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Nailing the College Application: Tips for Your Teen

Competition to get into many schools is tough, and for that reason, you should insist that your teen apply to an intelligent range of schools.

A good guidance counselor can do you and your teen a favor by helping your teen select one school where he is guaranteed to get in. You don't want your teen to find out in May that he has nowhere to go.

Try to keep your teen from setting her heart on one school. Remind her that there are many schools where she could be happy—then help her find them. College is one of those experiences where a positive person can create a great opportunity almost anywhere. Let her know that you believe that it will all work out so that she'll get a great education wherever she goes.

Once your teen has decided which colleges he'd like to apply to, he should write to each one and request an application. The application is actually a package of documents. There will be a basic form asking for personal information and possibly some short-answer questions. The application will also ask for your teen's academic record, test scores, and letters of recommendation. An essay is required by most schools as well.

Many schools now accept a standard “Common Application”—lucky for today's teen. It can even be filled out electronically. Some schools request an additional essay along with the Common Application, but anything is better than filling out several separate applications.

Acing the Essay

Of all the sections of the application, the essay section causes the most angst for students. In general, essay topics are some form of one of the following:

  • Tell us about yourself.
  • Discuss an idea or special interest.
  • Why do you want to come here or what do you hope to accomplish?
  • A “what if” question where the student is expected to use some imagination.

Your teen should use the essay to explore some aspect of herself that has not been revealed in the rest of the application. (You should not write it!)

Have your teen read the essay question shortly after the application arrives so she has time to mull over her answer. Then she should write it (leaving plenty of time to polish it). Once she has a draft, she should ask you, another family member, or a favorite English teacher to read it through to make certain the essay is the best it can be.

Who Says She's Good? Letters of Recommendation

Recommendation letters are an important part of many applications. The application will specify, but generally the required letters must be from at least one teacher and your child's counselor. (If your teen had a piano teacher or employer who is dying to extol his virtues, that letter can go along as an added element of the application package.) It's vital that your teen ask for a letter early in the year; popular teachers are usually swamped by requests once application season hits its peak.

Your teen should pick someone who knows him well; just because he got an A in history doesn't mean the teacher really knows what makes him tick. If he can, he should hold out for someone who does. Your teen should tell the letter-writer what he hopes to study, what schools he's applying to, and when the letter has to be mailed.

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Parenting a Teenager © 1996 by Kate Kelly. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit Amazon's web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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