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'Tis the Season...to Not Panic

It is that time of year, when holiday decorations go up, when the temperature drops and squirrels furiously burrow the last acorns into ground for sustenance during winter's scarcest months. It is also the time of year for high school seniors to start burrowing into dens and bedrooms, huddling over laptops as they prepare college applications. Ah! The admissions season is about to begin, and news stories abound with dire warnings of the slim chances applicants face in getting into their desired colleges unless they package themselves to the hilt with the advice of expensive consultants.

Once again, I urge high school seniors and their parents to take a deep breath. Yes, the coming weeks for those applying to schools with late December and early January deadlines will be arduous. Applicants will want to take great care making sure that all application sections are thoroughly completed and that personal essays are compelling and clear.

But a recent newspaper's declaration that successful applications are more along the lines of a slick sales pitch than the earnest, thoughtful proposals they ought to be propels me to speak out on the matter.

The article heavily refers to applicants' needs to package and brand themselves. At one point, the article quotes an official of the college admissions industry as saying that the widely used common application (a generic document that can be customized for submission to each school) and the restructuring of SAT scores has rendered schools' admissions officials "blind" and dependent on applicants' more nebulous attributes.

Please. Spare me. Ivy League and other highly competitive schools are smart about how they assess applicants. They know how to read transcripts. They know fluff when they see it. Advice from a good college admissions consultant will help you define and interpret your most important "wow" factors, especially the ones that speak to a given school's larger mission. Applicants whose academic or extracurricular records demonstrate how their backgrounds will fit in well with a given school's focus will want to highlight this, front and center, in their applications.

Yet, outside of applicants' wow factors, smart admissions advisers will focus on applicants' academics and standardized test scores. They will balance their clients' goals, unique talents, diversity factors, and any legitimate challenges that might have laid dint to otherwise strong records.

At the foundation of the admissions process is a reality check. This means ditching the hysteria abundant in the many articles that claim Harvard and others won't know a good applicant without $40,000 in packaging. Good, sound admissions advice is based on facts, not fear, and generous doses of optimism are mandatory to assure that applicants launch their academic careers on the right campus.

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