Little Details: The search is on

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

Change is in the air. Evenings are cooler. Days grow shorter. Geese fly overhead, singing their song of destination.

Back to school shoppers fret over what shirts, pants, jackets, shoes and pencils are likely to be in fashion this season. Teachers prep classrooms. Newly purchased sneakers navigate CVU’s manicured athletic fields as aspirant athletes compete for positions on varsity teams. Roles have been cast for the theater department’s fall production. The stage is set for a new academic year.

As the parent of a junior, the college search process has begun in slow, measured steps. We presented our daughter with a college guide soon after her return from a year abroad. Studying overseas and finding she really could survive physics “en francais” provide a broadened perspective at this significant juncture. She got a taste of independence and experienced an alternative world of learning.

College view books and websites offer a thin, highly glossed veneer of what a school is like. Course catalogues reveal tangible, nuts and bolts content. Talking with current students and alumni renders more personal perspectives.

Venturing onto a handful of campuses, we listened attentively to official “presentations” and signed up for tours. Schools tout student-teacher ratios, study abroad programs and undergraduate research opportunities. They highlight internship and graduate placement statistics, significant considerations in a wobbly economy.

Admissions staff advise prospects to take rigorous course loads, but not so rigorous that grades suffer. GPA/SAT/ACT information is tossed out. Deep involvement in select activities of genuine interest is recommended. A passionless mishmash of clubs, sports and music activities carries little water.

I was impressed by the selective university that mentioned placing as much value on holding down an after school job as playing on the tennis team. Students who work should not be penalized in the college admissions process. Both activities demonstrate initiative.

I was unimpressed by the tony school that compared itself—in an elitist sort of way—to a slightly less-tony institution in the same town. It turns out our daughter came to the exact same conclusion, on her own.

Campus tours round out the experience. We were guided in both dazed and inquisitive clusters by plucky students—adept at walking backwards—who gushed about the merits of their institutions. We visited classrooms, dining halls, dorm rooms, labs and athletic facilities.

We lingered on campus to catch the library vibe or grab lunch or a cup of coffee. We must have “the look” of a prospective family. Students approached us on more than one occasion, happy to extol the virtues of their school.

Professional experience in college admissions at a large, mid-Atlantic university reinforces my belief that students must be mindful and engaged in the college search process if they are to realize meaningful results. Taking an honest look at academic choices and what their transcript says about them is vitally important. One soon realizes the direct correlation between academic achievement and choices post high school.

Standardized tests continue to matter, although an increasing number of schools are now “test optional.” This is an important consideration for students who don’t perform well on such tests, but are nonetheless capable. Students who score exceedingly high on standardized tests but whose classroom grades pale in comparison would likely cause an admission officer to pause.

Student essays can matter immensely and deserve time, attention and discernment. They also demand a second pair of eyes—preferably not a parent—to offer an honest critique. Essays should be highly personalized, showing who the applicant is beyond dry numbers and course listings.

Letters of recommendation can make—or break—an application. While reading hundreds of letters from teachers and guidance counselors, I easily teased out the “boiler plate” (i.e., insert name here) versus impassioned epistles asking that the campus gate be opened for a particular student.

There are exceptions for students with a special talent—in athletics or music, for example—or whose families demonstrate significant development potential. There are also the legacy admits, a small but admissions-significant constituency.

Working at a Division I school, athlete admissions applications were solidly “off limits” to general admissions staff. They were segregated from the vast pool of applicants we considered in conference. Athlete applications were spirited away to the associate director of admissions, who also happened to be an ardent college sports fan. He consulted with coaches when making admissions decisions. Different rules applied. I suspect they still do.

The process can seem a little overwhelming. Parents can guide, offer support and remind their daughters and sons that there is a place for them. Lest I forget, we are also expected to help pay for this adventure in learning!

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston.  Reader comments are welcome at or