THE SEARCH PROCESS
Blair not only prepares students for the process; the School also guides parents in an informative, collaborative and responsive environment. This quality, individualized process inevitably yields good results. When you see your children well prepared, thriving, and happy in a college or university community that is a wonderful fit, you cannot help but be pleased. James Lawless P'14 '15 '17 '18
Moving through the college search process means applying many of the skills you have acquired throughout high school.
In many ways, choosing which colleges to apply to is a real-life research project requiring organization, thoroughness and awareness.
By the fall of your senior year, you should have built a working list of seven to 10 schools that meet your expectations and will serve your needs and interests well.
Some of the key factors to examine here include size of school, percentage of undergrads, male/female ratio, commuter/resident ratio, percentage of minority and/or particular religious affiliation, geographic diversity, percentage of freshmen who graduate, and the percentage of students receiving financial aid.
Consider here the location of the school, including the geographic region of the country, urban/suburban/rural setting, distance from home, weather, recreation and cultural opportunities. Also, examine the school environment itself, including the campus, facilities (especially the areas important to you), dormitories, student center and library.
College Type & Philosophy
Schools vary in their stated purposes; as such, it can be helpful to read schools' mission statements. For instance, is the school public or private, independent or church related? Is it strictly an undergraduate institution (college) or are there graduate programs as well (university)? Is the focus on liberal arts or on pre-professional programs such as business, education, law, engineering or art? Often tied to the mission are identifiable characteristics. For instance, is the school traditional or progressive in its approach? Is the role of the professor primarily teacher or researcher? Does the academic schedule (semesters, trimesters, 4-1-4, 3-2) promote certain programs of interest to you?
Though many high school students are undecided about what to major in, most have a general idea about areas of interest. In comparing colleges, pay attention to such curriculum-related topics as the latitude you will have in choosing your courses while at school, the majors offered in your area of interest, the number of graduates in various majors, the strong departments and the special opportunities available to undergraduates (research work, co-op programs, cross registration with area schools, study abroad, internships and independent study). Many colleges offer special first-year seminars that are worth investigating. In addition, you may want to examine the grading system of the school, grade distributions (especially for freshmen) and the requirements for a degree.
Connected to curricular issues are a series of factors that make up the academic environment. The faculty of any college constitutes the heart of the academic environment. Inquiries into faculty background and faculty concerns are often a key to understanding this environment.
Look into the percentage of faculty who hold doctorates, typical teaching load, research/publication expectations and the role of graduate students in the undergraduate's academic life. Of more direct interest is how the academic environment will affect your life as a student. Faculty/student ratios, advisory systems, average class sizes, and availability of tutorial assistance and support services could be important.
Pay particular attention to the academic environment for first-year students. Also important, though more difficult to discern, are pressures on the student body, the student attitude on campus toward learning, the quality of special enrichment activities such as guest speakers, and campus interest in national and international issues of importance. Lastly, look into what happens to students as they get ready to graduate. Learning about career placement, recruiters on campus, records of pre-professional programs, percentages that go on to graduate schools and job-placement records can be helpful.
In searching for appropriate college choices, keep in mind that you are also choosing somewhere to live for four years. It is important that the style and setting of your schools reflect your personal preferences. For this category, perhaps more than any other, campus visits can most informative and revealing.
Look into living arrangements by examining dormitory quarters and the school's system for allocating rooms. Examine the larger school environment by taking a look at facilities you might use extensively (e.g., student center, cafeteria, gym, labs and theatre).
Student body issues are important, too. Is the makeup of the student body largely homogeneous or diversified? Is individuality welcomed? What is the role of fraternities, sororities and other social groups within the community? What campus issues dominate the minds of undergraduates? Are the social policies of the school consistent with your philosophy of life? Do the athletic, cultural and community offerings on campus dovetail with your interests and needs? Look critically and carefully, and don't be afraid to take the time to talk to students at the school…many will enjoy the opportunity to tell you what they think.
Costs & Financial Aid
As you gather information about costs and financial aid opportunities, it is important that you talk with your parents. The financial aspects of college often affect parents more than students, so their input could be of critical importance to your decision-making.
Examine information pertaining to yearly costs (tuition, room and board, books, lab/studio fees, travel and personal expenses). Consider your ability to pay, including your parents' contribution, your willingness to work while at school and the amount of loan you'll need to assume. Know that financial-aid policies and financial-aid awards can vary wildly among schools, so it is important to contact the college financial aid office for pertinent information.
Inquire about the percentage of students receiving aid, the range of awards and the average award. Is there merit-based money available? Are early decision applicants disadvantaged in the aid process? What is the average indebtedness (money borrowed and owed) of a student when he or she graduates? What are job opportunities on campus or in the community?
As you gather information on individual schools, keep accurate and organized records. After visits, jot down some notes to remind you of your impressions. These suggestions will help later. Of course, all of the data are important, but don't forget to "trust your gut" on schools. Years of experience has taught us that, oftentimes, a student gets a feeling, good or bad, about a school pretty quickly. These feelings can be just as important in the process as the "measurements" you've taken.
Knowing how and where where to find helpful, current information on colleges is critically important to your search. Listed below are key sources of information that you should bring to bear in conducting your research.
Your College Counselor
Consider your college counselor your human "guidebook." Plan to meet regularly with your college counselor to help personalize the process and to keep you moving in the right direction. Remember, your college counselor is perhaps your most fair, balanced source of information/counsel/advice that you will receive throughout your college process.
Most students begin their research by checking college websites, which usually include a full description of all courses, a streaming tour of campus, links to faculty research projects, a profile of the incoming first-year class, and complete admission and financial aid information.
In addition, web-based college search programs can also be helpful. At Blair, we currently use the TCCI/Naviance web-based program for our students and parents, which can be a most-helpful Blair-specific resource, particularly when it comes to Blair histories at individual colleges. Naviance can be a great way to organize your search via the computer. You will receive the required information to get your account set up from Mrs. Byrne, our office manager, during the winter of your junior year. Remember that while Naviance can be a big help with your college plans, your hard work is still the key to a successful outcome.
College Counseling Office
Use the College Office; we have computers and other resources available to help with your research. Like many Blair students who have found refuge from the craziness of the college process in the College Counseling Office, we hope you find our space a great place to “hang out.”
Your Personal Network
Personal contacts afford an excellent source of research information. Family members, friends, alumni and others may well have direct experience with your colleges of interest. Be curious and ask questions. Learn what you can from your personal network. Be discerning, though, in how you weigh information, as occasionally well-intentioned, personal opinions can be unduly biased and occasionally out-of-date.
There are a great many guidebooks available to help you research colleges. The following guidebooks contain factual information about a wide array of schools and can be valuable tools in gaining an overview of a wide range of colleges.
- The College Board's The College Handbook
- U.S. News Ultimate College Guide
- Princeton Review's Complete Book of Colleges
Others are more subjective in content and tend to be less data-driven and more opinion-based. These guidebooks can be excellent supplementary sources about colleges and can often give more of a flavor as to what a specific college is actually like. Some popular examples include:
- Edward Fiske's Fiske Guide to Colleges
- Loren Pope's Colleges That Change Lives
- Princeton Review's Best Colleges Guide
- The Yale Daily News' Insider's Guide to Colleges
- College Prowler Guidebook
- Robert Mitchell's The Multicultural Student's Guide to Colleges
Visiting a college campus is the most direct way to learn about a school. A campus visit should be both a formal and informal process. On the formal side, there are the campus tours and the group-information sessions, and occasionally at some schools there is still the interview (nearly always informational in nature and generally non-evaluative). You will need to call the admission office in advance to learn more about times and to register for these interviews.
Remember, visiting colleges and taking part in these activities will give you the chance to learn more about the college. The informal side of a visit can be equally valuable. Talk with enrolled students; they are usually very open and honest about their experiences. Look for professors who have a few minutes free and strike up a conversation. Sit in on a class if possible. Check bulletin boards and read a copy of the student newspaper. Find out if there are Blair students there who might be willing to host you. Just hang out and look around…it doesn't sound all that productive, but doing so can be quite revealing! Visiting a campus is the single best way to learn about a school. College is a huge investment in time and money, so seeing colleges yourself is the best way to "size up" your investment.
College applications represent the end product of your college search. To the college, the application is you; as such, it is important that each application is done thoughtfully, thoroughly and neatly.
Applying to college means more than simply filling out the application. You'll need to write essays, take standardized testing, secure teacher recommendations, fill out supplements, and possibly interview on campus or away from campus with alumni. What follows is a brief overview of the "pieces" of the application process.
Nearly all applications are relatively straightforward and easy to complete, but it's the writing of the essays and the supplements that often make completing applications a bit more taxing. These days, online applications are generally preferred by students and colleges alike. While nearly all schools to which most Blair students apply accept the Common Application (we strongly encourage Blair students to use it whenever possible), there are a few colleges that are not "Common Application schools." In those cases, students can access applications from the websites of the respective schools. As you complete your applications, make sure you follow the directions and that you have your counselor check over your information before sending them out!
The essay often presents the biggest challenge for many students. It can be a tough writing assignment, but some forethought and planning can help alleviate the stress. There are all sorts of essay requirements…some colleges have wildly esoteric essay assignments, while some colleges, especially large state universities, do not require an essay. Generally, though, there is a great overlap among essay topics and requirements, which allows a student to use an essay for more than one school. This is fine, but this opportunity should not be stretched beyond its limits. If a new and different essay is called for, write it. And remember this: If you indicate in your essay that Ivy U is the place for you, then make sure you delete Ivy U if you use the essay again for another school. The admission people at Lakefront College won't take kindly to reading that Ivy U is your top choice!
A few other things to consider about the essay: Rarely are student essays so amazing that they get students into schools, and rarely are they so bad that they result in a denial. Essays are part of the application and your opportunity to add something about yourself that might not be found in the rest of the application. Essays should be personal in nature and be about you. What you write about is not all that important; what is important is that your colleges can learn more about you. You really don't have to construct the great American essay…sometimes the simplest topics can be the most effective and interesting!
If the essay is good, you'll know it! Seek the advice of others, especially your counselor, about your writing. Often, others can provide valuable perspectives that make your writing better. Edit! Edit! Edit! Always look to "tweak" the essay by chipping away at awkward phrasing, word choice and organization. It makes a difference in the final draft. And, finally, make sure that you own the topic…admission readers can almost always spot a phony, one that has been "worked over" by well-intentioned adults who hope to make your essay into something more than it needs to be.
Gone are the days when frightened students in formal attire sat in front of admission representatives or alumni whose impressions could make or break their candidacy. Today, the interview is largely informational; it is a good opportunity for you to learn more about the college and to have specific questions answered. Blair college counselors have all conducted these interviews and, in our experience, there is relatively little evaluation going on. These days, many Blair students do have interviews scheduled with alumni of a particular college. These tend to be a bit more evaluative, but rarely do they "make or break" your candidacy. Still, as our students tend to shine in these types of circumstances, there is little for us to add, save a few general guidelines:
- Be on time...don’t make an admission representative or alumnus/alumna have to wait for you.
- Be neat & clean...collared shirt and khakis are usually fine. No need to overdress.
- Be polite & courteous...speak to the interviewer as you would one of your teachers. Remember to get the interviewer's name so that you can send a follow up thank-you card.
- Be responsive...answer questions thoughtfully and honestly; try to avoid the "and um's" and the "you know's" and other types of distracting teenage dialect.
- Be yourself...there simply is no substitute.
- Be informal...know a few things about the college with which you are interviewing; that way, you can come up with a few good questions. Also, please take the time to read and watch the news before the interview. It's good to know what's going on beyond Blair.
If you follow these very simple guidelines, we're sure you'll be just fine during the interview. Don't worry about such things as being nervous and making the right impression…everybody, including your interviewer, is thinking about these things. There's just not that much that you can get wrong; relax and be yourself and you'll be a hit!
At nearly all colleges and universities, teacher recommendations are an important part of the evaluation process, so it makes sense to put some thought into just who should be writing on your behalf. You will be expected to secure two academic teacher recommendations, preferably from your junior/senior teachers, which will be sent from Blair as part of your school support. The process at Blair is simple and streamlined—in the spring of your junior year, you should approach at least one junior teacher for whom you've done well and ask that teacher to write for you during the course of the summer. If the teacher agrees to write, then you must fill out an online Teacher Recommendation Form (a.k.a., Green Sheet), which is available in the College Office. This Green Sheet serves as the teacher's "receipt" to remember to write for you. Then, in the fall, you should ask one of your senior teachers and supply him or her with a Green Sheet. Once you've secured your teacher commitments and have emailed your teachers the Green Sheets, you're good to go. Your teachers will do the rest by writing the recommendations and emailing them to the College Counseling Office. Your counselor will see to it that teacher recommendations are sent to every college to which you apply.
In some instances, there may be special teacher recommendations or requirements outlined by your prospective schools. Such undergraduate programs as engineering, architecture, fine and performing arts, and hospitality management may require certain types of recommenders and may also require portfolios and auditions. Occasionally, an additional recommendation may be needed. You will be responsible for securing any and all special/additional recommendations, should they be necessary. See your counselor with any questions.
The College Office sends to every school to which you apply your Blair school support, which comprises the following items: a Blair Academy profile, which contains detailed information about the school and your class; a counselor support page, which serves as Blair's letter on your behalf; an official transcript and senior grades; and your teacher recommendations. As a matter of course, we will contact your colleges to update them of noteworthy things (special recognition, etc.) as deemed appropriate. Your counselor will be your advocate and school voice throughout the process, so it makes sense to keep him or her apprised of your progress throughout the entire college process.
Application Deadlines & Procedures
Application deadlines vary from school to school. It is important to know your deadline dates and then plan accordingly.
All college application materials should be submitted to the College Counseling Office two weeks before the college's deadline date. Things to do:
- Complete an online Transcript Request Form (a.k.a., Pink Sheet) for each and every school to which you apply.
- Make certain that you have arranged to have the appropriate standardized testing (SAT I/II, ACT, TOEFL) sent to each and every one of your colleges. (Note: if you are applying to schools that don't require standardized testing, please remember to make that change on your Common Application.)
- Arrange for payment of application fees.
- Do your applications yourself!!! Taking ownership of the process, from start to finish, will make your experience that much more rewarding.
Special Admission Programs
Many colleges offer varying admission plans that meet the needs of both students and colleges, and generally are based on early notification.
Under this plan, students are notified (usually by mid-December) if they are accepted, deferred or denied. If accepted, the student may still apply to other schools and has until May 1 to decide where to attend.
Note: When considering multiple early programs, it's always best to speak with your counselor to make sure that what you are doing makes sense and is deemed acceptable by the colleges.
Single-Choice Restrictive Early Action
This program operates under the same guidelines as Early Action with one exception: Applicants cannot apply to other Early Action or Early Decision schools while the application is pending.
Under this plan, a candidate agrees to attend that school if accepted, and, if applicable, the financial aid award is sufficient. An Early-Decision applicant generally cannot apply to other schools with similar programs while the application is pending. Also, if accepted and the aid award is acceptable, the applicant is expected to withdraw all other applications at that time.
Under this program, colleges admit qualified students in waves as they apply. As such, students are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis. Those applying to schools via rolling admission should apply as early in the fall as possible. Students considering rolling admission schools should see their counselor in early September.
Note: It falls to you to be aware of the college's requirements regarding these types of admission programs, as they do vary from one school to the next.