Five ways to ace college applications

Expert tips on surviving the college application process (without doing all the work yourself!).

By Brad Munson

Admissions office

The keys to a killer application

Completing college applications isn’t the most fun your teen will have during the admissions process, but it’s vitally important. Amid all the research, campus visits, and test prep, filling out applications may seem like nothing more than pushing paperwork. In fact, it’s one of the most important (and essential) challenges for your child — a stumble here can end a college career before it begins. As Katherine Cohen, the author of Rock Hard Apps, says, “Straight A’s and perfect SAT scores aren’t enough to get accepted into the most competitive colleges anymore. The application has to convince the admissions officer that a student’s not only smart, but special. The application is your proxy, your spokesperson, your ambassador, either your best friend or your worst enemy, depending on how well you treat it.”

The good news? It is possible for your child to submit a winning application — and you don’t have to stress about it. Here are a few ways to make the journey easier:

Pick your top targets ASAP

As your student’s junior year wraps up, and research and college tours wind down, don’t dawdle: Build that list of four, five, or six schools (no more!) that your child really wants to get into, along with the ones you’ll both be happy with even if the Big One doesn’t come through. Then have your child request or download those applications and study them. When are the deadlines? Are there “early-bird” ones? Are some financial aid packages contingent on early applications? Though there are great similarities between schools, no two applications are exactly alike, and you’ll want to treat and schedule each one individually. Chances are some will closely resemble the Common Application (see the next slide), but in this case, the devil is definitely in the details. Check them all out.

Get all your (data) ducks in a row

Every college application has at least six parts: the form, the essay, exam results, your child’s transcripts, his or her “brag sheet,” and letters of recommendation. The first part should be easy, but you’d be surprised by all the names, addresses, and phone numbers your student will need to come up with just to fill in the blanks. So start by having your child download and complete the Common Application that’s already used by more than 400 schools, and make sure you have all the necessary data close at hand.

Find the right kind of help

There’s an art to applying for college, and it’s something you and your child have to study and practice to do well. That said, you, as the parent, should not write (or even heavily edit) your child’s essay. The admissions officers who read them for a living will know, and you’ll be teaching your future college student the wrong lesson about personal responsibility and commitment. But you can ask for help, both on the application and the essay. There are a wide number of online (see below) and print aids available (check out our book picks in the next slide). Use them, or have your child get feedback from a trusted teacher.

A few Web resources to get you started:

Read up on apps and essays

Our picks from experts who have been there, done that:

Rock-Hard Apps: How to Write the Killer College Application, by Katherine Cohen (who worked in the admissions department at Yale University), gives plenty of concrete advice while following three very different students to widely different schools. It gets an A for accessibility.

A Is for Admission: The Insider's Guide to Getting into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges, by Michelle A. Hernandez, is also written by a former admissions officer (at Dartmouth College this time). She covers everything from filling out the forms to acing the personal interviews.

Parents will get particular comfort from Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know About Getting into College, by Sally P. Springer, Jon Reider, and Marion R. Franck. The comments aimed at moms and dads — like "What your child will remember long after the college admissions process is over is how you supported him or her" — are especially valuable.

Writing the essay is often the most daunting step, but Alan Gelb’s Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps: Crafting a Winning Personal Statement can help. It comes highly recommended for its practical information and gentle voice, for students and parents alike.

Harry Bauld’s On Writing the College Application Essay is a little more formal and Ivy League-focused, but its insights are invaluable. It’s considered a classic in the field for good reason.

Girl studying

Check, re-check, and triple-check

What’s the most common application error admissions officers mention? It all comes down to carelessness. Not following instructions, says Brown University. Not being organized or using a spell checker, says the University of Pennsylvania. Take that to heart, and have your child check the application for omissions, spelling errors, and grammar mistakes. Then have somebody else check it for you. Then check it again. All the clichés about having only one chance to make a first impression apply, so proof every part of every application thoroughly.

Brad Munson is a freelancer writer, father, and sex educator based in Pasadena, Calif.