Want the real skinny on the college application process? School counselors, high school seniors and the UI's admissions director share tips and insights
CHAMPAIGN — On a dry erase white board in her room, Ellie Walker has been tracking her future.
Among the list of critical dates the Central High School senior has jotted down on her board: Dec. 13.
That's the day she expects to hear from the University of Illinois on whether or not she's been offered a slot in the UI's Class of 2018.
On that day, fellow Central senior Clare Stanhope and many others will be logging into the UI's admissions portal to find out the news. An e-mail and an official packet of information will follow in the mail for those accepted.
Stanhope and Walker, like many seniors, have taken advantage of a growing number of colleges' and universities' priority filing periods and early application deadlines, submitting their paperwork in the fall and hearing back about admission decisions typically before winter break.
"I am a little nervous, but I also feel excited," said Stanhope, who has also been accepted at the University of Iowa and Indiana University (she recently received a big red envelope from the latter). "Getting into two others before the U of I makes me feel more secure, that, if I do not get into the U of I, I know I still have other choices," she said, adding that she will likely hold off on making a final decision on her college of choice after she visits the Iowa campus in the spring.
That's when another date comes up: May 1, national college decision day, the deadline for students to accept their offers of admission.
With many dates fast approaching — Jan. 2 is the UI's application deadline — The News-Gazette spoke with area school counselors, high school seniors and the UI's admissions director to get the latest information and tips on applying to college.
In recent years the number of schools to which students apply has been rising. There are a number of reasons for that, including the growing use of the Common Application, which allows students to fill out one application and submit it to member schools. Area counselors said just how many applications their students submit varies by student.
"Of our kids applying to four-year schools, many of them are applying to three or four. About every year we have at least one student who applies to more than 20," said Sam Furrer, school counselor at Urbana High School.
One student decided to apply to 23 schools based on recommendations by various relatives. One student applied to over a dozen to compare as many financial aid packages as possible. One student who applied to 20 schools chose several Big 10 schools, a couple Ivy League schools, and a few competitive national public universities.
Furrer advises against any kind of "shotgun approach," of applying to so many in the belief they're bound to hit something.
Applying to too many can add to a student's stress because the student will have to make a decision in a relatively short span of time, Furrer said.
How many is enough? Five to eight, according to the College Board, the association that administers standardized tests like the SAT.
About that deadline
It can be overwhelming — all the different types and names for application deadlines and filing periods out there now. Priority filing period, early application, early decision, to name a few.
According to the College Board, early decision plans are binding; when a student is accepted at a college, he or she must attend the college. Early action plans are nonbinding; when a student receives an early response, he or she does not have to accept the offer until the traditional reply date of May 1.
"It does get really confusing," said Laura Beata, counselor at Centennial High School in Champaign. When you're applying and considering when to apply, "pay attention to the fine print," she said.
Most of Illinois' in-state public universities have priority filing periods. At the UI, the nonbinding, priority filing period this fall was Sept. 1 though Nov. 15. For students who know they want to go to the UI and have all their documents ready (letters of recommendations, essays, etc.), area counselors said they will encourage them to go this route.
At 4 p.m. Dec. 13, the UI will notify 19,000 students who applied during the priority filing period, according to Stacey Kostell, assistant provost for enrollment management at the UI. (That's up since 17,000 last year.)
The regular filing period ends Jan. 2 for applying to the university for fall 2014 admission.
Most competitive national schools have deadlines around Jan. 1, counselors said. Several state schools have application deadlines later in the spring and some even having rolling admissions. For example, Eastern Illinois University does not have an admissions deadline; students are admitted on a rolling basis as space permits.
"It's still not too late to apply," said Jennifer Stroud, counselor at Central High School. "We just don't want them waiting until the end of April to apply, because the fact is by then there are not as many slots available," she said. And even though students can apply to Parkland up until the day of classes, it's a good idea to complete their placement testing earlier so they can get into the classes they need, Stroud said.
At Centennial, Beata estimated that over half of the students have submitted their applications.
"For students who apply early, even at a place that might have different deadlines, at most of those places, if your application is read and you do not get in, it will probably be re-read later. Your application may get read a couple of times as opposed to just once," Furrer said.
The benefit, Kostell said, is knowing earlier if you've been admitted or not.
For Walker, she applied early because she knew she wanted to go to the UI or Illinois State (or Iowa) because she didn't want to go far from home and she wanted to be able to make a decision sooner rather than later. Knowing earlier would also help her to then focus on financial aid planning, too.
At the UI, there's no set formula or single point system to determine admission.
What's most important?
"We always tell students their academic performance in high school," Kostell said. That means grades and the rigor of the work they took on. Did the student take advantage of what high school offered, and how did he do?
"That gets complicated. What we look for will vary depending on what they want to study," she said, whether it's electrical engineering or creative writing.
If there was a semester in which your grades slumped, explain it. If you made a mistake, say what happened and how you've grown from it. If you were out for three weeks due to an illness, but returned and your grades bounced back, say that.
The essay/personal statement
You went on a mission trip (to Appalachia, a reservation out West, a poverty-stricken neighborhood in Chicago) and now realize just how much you have?
You and thousands of others.
If you must write about such a trip, focus on a smaller aspect of it, like a personal interaction you may have had or how you demonstrated your leadership during that experience, Furrer said.
Also: "You need to make sure you're answering the question that is asked," he said.
The UI requires two short essays. The first is essentially about why the student has chosen the major he or she has selected and the second is more for the admissions officers to get to know the student better.
"Getting started is tough on those, and deciding what to write about is tricky," Beata said. She advises students to remember the purpose of the essays: admissions officers want to learn more about the student that is not elsewhere on the application.
"Tell us something we haven't asked. We know your grades, activities. You might want to talk more about one of your activities — tell us something unique about it, about something special about your family," Kostell said.
To help them get past that nervousness, Stroud has invited staff from the University of Chicago to conduct a personal essay workshop at Central.
The University of Chicago is known for its sometimes unusual essay questions. Here's one from this year:
"The mantis shrimp can perceive both polarized light and multispectral images; they have the most complex eyes in the animal kingdom. Human eyes have color receptors for three colors (red, green, and blue); the mantis shrimp has receptors for sixteen types of color, enabling them to see a spectrum far beyond the capacity of the human brain. Seriously, how cool is the mantis shrimp: mantisshrimp.uchicago.edu. What might they be able to see that we cannot? What are we missing?"
Where they're headed
After Parkland College, here are the top destinations for 2013 graduates from area high schools (based on self-reported information):
Centennial: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Illinois State University, Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.
Central: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Eastern Illinois University, Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.
Urbana High School: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Illinois State University, Eastern Illinois University.
Amherst College, Art Institute of Chicago, Bradley University, Georgia Tech, Kangwon National University in Korea, Northwestern University, Millikin University, Purdue University, Princeton University, Spellman College, University of California-Berkeley, Wheaton College.
Since the UI is "in our backyard" and staff are willing to speak to area students about opportunities in their fields of interest or the benefits of receiving a UI degree, it's no surprise the UI is the place among four-year institutions where most area high school graduates are headed, Stroud said.
"It's so well-known and we work closely with U of I. They come here for presentations like 'planning your future' night, and we work closely with the departments and colleges. The College of Education representatives, for example, speak to our students about opportunities within the field of education," she said.
Final advice/mistakes to avoid
— A common mistake is not researching schools enough before applying, Furrer said. Find out if the college offers the major you're interested in. Ask yourself, is it a place I can afford? Am I close to the student they typically admit? For instance, a student with a 34 ACT may not be the best fit at a place where most students received a 17, he said.
— "Be aware of all the pieces of an application," Beata said. Transcripts, test scores, letters of recommendations, essays, more.
A student may have completed his part by 11:59 p.m. for a midnight deadline, but if a letter writer didn't submit the recommendation or there were technical issues with submitting one of the items, that can cause problems.
Universities will allow you to track your application and all its components online now. Check it often.
— As you fill out a text box in an online application, don't just type in your answer. Write it out first in Word or another piece of word-processing software, and then copy and paste it in there, Furrer said. You need to proofread. Have someone else read your text. Typos are inevitable. Look for any references to the school. Someone at Illinois may not be too pleased to read, " ... and that's why I want to go to Indiana."
— Visit the schools you're applying to, said Walker, who regrets not having completed visits in her junior year.
— When asking for letters of recommendation, give explicit directions about what they should do: Submit it online? Give it to the school counselor? Is the letter of recommendation for a scholarship or admission? Check to find out exactly how many letters you need.
— For most schools there are three applications: the application for admission, the application for financial aid and the application for housing. "You want to pay attention to all those things, and having a system to organize the three is good," Furrer said.
Applying has a price tag
Students enrolled in the Free and Reduced Lunch Program can apply to have application fees waived. Counselors should be able to assist students with these forms.
$50: UIUC, UIC, UIS
$40: Northern, Illinois State, SIU-Carbondale
$30: Western, Eastern, Northeastern Illinois, SIU-Edwardsville
$25: Governors State, Chicago State
By the numbers
33,201: Last year's total number of applications to the UI's Urbana campus. A record.
19,000: The number of students who applied to the UI during the recent priority filing period (which ended Nov. 15).
7,000-7,100: Estimated size of the freshman class entering the UI in fall 2014.