The college application process: how to make sense of it all

By Sara Harberson

Millions of high school seniors are applying to college every year. Our teens today are stressed, they are tired, they are juggling school work with after-school commitments, and of course there’s the daily pressure of technology and social media.

So how can parents help high schoolers navigate it all? Cue Sara Harberson, a private college counselor who also provides free resources to families going through the college application process.

We had the opportunity to speak to Sara about this year’s class of college-bound applicants, the trends she’s noticing, and how she helps families to manage all of the expectations and anxieties.

Randi Olin: When you first connect with your students—and their families—what does that entail? Walk us through the process.

Sara Harberson: I only ask for a student’s transcript and test scores in advance of a first session. That gives me a quick snapshot of the objective criteria that admissions officers review. But the much more interesting stuff is what I get from the student and parents after a two-hour meeting where I ask them a million questions. Of course, I ask the basic questions, like what the student does in their free time and which teachers have been influential as I’m trying to begin to identify the student’s activity list and letters of recommendation. But I also poke around for the things about the student, the family, and their story that are much less obvious. This is what won’t be represented on the application unless you dig around and show the family that this information is what gets a student admitted to a highly selective college. It’s my job to uncover this and reframe how the student thinks about themselves.

RO: For today’s teens, it seems that the moment they step into high school the focus immediately turns to GPAs, strength of class selection, extracurricular activities, community service, and the ways to best package themselves for college. Realistically, how early is too early to start thinking about the college application process? Are high school freshman too young to be concerned with this?

SH: High school freshmen aren’t too young to have a goal in mind: college. It doesn’t mean a freshman needs to start taking standardized tests or writing essays. But I like students to start considering what they are good at (in and out of the classroom) and how to develop a powerful identity around it. Most students (and even most adults) define themselves in a run-of-the-mill way like “I’m a hardworker” or “I am an athlete.” However, I want kids and adults to define themselves and live their lives in a more distinctive and imaginative way. Freshman know enough about themselves to start charting their own story, and adults just need a little guidance and they’re off and running.

RO: What particular college application trends are you seeing this year? Are more high school seniors applying to schools ED (early decision) and EA (early action) than in past years? What do the trends this year mean for the applicant pool now and for the future cycle of students?

SH: Early Decision and Early Action have been popular for decades. I tell all the students I interact with to apply to at least one college (usually a few) through an Early Decision or Early Action program. They might not get admitted to that college in the “early” round, but it gives them a jump-start on essays and filling out applications. The biggest trend I’m seeing in 2018 is that more colleges are allowing students to self-report test scores on their application for the admissions process. Families save some money by not having to send as many official score reports to colleges. But the student is still required to send an official score report once they have been admitted and decide to enroll at their intended college. This gives the college a chance to verify the scores submitted in the admissions process.

Another trend this year is the increase in the number of colleges that subscribe to the Coalition Application which is a competitor to the Common Application. The Coalition Application is not nearly as user-friendly as the Common Application, though. It’s a good thing that most colleges still accept the Common Application—at least until the Coalition Application makes the necessary changes required to navigate their site more easily.

RO: The American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America survey recently revealed that Generation Zers are more stressed than ever before, attributing their anxiety levels to school shootings, sexual assault, and immigration—issues that are currently dominating the news cycle. Having worked with so many teenagers over the years, have you seen this level of anxiety rise and, if so, what role do you play in helping to manage their stress throughout the college application process?

SH: I approach this generation much differently. Not only am I a mom of three kids, but I have seen the harmful effects of this process on self-esteem and self-worth. Admissions officers distance themselves from the pressure, stress, and anxiety that students feel. But they need to realize that when they don’t reply to an email from a student who is worried about something or when they act aloof or condescending to a student in a face-to-face meeting, they are sending a message that the student isn’t good enough. Parents, teachers, and counselors must communicate on a regular basis about the well-being of the student. One little setback in school, the college process, or with their personal life can impact the student and it can snowball in a matter of hours. Nothing is more important than our kids’ well-being—not acceptance to an elite college or a perfect record. It’s those moments of imperfection and even challenge that allow our kids to recognize how strong they are.

RO: Can you share with us some of your most useful tips that you offer to college-bound seniors? For example, how can a student stand out from the rest of the pool of applicants?

SH: I have a very unusual approach to how a student can stand out in an applicant pool. For every student I work with as a private client or through my Facebook groups for Application Nation, I take them through an exercise that I have developed over the years. It’s foolproof and transformational in how the student sees themselves and projects themselves to others through their college applications and their every day life.

RO: What is the number one thing college admissions counselors are considering when they are reviewing an application? Is it different now compared to when you were reviewing applications?

SH: The most important thing that college admissions officers consider is the high school transcript. It always has been the piece of the application that is weighted the most and it probably always will be. But a very close second are test scores. Admissions officers downplay how important SATs, ACTs, Subject Tests, and even AP scores really are to them. They never admit it, but test scores influence how much time admissions officers spend reading and evaluating an application.

RO: Over the years I’ve heard many “we” comments from parents when referring to the college application process; I’m sure I’ve been guilty of that myself. But really, it isn’t our process, it is our kids’ journey. Would you agree? How much or how little involvement do you think parents should have in their high schoolers’ college process.

SH: I used to judge the “we” comments when I wasn’t a parent and I worked on the college/university side of college admissions. Now I know how much a student can benefit from having their parents involved in the process. Only a handful of students can truly do this on their own and be better off. Most students need a shoulder to cry on, a wise voice to weigh in when they are having trouble making a decision, and even another set of eyes to review an application for typos before it’s submitted. Students do this process only once (unless they transfer or reapply). It’s hard to strike it right on a first try. Mom and Dad tend to add more than a student might think. I am not against the “we” comment as long as the student is doing the heavy-lifting.

RO: How many schools do you advise your high school seniors to apply to? Do you break that down by target, reach, and safety schools? Tell us more about that.

SH: Most of the students that I work with apply to 8 to 12 colleges. Each college usually has additional essays to write beyond the main essay, so it can get very stressful to apply to more colleges. No matter what advice I give students, they always apply to more “reach” colleges than I recommend. Nowadays, I define a “reach” college as any school with an admit rate of 25% or less, no matter how spectacular the student is. As a result, I like when a student has just as many target and safety colleges on the list as reach colleges. It takes a very open-minded student to visit, consider, and apply to more target and safety colleges. When they do, they open themselves up to merit scholarships and honors programs.

RO: What about GAP year options and other alternatives for graduating seniors instead of going straight to college? Do you advise some families that maybe going to college right out of high school isn’t the best option path for them?

SH: The gap year option has been around for decades. The traditional gap year concept of doing something cool before starting college never really took off in the US; not even after President Obama’s daughter decided to take a gap year before going to Harvard. A much more popular option these days among public and private colleges are alternative start dates for freshman. Large, public universities often admit a portion of their freshman class for the summer to get them acquainted and more prepared. And a growing number of private universities and colleges are admitting students for the spring semester or possibly even the following year. These students are forced into a gap semester or sometimes a gap year in order to enroll at the college of their choice. But families need to take finances into consideration. Many of these private institutions are offering academic coursework abroad for these students before they arrive on campus, yet the costs are exorbitant and financial aid is usually not available.

RO: Given your experience with so many young adults over the years, what advice would you give to your own children when they approach the high school years, and the college application process as a whole?

SH: This may surprise some given what I do, but I believe a student can get a great education almost anywhere from a state college to an elite Ivy League university. It’s not the college that defines you. It’s what you do while you are there and beyond. You can come from the most humble beginnings, but a college education can change your trajectory. It sure did for me.

Sara Harberson is a nationally recognized authority on elite college admissions with over 20 years of experience. Her philosophy is that every student applying to college deserves the best advice. Sara founded Admissions Revolution, writes a weekly blog on, and is launching her latest paid Facebook group in January called Application Nation—Class of 2020 to provide direct, affordable access to her expert advice, training, and individualized guidance. 

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