Tuesday, April 8
A boy was born who simply never spoke. For years his worried parents took him to the best medical specialists, but no one could determine why he didn't talk. One day the boy's mother served him soup for lunch. Tasting it the boy screamed out, "Wow, this soup is boiling. Are you trying to scald me?" Hearing her son's first words, the overjoyed mother asked, "Why haven't you ever spoken before?" The boy replied, "Up until now, everything was going pretty well!"

Like the boy who never spoke, many students fail to communicate adequately with their prospective schools because they feel everything is "going pretty well". Relying on a good high school transcript, SAT scores and well-written essays, the applicant sits back and patiently awaits the admissions decision. The first hint that matters may be less than perfect occurs when rejection notices begin to appear.

Before discussing the specifics of proper communication with prospective schools, it's worth noting that the effectiveness of such contact can vary from school to school. A small college that reviews five thousand applications each year has more time to consider its candidates in depth than does a large university that might receive five times that amount. Nevertheless, wherever the student is applying, it's critical to convey a total picture of who that student is and to demonstrate sincere interest in attending that school. This is done through a complete and competent application along with consistent, meaningful contact.

The mechanics of applying to college are fairly straightforward in the computer age. Most students apply at Common Application (www.commonapp.org), a general online application form used by over 300 independent colleges and universities. The 'Common App' allows an applicant to enter personal contact information, essays, and some supplemental materials once and then send it to as many colleges as the student wishes to apply to. While this is convenient, it can mean that some students tend to apply to many more colleges than they often need to. Students may not get to know each college well enough. The admissions process can become factory-like and impersonal.

Students should carefully research as many colleges as they wish to. Research help is available online and in such useful books as Princeton Review's The 366 Best Colleges. School websites are also enormously helpful. It's absolutely fine to cast a wide net in the research stage. However the list must eventually be trimmed down to schools the student would genuinely like to attend and whose entrance standards are compatible with the student's records and abilities. It is easy for an applicant to be sincere in communicating with well-chosen schools because the applicant is genuinely desirous of attending those schools. The simple rule is: only apply to colleges you would like to attend and make darn sure the colleges know of your sincerity in this regard.

Colleges actively compete with their peer schools for talented students. No college admissions department enjoys offering an applicant a place in an incoming class only to have that student attend another college. Colleges therefore try hard to anticipate whether an applicant is likely to actually matriculate, upon acceptance. It helps an applicant's chances for admission if the college is made to realize that the applicant is not 'just applying' but genuinely is interested in attending. Consistent communication with the admission office can help in this regard.

Good communication is not hard. Whenever possible the student, rather than a parent, should make the contact with the school. It is the job of the admissions office to promulgate information and to field questions, but don't waste their time with emails and phone calls just for the sake of contact. Communication should be succinct, clear and serve an actual purpose such as obtaining information or conveying updates about the candidate's high school career.

Major opportunities for meaningful contact can include at least the following:

- Calling or writing for a catalog or other pertinent admissions materials.

- Questions in response to the admissions materials and the website.

- Scheduling a tour and interview, at those colleges that give interviews.

- Writing professors or coaches about areas of special interest. If a contact is made and developed it's great to meet in person during the tour date or afterwards when possible.

- Follow up thank you letters and inquires related to the tour, interview or meetings.

A student's application is the most significant communication with a college. However secondary communication can successfully convey a student's keen interest in that college and also help elucidate the "voice and face' behind the application. Each communication can be personalized and politely used as an opportunity to build connectedness between the applicant and the admissions office. Equally important is the fact that the student will be learning more about the college through such contacts and this may aid in the final choice of accepting an offer of admission.

Next month I will discuss how colleges view the extracurricular activities of applicants.

Michael Wilner is the founder and principal of Wilner Education, an international educational planning practice, based in Putney, Vermont, specializing in secondary school and college placement. You can contact Wilner with questions on this or any other college or secondary school admission topic at www.wilnereducation.com.