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Applying to college can be less stressful than you fear

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a high school senior I worked with on the college application process.

“Dear Ana,” it began, “I got waitlisted by Stanford, rejected by Princeton, but none of that matters, because I got into Harvard! Thanks for everything! J.”

I have to admit, this kind of email makes me love my job – not only because he got into his first choice (though that is incredibly awesome), but because he worked hard and knew that, despite several other rejections and waitlists, it all worked out in the end.

As many high school juniors start the process of applying to college, it’s important to remember that there are many factors involved in the college admissions process. In my experience, students who proactively focus on being realistic and doing their best with the college application process end up, in general, being the happiest with their college choices.

Many students wind up at a school that was not originally their No. 1 choice, but circumstances change and shift over the course of senior year, and parents and students should be mindful of that.

Following are my top nine things to think about when applying to college.

1. In the end, it all works out. I have worked with hundreds of students and families over the years, and I can honestly say that it turns out well for those who work to the best of their abilities throughout the process. Students need to be encouraged to trust their gut instinct over a friend’s advice, parents’ wishes or grandfather’s dreams. After all, they are the ones going to college.

2. Know whom to lean on and whom to avoid when talking about the college application process. Students often complain to me that talking with their friends leaves them stressed and annoyed. (Parents, coincidentally, complain to me about the very same thing.) Sometimes people are so nervous and anxious themselves that they cannot help making everyone around them anxious as well. College counselors and optimistic, supportive friends, mentors and relatives can be good sounding boards when you are stressed about the college process or worried about something. If conversations about college become stressful, families should schedule specific time(s) to talk about the application process and ask that the rest of the time be free of college talk.

3. Use resources (school counselors, teachers, independent counselors) as appropriate for students’ needs. Taking ownership of the college application process is the single most important thing students can do to make their application process successful. High school counseling offices can be a great resource and help to manage the process. Most high school counselors have many students they work with – it is important to be proactive in communicating with them and know they are there to help. A good independent counselor can offer support and help you manage the process and organize your applications.

4. Be proactive to reduce stress and anxiety. During the fall, students who work with me on the college application process schedule specific blocks of time to work on their applications. I suggest two two-hour blocks every week devoted to the application process – it makes it seem less overwhelming and time-consuming.

5. The most effective standardized test preparation is simple, strategic and based on long-term skill-building rather than quick fixes. We regularly have students in our office increase their scores 200-400 points, because we develop individualized plans based on taking full-length practice tests and help students understand the reasons behind their mistakes on those practice tests.

6. SAT vs. ACT – know the differences and prepare appropriately. Nearly all colleges accept both tests. Many parents ask about the differences between the tests and whether their child should prepare for both. It really depends on the student. Some students do better on one test, but most students perform pretty similarly on both. The differences:

•Â Science: Only the ACT includes a science section.

•Â Math: The math on the ACT is more challenging than on the SAT, and is appropriate for students who have already taken trigonometry or pre-calculus.

•Â Essays: Both tests include timed essays, but the writing section on the SAT is required, while the writing section on the ACT is optional. However, the ACT writing section is required for University of California admission, and I recommend that students take it.

•Â Penalty for guessing: The SAT penalizes students for wrong answers but the ACT does not.

•Â Length: The SAT takes approximately an hour longer than the ACT but has fewer questions.

7. Make the most out of every college visit. Plan to visit colleges when they are in session, if possible, so students can see what the campus looks like when college students are there. Take the official tour – generally, you will see more of the campus if you do. Taking active notes during campus visits can help students develop an overall list of schools based on their personal interests.

8. Encourage students to create a diverse list of schools they would attend if accepted. Every year I hear about a student who didn’t get into a single school he or she wants to attend. Simple solution: Don’t encourage students to apply to schools they wouldn’t attend. Rather than applying to colleges simply based on name or location, students should develop an appropriate list based on qualities, activities and opportunities.

9. There are an infinite number of topics for great essays – colleges just want to know about the student. The college essay is a tremendously important part of the application process. Often, students I work with go through as many as 20 drafts. Students should consider it an opportunity to express what is perhaps not apparent in grades and test scores. Remember: Sometimes the greatest writing comes from rewriting.

Ana Homayoun is founder and director of the Los Altos-based Green Ivy Educational Consulting and an independent college counselor. For more information, visit www.greenivyed.com.

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