Is My High School Student Ready
for the College Admissions Process?

High school parents, is your student ready for the college admissions process? We recently sat down with Hannah Ting, an admissions counselor at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. During our conversation, Hannah shared her advice for the admissions process, including when and how to begin, test scores, increasing visibility, recommendation letters, application pointers, and financial aid. Keep reading to learn how your high school student can maximize their college search and admissions process!

When should my high school student begin the college admissions and application process? How should they begin?

Hannah advises that a student’s sophomore year is the best time to begin investigating colleges, although informal research can begin much earlier. Sophomore year is an optimal time to begin informal college visits and tours, start researching, talk to admissions representatives and current students, and solidify the characteristics they’re looking for in a future college. Throughout their junior year, additional visits should be made to the student’s top college choices, with the goal of solidifying their favorites entering their senior year and the formal application process. 

During the visit and research process, students should look at the big picture initially–locations, program offerings, and more–and then narrow down on the colleges and universities that might best fit their study and major interests.

Should my student submit their ACT or SAT score with their college application?

Since 2020, many colleges and universities across America have declared themselves to be ‘test optional’, meaning that they do not require students to submit SAT or ACT scores with their application. 

Prior to the 2020-2021 admissions cycle, test scores were required by almost all colleges and universities, and some have returned to this requirement. When a college or university is ‘test optional’, submission of test scores is an opportunity to supplement your application. For students with a strong test score, their financial aid can be increased, even if their grade point average (GPA) is lower than the college’s published average. 

Strong test scores are also an asset when negotiating financial aid packages, as well as the admissions decision reached by the committee. For students with a weak test score, it is recommended they ask their admissions counselor directly how their score might impact the admissions decision. Each school operates differently, and it’s best to seek clarification for how each school’s ‘test optional’ policy impacts admission and scholarship outcomes for a student.

If a student applies to a school where their test score is required to submit an application, it’s recommended they focus on achieving the highest score possible on one test, unless they discern it might be beneficial to take both tests. 

How can my student make themselves more ‘visible’ to the admissions team and committee at the schools they’re applying to or most interested in?

There are several ways an applicant can make themselves more ‘visible’ to the admissions committee at the schools they’re applying to, including completing an admissions interview, asking good questions, and remaining in regular contact with their admissions counselor.

One of the most significant steps a student can take to increase their visibility to an admissions committee is completing an admissions interview. During this 30 to 60 minute interview, students have the unique opportunity to elaborate on their story, ask questions, and communicate their intent and desire to study at the university. Not only does this help build a relationship between the applicant and admissions counselor, but it also allows the admissions counselor to more effectively communicate the student’s interests, passions, and academic capabilities to the admissions committee. 

The most memorable applicants are those who remain in regular contact with their admissions counselor and ask good questions that extend beyond the information available on the school website. During our conversation, Hannah recalled a few applicants she worked with who contacted her every few days or weeks to check in and ask specific, pointed questions about programs, financial aid, and more. When applicants demonstrate they’ve done thorough research on the school’s programs and offerings, their admissions counselor is then enabled to give specific, pointed answers that are beyond the information offered on the website. 

What makes a good recommendation letter? How much does a recommendation letter influence an admissions decision?

Most college and university applications, if not all, require at least one letter of recommendation. Many applicants tend to assume that a recommendation letter from an alumni of the school they’re applying to will suffice for admissions outcome, but that’s not always the case. While admissions committees appreciate applicants that have a previous connection to or knowledge of the school, a letter of recommendation from a school alumni doesn’t communicate the content of what the admissions committee is searching for in that letter.

A letter of recommendation is primarily an academic recommendation, which a primary subject teacher should write (not a coach or elective teacher). A primary subject teacher, unlike any other recommender, is able to speak to the applicant’s classroom performance, engagement in discussions, peer relationships, teacher interactions, and much more. Given the nature of a primary subject teacher’s regular engagement with the applicant, the teacher can speak into who the applicant is, both as a student and as a whole person, and how their presence in a college community will seek to enhance and benefit the school. An applicant is welcome to submit additional letters of recommendation from coaches, extracurricular activity mentors, and others, but the singular required recommendation letter should come from a primary subject teacher to ensure the student receives maximal consideration from the admissions committee.

What can my student do to make their application stand out to admissions committees?

At each college and university, applicant patterns become quite visible and common over time. For example, Wheaton College’s applicant pool is regularly filled with high-achieving students with strong test scores, high GPAs, extensive dual enrollment and Advanced Placement coursework, community leadership, extracurriculars, and more. According to Hannah, it is difficult to see the unique aspects of each applicant when the similarities and patterns of the applicant are so small. Applicants who stand out to her and the Wheaton Admissions team are those who communicate their faith with honesty and clarity, and can demonstrate their story and values through strong writing.

For students who are applying at Christian colleges and universities (such as Wheaton), their ability to honestly and clearly articulate their faith and walk with Christ will stand out to the admissions committee. How has the applicant grown in their faith? What questions are they wrestling with?

Whether a student applies solely at Christian colleges and universities, or a mix of Christian and secular, their ability to communicate clearly in their personal essay also drastically stands out to an admissions committee. Students who can clearly communicate their story, values, goals, priorities, and motivations in an essay aid an admissions committee in understanding them holistically. A strong essay can also be further elaborated on in an admissions interview, which grants the interviewer a better glimpse into the applicant’s story and interests.

What can our family do to ensure our student receives the best financial aid package?

Colleges and universities employ several criteria to evaluate the financial aid each admitted student qualifies for, including test scores, grades, FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), supplemental letters, and applications for specific scholarships. 

A student’s GPA and test scores undoubtedly help determine how much financial aid they receive. Some schools have charts on their website that correlate GPA and test scores with a specific aid award, while other schools use the GPA and test scores as they consider the entirety of the aid package. 

In addition, families should complete the FAFSA application as soon as it opens in December 2023, as it helps schools determine what other specific scholarships, loans, and grants the applicant qualifies for. Families with financial circumstances not mentioned in their FAFSA should consider writing a supplemental letter to the school’s financial aid department, as some schools offer additional aid to families in these extenuating circumstances. 

Most importantly, applicants should apply for specific scholarships at each school they are admitted to. By maintaining relationships with financial aid and admissions representatives, as well as paying attention to emails from the school, applicants can learn about specific scholarships that they might qualify to apply for, such as scholarships for first generation college students, multicultural experience, and more. 

As a student and their family evaluate financial aid packages, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask any clarifying questions, review packages regularly, and negotiate the aid awards, if possible.

What other advice should my student know going into the admissions process?

Hannah offered several points of advice and encouragement to students and their families as they navigate the college admissions process:

  • If the admissions process feels overwhelming and nerve-wracking to walk through, it’s completely normal and understandable! Remember that college admissions counselors and others involved in your admissions decision want to help you as much as they can.
  • Apply widely to colleges and keep your options open. Remember that just because you apply does not mean you’re committing to attend that school!
  • The college admissions process is an opportunity to advocate for yourself and consistently communicate your needs to your admissions counselor. 
  • The college decision you make does not ‘lock you in’ to a particular path in life. If, after a year or two, you realize the college you chose isn’t working well for you, transferring is an option! 
  • Always remember there is no perfect college or university out there – each school will be marked by sin and the effects of the fall. As you decide, evaluate which school would be most beneficial to your personal, academic, and spiritual growth. 
  • The college decision process is a big decision, but if you are faithful to prayerfully consider your options, seek input from people you trust and love, and follow the Spirit’s leading, you will land in a place where you’ll grow and regularly experience God’s goodness