I have officially completed my first year of working in not only the Oberlin admissions office, but also the field of college admissions. I have to say, it has been a great and interesting year. I have learned so much about a field that I now realize I knew very little about. And, if this job has taught me anything, it's that I can expect to learn a lot more over the coming years.
Perhaps one of the BIGGEST things I've learned is that I really didn't know what I was doing when I was applying to colleges. I'm happy with the way my education turned out, but I don't think that my search and application process allowed me to have the fullest amount of options. I didn't really go on any college visit trips, or have any contact with an admissions office of any kind. While much of that can be attributed to the fact that I was a music major and therefore spent most of my time playing for and meeting cello teachers, I still think that a good 36-37% (35% thinking conservatively) of that is due to me having very little knowledge about how college admissions works.
So, you ask, what is it about the process that you didn't know and wish you had known? Well, the list is extensive, but luckily for you readers out there I have managed to boil it down to a few general points. So, sit back, relax, and enjoy learning from my mistakes.
Point 1: Think outside your box
When I was thinking about college, I remember being completely sold on attending one particular large university. And that was that. Was going to go there and nothing was going to stop me. But, as is probably pretty obvious, I ended up not going there. I ended up going to a small school in an area I had never really considered until a few months before the application deadline. Now that I have experienced a few more years of life, I realize how ridiculously limited I made my college search. I have since discovered a number of other schools that I have found to be very interesting and probably places that I could have done very well at.
Man, it would have been nice to have had the option of choosing from five or six of those schools...
My point is that there's a good chance you don't know even a quarter of the colleges in your own state (or country/territory for the international students), let alone in the entire nation. And if you do know all of the schools in the nation...well...why are you reading this? Anyways, EXPLORE! There are a ton of great schools out there for you to discover, and just because you hadn't heard of them before doesn't mean they may not be the perfect place for you. You'll never know all the college options you have unless you allow yourself to have them.
Point 2: Reading on the Internet is very helpful, but speaking with a real person is still irreplaceable
Yes, the Internet is an excellent resource for finding and learning about colleges. It's also a great place to keep tabs on anyone you've ever met without actually ever interacting or speaking with them (thanks, facebook). But I digress. You can spend a ton of time examining a school's website, and in the end feel like you have an excellent idea of what the school is really like. That may almost be true, but you can't possibly know a school inside and out until you talk to someone face to face. There are many reasons why I've come to this conclusion, but one of the main reasons is that every school's website is designed to make it look and sound awesome. As a result, it may be hard for some people to cut through to the real meat of the information, or they may come to an understanding about a school and its community that may turn out to be a bit inaccurate once they come to campus. By speaking with alumni, admissions counselors, current students, and faculty, you can learn more about what it's like to experience the school from a human perspective. Because let's face it, the Internet is great, but it's not human. We try to make it live and dynamic (through such tools as blogs), but it still can't respond uniquely to your question, or follow up with its own story that you reminded it of with your question, or give you an idea of the type of student body at the school through the personality it shows while telling that story, etc., etc.
As an admissions counselor, I have another, more professional reason for recommending you don't only interact with and learn about the school through the web. When I begin reading applications, and I come across someone from one of my states I may think:
"Never heard from this student before, and they don't seem to have ever been to campus or met with an alumni or anything."
There's nothing wrong with a student not having any contact with the admissions office - we admit plenty of those students each year - but it's more helpful if I remember having spoken with the student, or if I have an interview summary to go off of. Which brings me to me next point.
Point 3: Contact the admissions office
We're nice people, I swear! (Except maybe that Joel Presti character, the jury's still out on that one). So why wouldn't you want to interact with us? As mentioned above, if you never interact with us, then we won't know anything about you until your application arrives on our desks. Even then, we won't have anything else to go on besides what's in the application. (And of course I'm joking about Joel, he's not bad).
At a place like Oberlin, we take a holistic approach to reading applications. There are no GPA or score requirements and no equations we use to automatically reject or accept somebody. As a result, we actually read every application we receive. Twice. I know, right? That's a lot of reading! And after we do all that reading of your files, we have to make a decision based on what we have learned about you as a student and a person. So clearly, if we have any type of personal contact with you either documented in your file or in our memory, we have that much more to go on when we make our decision. We really are looking for not only good students, but also good people. By having an interview, meeting counselors in the office and on the road, talking to us via phone or email, and meeting with our alumni representatives, you can help us have a better understanding of you as a person, as well as take away some of the anonymity of the admissions process.
Also along these lines, keep in mind that every school likes to know that you are indeed interested in coming there. In a time when students are increasingly applying to 6 or more schools, it helps us to know that we are not just a school you randomly decided to throw on your list. By interacting with us in any of the ways listed above or others, we can see that you have put some time into your decision to apply.
Point 4: Don't let financial aid worries deter you
I bet it's not news to you that the cost of higher education has increased dramatically every year, and probably will continue to do so. There's nothing scarier for families than seeing the sticker price of the college their child wants to attend. I can hear dad now:
"Yes, the school sounds nice. But how much? $200,000 a year in tuition!!!! That's ludicrous!"
Yes, it is ludicrous, so luckily for you I don't actually know of any schools that cost that much. Also luckily for you, Oberlin is much, much cheaper than that ☺
So we know that schools can cost a lot, but do we also know that most schools have lots of money available to make it affordable for people? From grants (need based money given to you to study at school; don't need to be paid back), to scholarships (generally academically based money awarded to students; don't need to be paid back), to student loans (low interest loans offered to students based on need; need to be paid back) to work study (federal money that students can earn through part-time work; need based), to payment plans, there are a number of ways that colleges make paying for your education feasible. Last year Oberlin gave out over $41 million in financial aid. It also introduced the McGregor Scholars program, which eliminates loans for students who are Pell Grant Eligible (you can read more about that here). The bottom line is, you can never be sure what you will actually pay for your college tuition, because each school may award you different amounts of financial aid. So if a school says it costs $50,000 a year, you may end up not paying anywhere near that amount. In fact, the actual amount you pay once financial aid has been awarded could be equal to or less than what you would have to actually pay at your local state school. Even if you're reading this and thinking to yourself:
"Yeah yeah, but I've done some number crunching, and I'm totally going to have to pay too much money at the school I want to go to."
My reply is: that may be true, but it also very well may not be true. I can't know for sure and neither can you, unless you apply. Then you can know, and you'll feel a whole lot better with that knowledge either way.
Point 5: Don't just visit, visit well
If you are going to take time out of your busy schedule (and probably your parent's busy schedule too), then why head out to campus unprepared and have an inadequate visit? If you pass through town one day and swing by the admissions office just in time to take one tour, pick up some materials, and then head right back out of town, you've really missed a lot. Not only that, but if your visit was enough to pique your interest in the school, now you will almost certainly have to return for another.
Here's my advice:
• Learn about the school before you visit. Try not to spend your time learning the type of basic information you can easily find on the school's website, rather, use the time on campus to ask more detailed questions about departments, student life, athletics, whatever may have grabbed your attention while you were learning the basics. Have an idea of what you want to see and do in person. Basically, think what you want to accomplish while you're on campus that you can't accomplish using the web.
• Know how to accomplish those goals. If you're very interested in creative writing, find out what you need to do to be able to visit a creative writing class or if possible meet with a professor. Want an interview? Find out what you have to do to schedule one and how far in advance you need to do so. See if a particular day is better for you to visit than others. Be prepared to hit the ground running once you arrive.
• Finally, my list of what I think you should definitely do on your visit: Have an interview, sit in on an information session, speak with the counselor in charge of your region, visit a class or two, take a tour, and stay overnight with a student. Most schools allow you to do all of these things, and I guarantee you that if you do them all, you will have a great idea of what the school is all about.
If you are interested, Oberlin has a very helpful web page on visiting campus that can answer almost all of your questions. You can find it here.
I hope my hindsight will be helpful to you. Nothing like not having to make the mistakes that someone else did, huh? I realized after writing this that I pretty much rolled about 1000 topics into one general blog. If you're interested in having me expound upon any area, comment me and perhaps I can write a detailed blog about that subject. Until then, take care!