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College Preparedness

How Parents Can Get Their College-Bound Students Ready for Applications

Our panel of experts shared their top tips for aspiring higher ed students (and their parents) who are looking to bolster their college applications.

James Montoya

Chief of Membership, Governance, and Higher Education, College Board

What advice would you give to a parent to help their student become more academically prepared for college?

Don’t just focus on getting in; explain how academic readiness (achieved through a rigorous high school academic program) shapes the entire college experience. The more prepared you are for college-level work, the more you’ll be able to take advantage of the incredible opportunities — academic, cultural, and social — that come with college life.

If you’re prepared to manage your coursework well, you’ll have more time for extracurricular activities. You’ll have more capacity to explore study abroad opportunities. You’ll have more freedom to pursue research, internships, and career-mentoring. You’ll have more time to cultivate friendships or play sports.

Academic preparation is the key that unlocks the whole package of college — including the fun parts.

What do you think is the most important thing admissions programs at top colleges and universities are looking for in prospective students?

At their core, colleges and universities want to know how you’re going to contribute to the intellectual, cultural, and social life of the school, and how you will take advantage of the many opportunities available to you.

They want to see curiosity, resourcefulness, motivation, and some spark of creativity that indicates you’ll be a fantastic classmate, friend, research partner, teammate, and student.

What is something that is often overlooked within the college admissions process?

Schools don’t just think about admissions in terms of individual students — they’re thinking about building a “well-rounded” class, one that ideally includes very different interests, strengths, and backgrounds among the whole student body. That means there’s no single, standard set of criteria that all schools are looking for in a student.

Two colleges may view the same student very differently depending on what they’re prioritizing to help round out their whole class. Students shouldn’t assume that their strengths and weaknesses will appear exactly the same to admissions officers at different institutions.

Are extracurricular activities important? How can today’s students set themselves apart from others?

Showing genuine interest and commitment is important, and extracurriculars can be a powerful way to do that. Resist the temptation to fill every spot on the application by doing more activities, and focus instead on making an impact in the extracurriculars that are most meaningful to you.

The why can be just as important as the what. Why did you decide to run for student government, and how did it affect the way you think about school and service? Why did you develop a love for baseball at a school where football was more prominent, and how did your teammates change your high school experience? Choose depth and meaning over breadth and titles.

At what age should parents start the college admissions process?

Parents should start conversations about higher education as early as possible, but certainly before high school, helping their student understand what’s possible and what it will take to get there. An early start allows a parent to expose their child to the wide range of options that are available, from national liberal arts colleges to state public universities to local community colleges. We are blessed to have such a wide range of options in this country. College Board’s BigFuture is an extraordinary resource — and it’s FREE.

Should students take the SAT if colleges are test-optional?

Taking the SAT keeps doors of opportunity open and is an important way to confirm a student’s grades or even demonstrate their strengths beyond what their high school grades may show. Through programs like SAT School Day and the SAT fee waiver program, all students can take the SAT, see how they do, and decide whether to send their scores.

Matthew Rosenbaum

Chief of Staff, InGenius Prep; Former Admissions Officer, University of Chicago

What advice would you give to a parent to help their student become more academically prepared for college?

If I had to choose a single piece of advice, it would be to forget whatever you’ve heard about “well-roundedness.” For some time, it has been clear that colleges desire well-rounded classes, not necessarily well-rounded students.

That is, a well-rounded class does not consist of a throng of generalists without clear intentions of where and how they will thrive on campus. Instead, a well-rounded class consists of a population of students with diverse interests and deep commitment and achievements related to those interests.

This doesn’t mean students shouldn’t explore their interests — great applicants are rarely one-dimensional. I’m certainly not advising students to abandon all pursuits except those directly relevant to their core passions and interests.

Rather, my advice is this: Discover your passions or interests as early as possible — even middle school isn’t too early; as soon as you enter high school, commit yourself to this passion — intellectually, academically, and extracurricular-ly; and go further in your passions than other students. If you love engineering, don’t stop at joining your high school’s robotics club, go further!

What is the most important thing admissions programs at top colleges and universities are looking for in prospective students?

Selective colleges have two key considerations:

First, they need assurance a student possesses the academic ability to thrive in their rigorous environment. Grades, test scores, and course choices are the primary indicators here. Other indicators include success in competitions and other academic contributions, and demonstrations of academic achievement.

However, once that academic threshold is met, the focus shifts to a more holistic evaluation.  Colleges want to build a vibrant, diverse campus community. Generally, this consists of students who have participated in a variety of activities, but who also nonetheless display a clear focus, strength, or theme.

At InGenius, we call this theme the “Application Persona,” a term that refers to a student’s personal brand or application narrative. Generally, your Application Persona emerges from your core passions and interests. For example, a student passionate about public health may have the persona of “future leader in public health initiatives in Latin America.”

Students demonstrating unique passions, leadership potential, a commitment to service, and/or exceptional talents become highly desirable. Admissions officers want to envision the positive — and oftentimes specific — impact the student will have on their college and the world beyond graduation.

What is something that is often overlooked in the college admissions process?

A crucial, yet often overlooked, aspect is a college’s unique needs and priorities. As top-ranked schools attract global applicant pools, they strive for a student body that meets their institutional priorities and needs. This could involve geographic diversity, specific academic programs needing a boost, or even niche extracurricular talents that align with the college’s mission.

By researching a college’s priorities, students can tailor their applications to highlight relevant strengths and experiences. Applicants should demonstrate genuine interests in the college’s specific offerings and show how they can contribute to the campus community to connect as a perfect “fit” — a factor that can make all the difference in admissions decisions.

Are extracurricular activities important? And how can today’s students set themselves apart from other applicants?

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of extracurricular activities. If you looked at the applicant pool at all selective universities, you would find a significant population of academically qualified students. Unfortunately, the population of those students who are admitted is often fewer than 1 in 5. What this tells us is that once a student is academically qualified, the real determinant of whether they are admitted is the remainder of the application — first and foremost the extracurricular activities and accomplishments, which are woven throughout the entire application.

Extracurricular activities are powerful differentiators in today’s competitive landscape. Strong applications showcase a commitment to long-term pursuits, demonstrating dedication, leadership, and community involvement. This could be through academic organizations, the arts, sports, or volunteer work, highlighting the student’s ability to collaborate, lead, and contribute meaningfully.

However, to truly stand out, students should also pursue activities that reinforce their unique “Application Persona.” Academic research, entrepreneurial endeavors, or self-initiated “signature projects” showcase intellectual curiosity, initiative, and a desire to delve deeper into a chosen field. These endeavors demonstrate the student’s drive to explore beyond traditional boundaries or activities offered at school and make a significant impact.

By strategically combining long-term commitments with activities directly tied to their “Application Persona,” students can craft a compelling narrative that sets them apart and resonates with admissions officers. This is why InGenius Prep invests heavily in our Academic Mentorship program – a research program conducted alongside professors – and our Leadership and Innovation Lab – a startup and nonprofit incubator to assist students in launching their own initiatives.

At what age should parents start the college admissions process?

It’s never too early for parents to begin thinking about the college admissions landscape. Laying the groundwork early maximizes a student’s options and eases stress later on. In fact, we’ve found that students starting with InGenius Prep in 9th grade have about a 9x greater chance of admission to top-30 schools, as compared to about a 4x greater chance for students starting in 11th grade, for example.

Early on, the focus should be on interest exploration. Helping your child discover their passions and talents is the foundation for building that compelling “Application Persona.” Encourage them to try different activities, explore subjects beyond the classroom, and develop unique hobbies.

Simultaneously, start thinking strategically about long-term choices. Course selection, summer opportunities, potential projects, and standardized test prep all benefit from advanced planning. A gradual, well-thought-out approach allows for better decision-making, stronger applications, and, ultimately, increased admissions chances.

Ultimately, college preparation is not dissimilar from investing. It is better to start investing right now than a year from now. Likewise, starting early and being consistent yields far better results than trying to cram a lot into your Junior year of high school.

How much time should a student spend on ACT and SAT prep?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the time spent on ACT/SAT prep; however, there are a few factors to consider: baseline score, desired improvement, and study style. InGenius Prep recommends high school students take a diagnostic test during the spring of their sophomore year, and then explore study programs for the summer and plan to prepare to take the test at least three times.

For students using a test prep service, we often see students taking a class-based program to start, and then using private tutoring to round out their skills and knowledge. How many tutoring hours depends on the student and their desired outcome, but it’s not uncommon to see a student use upwards of 24 hours of private tutoring.

Additional Thoughts:

College preparedness, like any self-improvement journey, is best accomplished through consistent, long-term efforts. You can’t “cram” for college admissions — rather, it is your steady academic accomplishments, paired with sustained involvement with key extracurricular activities, that determines your success.

Thus, whether a family decides to hire a counseling service or not, we recommend that families and students begin thinking about this journey before or at the very start of high school. Students don’t need to know where they’ll be applying, but they do need to have acquired critical academic skills (such as time management or advanced academic writing), in conjunction with a knowledge of their primary passions and interests — which will guide the student in their extracurricular pursuits.

In the end, students who are academically qualified and very accomplished at a specific pursuit (e.g., entrepreneurship or biochemistry), will fare well in the competitive admissions process.

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