52 Weeks to College: Week 4 — Create a Tailored Application Strategy for Each College on Your List

Here’s a basic question for you. If you are planning on applying to 10 colleges and 9 of them accept the Common Application and 1 has its own application, how many applications do you have to complete? Many, if not most, applicants would answer "2" — the Common Application and the other application.

It’s a reasonable answer, but it’s the wrong answer. Despite its name, the Common Application is not a common application. The standardized components form only the core of each application, not the whole application for each college. Every college can (and usually does) customize these applications. Therefore, what every applicant needs to understand from the outset is that every college has its own application.

Most applicants make a similar mistake when it comes to analyzing the admissions policies at the colleges on their lists. Although all selective U.S. colleges do have holistic admissions policies and consider multiple factors when evaluating your application, this doesn’t mean that all colleges have the same admissions policy. Instead, each college has its own policy. Not only will the list of factors considered vary from college to college, but the importance assigned to each of these factors will also vary.

What does all this mean for you? It means that if you are applying to 10 colleges, you will have to complete 10 applications and understand 10 admissions policies. You might think this is bad news because it means more work, but it is also good news because it means you can tailor your application strategy for each college and thereby increase your chances for admission. Isn’t getting in your ultimate goal? Of course it is. So stay focused on the good news and spend this week creating your tailored strategies!

Week 4 To-Dos

This Week and Every Week

Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.

Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.

This Week

Create an application strategy for each college on your list. While your overall application strategy is to tell your story (see last week’s post), you want to tailor that strategy for each college on your list.

Decide whether you are going to submit optional supplementary materials. Optional supplementary materials would include an arts supplement, an athletic supplement, samples of your academic work, and additional recommendations.

Decide whether you are going to take any additional standardized tests. Deadlines for registration for the fall ACT, SAT, SAT Subjects, and TOEFL are coming up, so you need to know whether you are going to be taking any additional standardized tests.

Tips & Tricks

Develop your school-specific application strategies based on what matters most to the admissions officers at each college on your list.

At selective U.S. colleges, admissions officers have the power; they are the decision makers. Therefore, your tailored application strategies should be developed with those admissions officers in mind. How do you know what matters most to the admissions officers at a particular college? You do a little research on the College Board’s Big Future website. Each year, the College Board conducts a survey and asks each college to indicate what factors they consider in admissions (from a list provided) and how important each of these factors is. Wow! That’s exactly the information you need. Click here to download our free research guide that will show you how to find this information on the site.

Restrain yourself when it comes to optional supplementary materials.

Many well-meaning people will advise you that optional supplementary materials are the key to a standout application. We beg to differ. Once upon a time (like almost 30 years ago), this was the conventional wisdom. Hours and hours were devoted to thinking about how to send exactly the “right” supplementary materials. But that was then, and this is now. Supplementary materials are now considered much differently. What once might have impressed is now nothing but a somewhat irritating distraction for admissions officers trying to process tens of thousands of applications.

The takeaway for you? More is not always more. More is only more if it really, truly adds something to your application. Furthermore, more is only helpful if your supplementary materials are welcomed and considered by the collegeSo do yourself a favor and exhibit restraint when it comes to optional supplementary materials. Plan to submit supplementary materials only if they truly add something, and they are both welcomed and considered. You'll find many schools' policies on supplementary materials on their websites.

Know when to stop taking tests.

We encourage applicants to get all (or at least most) of their testing done by the end of their junior year, so they can focus on applying in the fall of their senior year. We hope you are in that position. If you aren’t, then you must take the required standardized tests this fall.

If you have taken all the required tests already, then think carefully before you register to take any more. Now is not the time for the “new test.” If you have taken the SAT a couple of times, but now think you would be better off with the ACT, think again. The likelihood that you will perform substantially better is low, and you really do not have sufficient time to do the necessary preparation to take on a new standardized test.

As to whether you should take the same test one more time, we apply the three strikes and you’re out rule: If you have already taken this test three times, you are out. Your score is not likely to improve enough to make taking the test again worth the time and energy. If, however, you have taken the test only once or twice, then it is worth considering whether to take it again. But take it again only if you can prepare, and you have a plan for preparing differently and better than the previous times. 

About the Authors and Series

About the Authors:

Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey College Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (Southern Methodist University, University of Chicago, and Dartmouth College).

Anna Ivey is the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process and make smart choices about higher education.

You can read more college admissions tips in their book How to Prepare a Standout College Application (Wiley, August 2013), and follow them on Twitter @IveyCollege.

About the 52 Weeks to College Series:

52 Weeks to College is a week-by-week plan for applying to college. It breaks this complex and difficult project down into weekly to-do lists with supporting tips and tricks for getting it all done. Based on the Master Plan for applying to college found in our forthcoming book, How to Prepare a Standout College Application52 Weeks to College is designed for any applicant who intends to apply to top U.S. colleges. For those of you who are just discovering the 52 Weeks series and want to catch up, click here.