Insiders’ guide to college apps

November 9, 2010 — by David Eng

Who said senior year was easy? As October rolls to a close and dreaded college application due dates draw closer, the life of a senior becomes increasingly hectic. But what is it about the college apps season that creates such a craze among seniors year after year?

Word has it that the college application process is a lengthy, strenuous and time-consuming endeavor cast upon first-semester seniors. Given the college application’s multi-faceted nature, with components ranging from college essays to letters of recommendation, this description is not far from the truth.

How’s college apps season 2010?

Last year, the school sent 99 percent of its graduates to college, well above the national average of 70.1 percent. In the past five years, Saratoga High has never graduated a class with fewer than three-quarters of its students en route to a four-year college.

Assistant principal Brian Safine asserts that these outstanding college entrance rates are a product of “a process that involves a lot of hard work and a lot of people.”

The brunt of this heavy lifting is taken up by the guidance department, a team of four counselors, a registrar (Jeanne Jamieson), a guidance secretary (Sharon Fong) and the College and Career Center coordinator (Bonnie Sheikh).

Judging from the school’s track record as a college-prep powerhouse, this “hard work” endured by the guidance department and others is not going to waste. Senior Harshil Sahai testifies to the ease of the procedure.

“Writing college essays hasn’t been as confusing as it’s cut out to be,” he said. “I mean, the office does a great job of telling us what to do and when to do it. They give us forms for teacher recs, couselor recs, transcripts, etc.”

Do college essays spell trouble?

A word to the wise from Sahai: Start writing college essays before it is too late. For some seniors, the hardest part about the college essay is just getting started.

“It’s definitely hard to motivate myself to get essays finished for applications,” said senior David Wang. “At first, the deadlines seem so far away and it always seems like there are more pressing things to take care of instead.”

Even when a student does get the ball rolling on writing essays early, each paper still consumes a significant amount of time.

“I haven’t finished my essays yet, but I usually just write the first things that come to my mind in maybe two to three hours,” said Sahai. “Then editing takes a lot longer. I have to chisel down, add more, rephrase, reorganize. The whole process for me is no less than three to four weeks for a solid essay.”

Need recommendation for that letter?

In the college application process, one component certainly sets students apart from one another: the letter of recommendation.

“It gives a private college a more detailed, a more nuanced look of a student, both who they are a person, who they are academically, what they’re involved in,” said Safine.

Despite the letter of rec’s apparent importance, it hardly seems plausible that a college admissions staff would have the time or the resources to scour the teacher opinions of every applicant. However, Safine says otherwise.

“A lot of private schools have quite large admissions staffs and they’ll actually sit around and review everything in a student’s packet. Private colleges really put a lot of weight on teacher opinions, administrator or counselor opinions as they’re making a decision,” he said.

Many current seniors are aware that a letter of rec may be the difference between being admitted and being turned down by the school of their choice. For this reason, they advise a very circumspect approach in selecting teachers.

“In my opinion, it’s better to choose a teacher who you bonded with better because they can put some substance into the letter, instead of general comments like ‘great grades, hard worker,'” said Wang.

Senior Shai Segal offers similar sentiments, asserting that blindly selecting a teacher based solely on academic performance may not be the best way to go. He selected his English 11 and AP Chemistry teachers “because over the course of the school year I really got to know both of them well.”

All in all, the letter of recommendation is a valuable tool used in the college admissions process.

“Some schools that are popular with our students accept either less than 10 or less than 20 percent of the students who apply. The letters can go a long way in terms of defining a student’s status,” said Safine.

In the end…

No matter how fervently students may try to gain admission into the colleges of their choice, in the end, it comes down to which is the best fit. College applications are just minor hurdles in the expansive canvas of higher education.

ā€œIā€™d imagine college life is pretty amazing,ā€ said Sahai.