College crisis? Experts remind teens to enjoy the process

College admissions representatives advise that seniors visit campus more than once. Most campuses, like the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, also offer overnight stays where students can have lunch, visit with professors and get financial aid questions answered.
Photo By: Mike Ekern and Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas
Just focus on getting good grades, study for your ACT/SAT, and spend time crafting your essay. The essay should be about you and what is important to you, not necessarily something that you think will impress a college. We want to hear about a person, event, experience that impacted you and what you learned from it.

While walking around with an admissions rep on a college tour, your mind might begin to wander to the group of jock-ish guys playing in the quad. Or maybe to a cluster of friends, all wearing campus colors, joking around the student center. Perhaps to a dedicated few studying vigorously in the library.

For a large number of high school seniors, this is the new life they can expect in just nine short months.

But how do you know which college you can see yourself living at for four years, maybe more?

Where do you start? What do colleges really look at? What are you doing wrong before that even becomes a reality?

Welcome to the dreaded application process, one littered with challenges and stress points every step of the way.

“I’m stressing about applying to college, college essays and managing my time. Also, I’m worried about my ACT score, and actually getting accepted to a college I want to go to,” said Durreti Wako, a senior at Robbinsdale Cooper High School.

“When I’m stressed, I go talk to friends who are in college. They help, but the part that makes me overwhelmed in stress is the wait. Waiting for acceptance letters. But in the end, it’s totally all worth it. I get to further my education into a different stage in life. That’s rewarding to me.”

The application process has become increasingly complex over the past few years thanks to options like early decision, early action, regular decision and seemingly endless requirements for students to understand. Also, with the rise of technology, a lot of applications have gone digital.

However, with a declining number of teens graduating from high school, “some would suggest that students (might) have an easier time being admitted today than 10 or 20 years ago,” said Kristin Roach, director of admissions and financial aid at the University of St. Thomas.

“For me, this makes the environment more complex and perhaps more stressful for students,” Roach said. But I do not believe it is harder to get into most schools than it was 10 years ago with the possible exception of some of the ‘flagship’ public colleges that are trying to improve their academic profiles.”

Roach’s number one goal is to make sure that if a student is admitted to St. Thomas, he or she will be able to succeed in college. Success in college doesn’t necessarily mean having a perfect grade point average. Instead, it means being involved, contributing to the campus community and thriving academically with a strong yet reasonable GPA.

“I want to see good grades in college preparatory courses versus seeing straight A’s in things like ‘underwater basket weaving’ (to use a silly example),” Roach said.

“Secondarily, I am interested in someone who is well-rounded and who will add to the university’s community. If a student has struggled, I am looking for clues about why they ran into trouble. We conduct a holistic review of each student’s application, so the more a student shares with us, the better.”


Stressing about the essays? You’re not alone.

Essays for each college vary and feature general prompts like “Why should you be part of the (insert college name) community?” or “Describe a place that has importance in your life.” Others can get more creative and ask about beliefs, hopes, rituals and even embarrassing moments.

For financial aid and scholarship purposes, colleges also can recalculate costs for “special circumstances” on a case-by-case basis. Common exceptions include changes in income, high medical bills and divorce, separation or death of a parent.

“One thing I really focus on is my special circumstance essay, because through that, the colleges can come to an understanding of who I am, and how important college is to me,” said Zoey Johnson, a senior at Robbinsdale.

Most colleges only ask for one writing sample. If you’re applying to a more prestigious school, they might require three to five samples. Also, more than 500 schools accept the Common Application and its essay, which was designed to streamline the process for students.

While the essay process could “make or break a student’s chance of getting admitted,” Roach advised not to stress out, but rather embrace the opportunity to tell their personal story in a creative way.

“I tell students what is important about the essay is a) write well … use spell check, have someone proofread it and be sure you don’t have any offensive language in the essay, and b) write about something that will provide the admissions committee with insight about you.

“Tell a story, especially if you have gone through trials in life. It’s an opportunity to tell your story and help the admissions committee understand more about you.”


Not every college is looking for letter of recommendations, but the ones that do want standouts. One common mistake that students make is asking for a letter from their “favorite teacher” or the class that they are doing well in.

Colleges “are looking for those letters to be creative,” said Carol Warndahl, career center director at Robbinsdale Cooper. “Students go to teachers (for a class) that they’re doing well in, but your transcript already tells them that you’re doing well there.”

Instead, get letters of recommendations from teachers in courses where you have struggled but made an effort to get better.

“If you can get a teacher to explain that you worked hard, looked for extra support, etc., it can really help the admissions committee understand your work ethic, which is a good predictor for how you may succeed in college,” Roach said.


A flawless math career isn’t quite enough to turn the head of a college admission officer.

Colleges want to know about you—what makes you unique and how you might have an impact on their campus. It’s also important to show colleges that you care about something, Roach said.

“I’ve been working with my College Possible coach and mentor on my special circumstance letter. I’m proud of it,” Wako said. “I feel very confident about it, too. I wrote about the story of my life and about some setbacks I’ve had that have molded me into who I am today.”

Alexa Tennyson, senior associate director of admission at Hamline University, said some students are too focused on getting into the most selective school possible. Instead, “students would be better served by focusing on the school that is the best fit for them.”

That should carry into the application process, where students are encouraged to simply “be themselves.”

“No one is like you. Don’t feel as if you have to use a gimmick to stand out—overly complicated essays, video submissions … won’t necessarily give you an edge,” Tennyson said.


Don’t let the sticker price scare you, either. Students and parents are more concerned than ever with how they are going to pay for a college education, but it’s wise to at least explore options before writing them off because of cost.

“People make assumptions (thanks to media hype) and they eliminate options before checking things out,” Roach said. “There was a day when a person could work over the summer, save that money and use it to pay for their entire college bill. That’s not possible today, and parents should not have that expectation of their children. Paying for a college education takes a number of parties—student, parent, college/university and also possibly the federal and state governments.”

Also, don’t make a decision without visiting colleges. Colleges have specific “visit days” or are able to accommodate students on campus for a personal visit.

“If you like what you see, come back to do an overnight stay, classroom visit, and more,” Tennyson said. “The overnight stay is the best way to find out if a school is the right fit for you. Make sure to stay overnight at your top two or three schools.”

Lastly, dream a little.

“Consider your academic interests and strengths and pursue schools that meet your needs. But … let yourself dream about a school in a location that is appealing to you, or one you perceive to be out of your price range, or one that is far away from home or closer to home than you may have been thinking about. Pursue the dream and see what happens,” Roach said.