart? Good Question.

Casey Near from Collegewise says it’s all about getting creative.

On Your Side Tonight: So, if it’s not the test score that’s going to get you into school XY or Z, what is it going to be based on? What are the things that you would suggest people really focus?

Casey Near: “Well, I think first and foremost, as much as maybe movies and TV shows show, otherwise, you are going to college to be a student, so they are going to be looking at your junior year grades.

So, they’re going to look at the courses that you took and how you did in them. Now, I recognize for a lot of caves, last year was not their finest moment. This has not been an easy year, so that’s where schools also require letters of recommendation which can add a fuller picture. Is this a student who might have struggled, but they came in and asked for help, and that’s a good amount of self-knowledge, and that’s something that they’re going to focus on first.

Then they’re going to dig into activities that a student might be involved in, how they’ve impacted, and that includes hobbies. Students forget that I know that football season was canceled last year for a lot of folks, but maybe you did home workouts. Or maybe you taught yourself how to cook. Or maybe you just taught each other how to do a certain dance this year, or whatever it was. You got creative. Those are things they want to know. Then the last piece is obviously the essay for schools that are more holistic, meaning they review multiple factors they are going to be asking for on that darn essay that everybody focuses on.”

On Your Side Tonight: You mentioned a couple of things there, and I worry a little bit about it because obviously coming out of a pandemic year, volunteer opportunities were down. Maybe even having that one-on-one relationship with a teacher was obviously different because you weren’t in the building. How do you overcome those hurdles?

Near: Yeah, I think part of it is remembering the admission counselors lived through the last year or two, and they’re also reading thousands and thousands of other files of kids who lived through this too.

“I think of the last year as we were all in the same storm, but we were just in different boats and they just want to understand what boat you are in.

Right, so your high school might have been hybrid or virtual. Your high school might have been in person. Then they’re not going to compare you against somebody who was entirely virtual and had no access to their teachers, so they’re really going to recognize what did you have available. What was hard for you? Make sure you’re articulating that in the application so they know what was available and what wasn’t.”

On Your Side Tonight: One thing we deal with here, you know locally is equity in schools. Some schools offer loads of AP classes. Some schools don’t. If you go to one of those schools, or maybe you’re going to be a first-generation college student, right, and you haven’t gone through this process before, how would you handle those?

Near: “Absolutely, that’s something admission counselors were trained in. We read within the context of your file and the context of your school. So, every school when they’re submitting an application, and every student, their school submits something called a school profile which tells me a lot about your school. How many APs are offered? How many honors classes? What’s the percentage of students from your high school who typically go on to four-year institutions.

That tells me a lot. If that percentage is lower, then if you’re applying to a four-year college and you’ve scored really, really well on a test score or you’ve taken advantage of the five AP classes that are offered in your high school, that’s pretty exceptional versus a high school that maybe has 20 APs and you’ve taken five.

I’m going to read that a little bit differently, so you are compared within that context. Admissions counselors are trained for that.”

However, it’s more than just applying for colleges. It’s also about paying for college.

On Monday, On Your Side Tonight introduced you to Liz Sturgill. Her parents immigrated to the United States from Ecuador back in the 1970s. She went to UNC-Chapel Hill, majoring in Sociology.

But, as a first-generation college student, there were some barriers.

“I think the ultimate barrier that I see is that when you don’t, you can have all the encouragement in the world, right? So, your family will tell you we’re going to do everything to support you,” Sturgill said. “I’m going to work two, three jobs to make sure that you don’t have to worry about anything other than staying focus. But if that’s the only support you receive, while we’re all grateful for that, you don’t know how to navigate the scholarship space, the college application path, what FAFSA means, AP classes, like sort of the things that you don’t necessarily have an advantage of like other students that perhaps did have parents or other generations that went to college.”

And that’s a position Casey Near says parents and students shouldn’t put themselves in.

On Your Side Tonight: Talk to those parents who this might be the first time their first-generation college student. You know, in their family, lots of parents are working hard to get their kids this opportunity. What would you tell them about this process so maybe it calms their nerves?

Near: I think it doesn’t have to be scary. I know it’s a huge commitment as a family, but I think having a discussion about what you value and what’s important to you so that you’re making sure you’re spending money that aligns with those values.

I oftentimes hear families say, well, we have this budget, this is what we can spend, but we’d be willing to pay it if they got into this school, or we’d be willing to, you know, make extreme sacrifices if our student got into X school, which makes me a little nervous because it feels like, gosh, I don’t want families or students to be in such significant debt, especially when we’re talking about value that oftentimes we don’t really understand what we’re basing it off of.

You hear about adults all the time, saying, oh, I’ve heard that’s a good school. How do you know, and oftentimes, it’s just hearsay. It’s just, ‘oh they have a big football team’ and ‘I’ve heard of them’ or ‘I have a friend who I work with who went to that school. So, I think it’s also on us, the adults in the room, to make sure that when we talk about what’s a good school or a bad school, we’ve done our research for the kid who’s in front of us and actually know this is a good school for my kid and make sure we’re aligning value with that.”

On Your Side Tonight: And you’re going to make the most of it once you’re there, right? You can make the most out of it no matter where you land.

Near: Absolutely. Studies upon studies have shown that the name on the diploma doesn’t matter as much as what you do when you get there.

And I will say, a big caveat to that though, is it does matter what your financial aid package is. So, if you’re going into debt and you do a great job when you’re there, but you’re riddled with debt, that doesn’t make for a good experience. But if it’s a good package, it’s a school that’s a good match, and you can really shine when you get there, that’s what college is.”

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