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Strategies for Last Push in College-Admissions Process

It's crunch time for high school seniors applying to college. While many may have had visions of completing their applications before the holidays, the reality is that many will be working on them up until New Year's Eve.

So, how to best manage the last weeks of the process?

Tempting as it may be to skip the optional essay, experts say don't take that short cut. If you do, "it's a missed opportunity," says Don Fraser, director of education and training at the National Association of College Admission Counseling in Arlington, Va. "There are few places to express yourself. If you have one, take advantage of it." Even if the student doesn't feel like a strong writer, the college isn't looking as much at the writing as rounding out the picture of the applicant. Looking at a stack of applications, the college is more apt to pay attention to the student who takes the time to complete an optional essay, says Fraser.

Same goes for the optional interview. "It goes back to the notion of demonstrated interest, which is more of a trend," says Fraser. "It's one more way you can demonstrate interest." Alumni interviews are not evaluative, but it is a chance for the student to find out more about the college and, perhaps, help his or her chances. "If you go in there and really shine, that will show up in person's notes," says Fraser. At the same time, students shouldn't go into an interview disinterested or unprepared, which can also be passed on to the college. Many campuses are too busy to offer interviews, but when they do, it's an opportunity to learn more, adds Fraser.

Some families are taking last-minute trips to visit campuses before turning in applications—another avenue to show your seriousness about a college.

Demonstrated interest can move the student you up the ladder in the admissions process. The percent of colleges that attribute "considerable importance" to demonstrated interest when reviewing applications grew from 7 percent in 2003 (when it was first measured) to 23 percent in 2010, according to the latest NACAC survey. It ranks above teacher recommendations, the interview, extracurricular activities, and work.

A reminder of the top factors in the admissions process in order: grades in college-prep classes, strength of curriculum, admission-test scores, grades in all courses, essay, class rank, and counselor recommendation.

This time of year, although parents may be wringing their hands at the procrastination of their high school seniors, Fraser notes that some sense of pressure is good. However, extreme amounts of pressure—seven applications to do in three days—is not. Students may feel they are doing their best work, but it's likely not. Encourage students to pace themselves as much as they can in these last two weeks. There's also a point at which you need to stop shopping it around for advice and just hit "submit," adds Fraser.

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