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Applying for College? You May Need That "Something Special"

These days, admission to the top colleges requires more than good grades, high board scores and a full page of extra-curricular activities.As WMRA’s Margee Greenfield reports, a little something extra is also necessary.

So, what does it take to be admissible to your dream college? The dean of admissions at a highly competitive university puts it this way: “We are less interested in a class of well-rounded students than in a well-rounded freshman class.”  What he means is that the student with the 4.6 GPA, 2200 on the SATs and a resume that includes activities and community service, will likely be admitted.  But so might the student with a lower GPA, who is a concert pianist or a world-class tennis player or who started a business in her/his hometown.

Michael Walsh, Dean of Admissions at James Madison University, encourages students to begin with the basics.    

WALSH:  There is an industry out there that makes it appear that you have to do all these things to get into a university.

The most-important steps, he says, are to talk to the to the college representatives, pay attention to the profiles of admitted students and be honest. So you’ve looked at your dream school.  You fit the profile:  your GPA and board scores are within the range of typically admitted students.  The reality is that, when it comes to applying to competitive schools and majors, the majority of applicants have very similar records:  challenging, rigorous schedules, top grades and high board scores…characteristics that match the school’s profiles.  For admission into these competitive schools and programs, students may need to present a tipper:  that “something special” that will make them stand out among their equally talented peers. 

Waynesboro homeschooled student Sarah Ward is applying for a program that only exists in five educational institutions on the east coast, where she hopes to remain.  She HAS that “tipper”…that “something extra.”

[Sarah playing the harp]  

SARAH WARD: My tipper is my harp.  Because I play the harp, I seem special.  Usually schools want a harpist because they have orchestras and orchestras need harpists.  So, harp is my tipper.  I’m going to major in music therapy.  I feel like I couldn’t really accomplish what I wanted to do in life by being a performance major.  I’ve always been interested in psychology and interested in helping people.

So, how does a student know if that dream school is the right place?  Dean Walsh suggests that students and families begin by making lists:  What type of school, size, location?  What majors available?  What activities offered?  Interested in church affiliation?  Then start looking at schools that meet those criteria. 

WALSH:  When students are looking at the more-selective school, they need to be able to articulate why that particular school.   I’m interested in your school not because of who you are, I’m interested in your school because this is something I’m looking for you have.   

Russ Ingersoll, of Harbor Counseling Services in Waynesboro,  works with high school students and families in the college selection and application process.    He has a little different take on finding the right school.

INGERSOLL:  We have all this talk about good fit…the good fit school.  I think we are getting little too conscious, or too focused on having the good fit school because.  It’s the student’s responsibility to become a good fit, wherever they are.  It’s not the college that going to propel you into your next career, it’s what you have made of yourself at that college.  Any college you go to, you can make it your space.  Where is the school where you can distinguish yourself?  And it may not be at that top pecking order school.

Harpist Sarah Ward’s mom is thankful that she has already been through this once, with Sarah’s older sister. 

KATHRYN WARD:  The first time around, it’s very scary because you don’t know what to expect.  What I’ve learned is that, for me, praying about it was very important - asking God for divine guidance because my wisdom is often limited.  The other thing is talking to other moms or dads who have been down the road before me.  Also, online resources, the college websites, college nights at our local high school and at JMU and, what was of extra wonderful value to me and my family was the wisdom and guidance of a college counselor that helped us navigate the process.  So, a little bit of everything from everywhere.

Whether from hours of research, miles covered during college visits and/or a bit of divine guidance, the process will be over for most students in the first few months of the year.  The majority will move on to a new worry:  what and how much to pack.  Others will begin to craft a “Plan B”.

Margee Greenfield was a freelance journalist for WMRA from 2014 - 2015.