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    What Colleges Look For

    Five tips for putting your best foot forward.

    Amy Adair

    There's more involved in getting into a college than just test scores and grade point averages. We recently talked to five admissions counselors about what they look for, how to get the most out of an admissions office, and how to best present yourself to a prospective college. By taking these steps, you can move a little bit closer to getting that acceptance letter.

    Do Your Homework

    It's pretty common for Angie Clausen, an admissions counselor at Oral Roberts University in Texas, to get calls from students who don't know anything about Oral Roberts University. She recently talked to a student who assumed Oral Roberts was a dental school. Another student told her he wanted to major in CSI. She gently reminded him that CSI was a TV show—not a major. To say the least, she was not impressed with either student.

    Clausen's word of advice: Do a little homework before contacting an admissions counselor. While she says it's OK to ask a lot of questions, you should at least know basic information about the school, if it is a liberal arts college or a Bible school, or if it even offers the major that interests you.

    "We are looking for students who have a true desire to be at our school," Clausen says. "And that means having some knowledge about the university before you contact me."

    According to Clausen, checking out a school's webpage is a great place to start gathering information. You can quickly find majors offered, basic facts, statistics about the school, and general information about life on campus. This resource gives you a great snapshot of the college and will help you determine if it might be the right place for you. In fact, many colleges are beefing up their websites with helpful features for prospective students. ORU recently launched oruonline.org, which is a lot like myspace. It lets you connect with current students and admissions counselors. The topics range from scholarships, to roommates, to living in the dorms.

    "Meeting us online helps students get to know us and lets us get to know them," Clausen says. "It's another way to build a relationship with counselors. We're reading the blogs. It leaves a good impression and shows that a student is really interested in our school."

    Develop a Relationship

    Once you're interested in a college, you should start developing a relationship with an admissions counselor. According to Michelle Pfeifer, an admissions counselor at Concordia College in Nebraska, it's well worth the effort.

    You can start by e-mailing or calling an admissions counselor. Many have late office hours so that they can talk to high school students in the evening. Pfeifer says it makes a good impression when students—and not Mom or Dad—pick up the phone to ask questions or make their own appointments.

    "A lot of parents call me to schedule their child's campus visit," Pfeifer says. "It's not the worst thing, but I want the student calling just as often as Mom or Dad. We want to see the students take the reigns during the application process. It shows that they are independent and ready for college."

    Admissions counselors notice how often students are calling—and that's not a bad thing. They like talking to you and answering all your questions.

    "I love it when students and parents ask a lot of questions," Pfeifer says. "Some have actually apologized for calling. I always say, 'Don't feel bad. Call often.' If a student has been in contact with me and follows through with my requests, it's a lot easier for me to recommend them for acceptance."

    Plan a Visit

    Between your application and all the phone calls and e-mails, you might think a college would know everything about you once you hand in your application. Not so, says Jason Black, an admissions counselor at Samford University in Alabama. He wants to meet prospective students face-to-face.

    "School is not a just choice, it's a fit," Black says. "It's hard to know if the school is the right fit if you've never stepped foot on campus."

    Samford, like other Christian colleges, devotes entire weekends for prospective students to visit the campus. Your admissions counselor will set you up with a student who will host you for the weekend. You'll spend a night in the dorm and even eat in the dining hall. You'll really get a great idea of what campus life is all about.

    Your admissions counselor will also help you find a class or two to visit during your long weekend. You'll even get a chance to meet with some professors. Come prepared with lots of questions, and don't hesitate to talk to other students in the class. Remember, choosing a college is a huge decision. The more informed you are, the more confident you will be in your decision.

    You'll also have a chance during the visit to talk to your admissions counselor about your entire experience. According to Black, this is another opportunity for you to develop a better relationship with your admissions counselor. It's also a great time to tell your admissions counselor things that don't come up on the application.

    "We tell students to lay it all on the table," Black says. "If your parents just started taking care of your grandma and it's changed things financially for your family, I want to know that you're looking for extra money. But it doesn't help if we don't start that dialogue until March of your senior year, because by then the money might be gone."

    An admissions counselor can also help you if you don't have a great ACT score or GPA. Tell them why your scores are lower—maybe you just don't test well. If you struggled early in high school, but then worked hard and got better grades, tell them that, too.

    "It's really impressive when students are honest," Black says. "If you have a lower ACT score or you've struggled academically, I can tell your story to the committee that determines who gets accepted, but I have to know it."

    Represent Yourself Well

    For some schools, part of the campus visit is a formal interview. While you usually can't prepare for the questions, you can prepare for the way you'll act. These interviews can really affect the school's final decision. But according to Pam Bryant, the director of admissions at Anderson University in South Carolina, it's not as stressful as you might think.

    "I truly want to get to know the student," she says. "I know the student is usually anxious and nervous, so I tell them up front just to relax."

    Although Bryant wants to see a cool and confident student, she is also expecting some common manners. "College is a step into the professional world," she says. "Students need to present themselves as professionals."

    This means looking the part. Don't show up for an interview in jeans with holes in them and a T-shirt. Wear something you would wear to a job interview. Little things, like making eye contact and shaking hands, are important. Unless you're told otherwise, address the person interviewing you as Mr. or Ms.—it's a simple way to show that you're mature and serious enough for college.

    Bryant says she asks a series of questions and rates the answers on a scale of one to five. The more involved answers get higher points. For instance, she usually asks students who has influenced them. "Don't just say 'my grandpa,'" Bryant advises. "Tell me why."

    Another tip: Ask your parents or a teacher to do a practice interview with you. Practice sitting up straight in a chair, answering questions, and shaking hands. When you get to the real interview, you'll be confident you're putting your best foot forward.

    Take Recommendations Seriously

    Recommendations from those who know you are quite helpful for admissions counselors. But how much weight do they actually carry? A lot, says Scott Klaehn, the director of admissions at Crossroads Bible College in Indiana.

    "We're looking to see if the student is capable of doing college work," Klaehn says. "And references can really give us a better picture of the student."

    So who is the best person to give you a reference?

    Klaehn says a student should choose carefully. Select a teacher who really knows you. If you've struggled academically but worked hard to pull up your grades, colleges want to hear that. Don't be afraid of having a teacher mention some of your weaknesses.

    "Improvement is something that we're looking for," Klaehn says. "All hope is not lost if the student struggled early on."

    Klaehn says he also puts a lot of weight on the reference from your pastor. "We're looking for strong Christian character and leadership qualities," he says. "We like to hear that a student has been involved in church."

    Don't panic if you haven't been super-involved in church. According to Klaehn, it's never too late to start. If you haven't been to youth group in a while, start going. Volunteer to teach a Sunday school class. Not only will it look good on your college apps, but you also might actually like it!

    But no matter what, Klaehn says, the admissions process isn't about impressing anyone or figuring out the secret code of doing the right things to get in. It's about being yourself.

    "The admissions process is really about a college trying to get the big picture about a student," Klaehn explains. "We just really want to get to know the applicants."

    Amy Adair is a freelance writer and graduate of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.