The Importance of a College Application Strategy

College Applications Strategy: Why It is Important to Have One

The first thing that needs to be discussed before starting the college applications process is strategy. Much of what goes into the hard choices college admissions officers have to make—such as whether institutions are prioritizing matters like diversity, legacy applicants, or athletic recruiting in a given year—is beyond students’ control. So it is crucial to know about everything you can control and learn how to position yourself throughout the process.

Strategy is important because it is designed for decision-making. But what exactly is strategy? Open Yale Courses defines it as “any of the options he or she can choose in a setting where the outcome depends not only on his own actions but on the action of others.” The “others” here are college admissions officers, other students who are competing for the same spot at Harvard and the school/counselor. So any complete strategy absolutely must account for those three groups.

Unfortunately, many students (and parents) start thinking something along the lines of “Well, if I just do my best, if I just focus on me, then everything will be OK.” Let’s be honest for a second, that’s a cop-out; you’re giving up even before the application is sent. Some students are simply misguided while some just buckle under the pressure. This problem is prevalent, especially among top students, so let’s briefly discuss how to deal with it.

Let me give you some likely scenarios and, thus, give you clear examples of thinking strategically.

Admissions officers as the application
If you reverse engineer your activities from their perspective, you can figure out what they’re looking for.

The Competition (also includes parents who can give out wrong information either intentionally)
Be unique and focus on activities that are hard—harder means less competition. And the answer to hypercompetition is differentiation.

Be Different
Don’t do more of the same activities. For example, many of the top students are part of Model UN. So the typical response of students is to do MUN better than their peers (by heading the school chapter, participating in the conference and winning awards there, etc.). There are many problems with that approach. Because the competition is so stiff with so many MUN students, trying to outdo the competition comes at a great cost. Also, because admissions officers spend so little time (15-20mins) reading an application, they may miss the finer points, e.g. getting a resolution passed at last year’s Harvard MUN conference.

The great risk here is that the admissions officers will see so many applications filled with essays about MUN, lump them all together and pass because they have too many MUN students already. Instead, students should avoid playing the same game and do something completely different. If your student cares about human rights, then they should start an Amnesty chapter at the school, a Human Rights Watch or get involved in Gender Equality issues or LGBTQ campaigns. With something different, it take far less effort for a student to stand out.

Be Proactive
Consider the fact that at an average American high school, each counselor has literally hundreds of students to advise from freshman to senior year. Now, consider the types of advice that each type of student needs. Will one counselor be able to help a student pick a theme, select several colleges, advise on class selections, and oversee the essay writing process? Obviously not. And keep in mind that the student would have to be incredibly proactive about visiting his counselor in order to receive even a fraction of that assistance. Additionally, a single counselor cannot be an expert in all things or all colleges (no one can). Therefore, students and parents should be proactive in seeking the help of experts to facilitate the college application process.

The simple truth is that a counselor will never have the opportunity to know a student as well as a parent does or as a well as a student knows themselves. Students who are interested in applying to top colleges need to assume responsibility for their own success. This responsibility includes preparing early, doing plenty of research, and accepting that the student’s fate largely depends on the student—not the teacher, counselor, or school.

Counselors can be helpful in many ways, the most important of which is resources. An average high school counseling office has access to information about almost every school and will frequently offer college visits with recruiters, financial aid workshops, and even college application workshops. If a student can benefit from any of these opportunities, though, it is one hundred percent up to the student to seek these things and stop expecting a counselor to do the work.