Guess what, students? You're in Control!

John Carpenter is back this month with some thoughts about who is really in the driver's seat during the college application process. While it might feel like the college admission offices are steering, if you pay attention you'll see that students have the wheel much of the time. Read on and reevaluate what you've been feeling if things are feeling out of control.

One thing I hear constantly from high school kids over and over is that applying to college is stressful.  And psychologists tell us that stress comes from a feeling that we are not in control -- especially the big stuff.  Getting into college falls into the “big stuff” category. But students have more control in this whole process than they may realize. So, let’s analyze that.

Applying to college is all about making choices, and you definitely have control over most of the decisions you make in the application process One of the most obvious choices you have is deciding where to apply. But be aware that the colleges want you to send them an application--in fact, they need you to submit applications.  The more applications they receive, the more selective they can be.  And even though no college admissions officer really likes to reject anyone, the fact is that a higher rejection rate is directly connected to rankings.  It’s simple economics: create a higher demand by reducing the supply.  And that’s good news for colleges.  So, colleges and universities need you to apply, and the admissions officers do everything they can to encourage you to do that: high school visits, gorgeous brochures, ED and EA offers, and scholarship offers, just to name a few.  So, the first place where you have power over the colleges is choosing which ones to apply to, and believe me, they all want you in their application pool.

The second place where you have control is the application itself.  Here, you determine what info the schools receive about you--especially when it comes to essays, supplement statements, and activities.  Admissions officers are often convinced to admit you or not to admit you by what you write in this part of your application.  Many kids think the essay is simply a requirement to show that they can write.  But it's also an opportunity for you to convince admissions officers that their college would be a better place with you than without you.  How you do that is up to you, but again--who’s in control here?  You are.

You have control over who writes your recommendations to a large extent, too.  You get to choose the teachers who write for you, and if you’re smart (which, of course, you are or you wouldn’t be reading this), you will spend time making that choice carefully.  You’ll make a list of all the excellent ways you’ve engaged in biology, for example, or English, and you’ll plan a conversation with your teacher to help him or her understand why you chose that person to write for you.  Now, there’s a fine line involved with this:  you’re not telling the teacher what to write; instead, you’re having a conversation and explaining to the teacher why you thought she or he would be a great person to write your recommendation.  “I am asking you for a recommendation because I know that you understand the way I’ve grown in class, and I also want you to know that your feedback for me is really important.”  Sometimes it helps to remind a teacher of the papers you’ve written, or the projects, tests, labs, etc. that you’ve done.

The same technique can work with your counselor, too.  In fact, if you attend a school where one counselor is writing recommendations for many students, sitting down one-on-one can really be a good idea.  Your approach should be that you know he or she has to prepare several recommendations and that you just want to find out if there’s any way you can help out.  Preparing a resumé for your counselor is an excellent way to start the conversation.

You have decided which classes to take, which activities to join, which sports to play.  You also have decided what to do with your free time during the summers by getting a job, going to school, doing research, tackling a reading list, volunteering, or attending camp.  Each of these decisions is a choice that puts you a little bit more in control of the final outcome of your college decisions because each one says something about you.

You also decide which tests to take and when to submit applications.  You decide almost everything leading up to the final outcome of which schools admit you.  And yes, that decision is out of your hands, but not completely.  If you have been thoughtful, your choices will lead to a strategy that puts your application in the best places possible -- a range of schools that will guarantee you will have some positive admissions results in the spring.

And finally, the biggest decision of all is really yours:  the decision to accept or reject a college’s offer of admission.  You have ALL the control when it comes to this bottom line, and once you are admitted, colleges will do almost anything to convince you to choose them. It may seem like a hard choice, but it can also be a little bit rewarding to say no to a few schools after all the months of planning and waiting.  There is some freedom in saying no, too.

So, to summarize:  there are many reasons for control freaks to take heart.  You have control over where you apply, over what you include in the application, over who writes your recommendations, over which classes and activities you take, over which tests to submit, and finally over which colleges to accept or to reject.  When applying to college feels a little out of control, just remind yourself that you have a bigger voice in this process than you might think you do.

John Carpenter is Director of Admissions and University Counseling at UWC Costa Rica. He also works as an independent college counselor and is the author of Going Geek: What Every Smart Kid (and Every Smart Parent) Should Know About College AdmissionsYou can find John's blog at


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