College Counseling: The Application

Where you should be by the summer before your 12th-grade year?

You should have a list of schools that interest you (aim for at least a dozen). You may be certain that you’re applying to some of the schools on this list, but you might not yet know a lot about others. You’ll need to begin solidifying this list as soon as school begins; by early October you should have a nucleus of schools that are interesting to you and that are reasonable for admission.

You will meet with your counselors just before summer begins and again in the fall, and you will receive guidance in the search process and review your progress to date. During the September to October period, you will likely be filling out applications to a few schools, making some visits, and receiving initial information from other schools.

How Colleges Evaluate Applications

What Are Admission Officers Looking For in a Candidate?

The application review process varies from college to college. Some larger public universities make admission decisions using a computer formula that measures the extent to which students have met minimum grade, testing, and course credit requirements. At the majority of private colleges and the more highly selective public institutions, admission officers base their decisions on careful, multiple readings of applications, considering numerous factors beyond the quantitative information provided. This is often referred to as a “holistic evaluation.”

Ranges of selectivity and admission patterns at individual colleges can vary from year to year as applicant pools increase and decrease in size and as colleges modify enrollment targets or admission criteria. Thus, predicting admission is not a precise science. Most colleges publish freshman class profiles that provide useful statistics about their applicant and admitted student pools. These profiles often make it possible to compare your test scores and GPA with typical statistical ranges to get a general sense of where your credentials might fall in a college’s applicant pool. Our “Family Connection” web-based software program also provides in-depth and personalized comparison data.

One area to familiarize yourself with is the middle 50% of standardized test scores and GPAs of students whom colleges have previously admitted. This again is not an exact science, but another measure that can help you think about prospects for admissibility. While middle 50% ranges and other statistics are useful guides, remember that other more subjective factors may also be incorporated into the decision process.

Common Factors

Program of Study and Grades:

Colleges look first and foremost at the strength of the candidate’s curriculum. When colleges evaluate your transcript, they focus on the program of study and the level of achievement. You should take the strongest program that your academic background suggests you can handle successfully. Taking the toughest courses and doing poorly will not serve your best interests, and neither will enrolling in a less demanding set of courses to assure strong results; colleges are looking for students who are willing and able to accept a challenge.

Admission offices recognize the rigor of Eastside Prep’s academic program and the depth of student talent here. We also submit a School Profile with each application. This document provides all admission offices with very specific information about EPS’s Upper School academic requirements, course offerings, student GPA and standardized testing ranges, and school policies. So, even admission offices that may not be as familiar with Eastside Prep can and do learn a great deal about our program from the school profile—and they read it closely. It is helpful to know that when reviewing a candidate’s academic credentials, an admission officer uses the school profile hand-in-hand with the student’s transcript.

Thus, students are evaluated within the context of their own school’s curriculum, not against the curriculum or GPA of students at different or less rigorous high schools. Our school profile and your student transcript are available at your request.

When taking into account a student’s overall GPA, college admission officers are attentive to grade trends. While lower grades in the freshman and sophomore years might weaken an overall grade average, an upward trend in grades in the junior and senior years will make a strong and positive statement.


Most colleges accept scores from either the SAT or ACT test, with a small number being “Test Optional” schools. It is important to verify the specific testing requirements of each school.

Standardized tests carry more weight in the selection process at some colleges than at others, but colleges do not typically base an admission decision on scores alone. At no time do scores outweigh the importance of your program of study and grades. Admission tests provide a college with a nationally standardized measure of academic aptitude and background that helps frame a comparison of applicants who come from diverse secondary school settings.

Most colleges will use the best verbal and math scores drawn from multiple SAT test sittings, which is called “super-scoring.” They also use the best SAT Subject test or ACT scores if a student repeats a test.

Extracurricular Activities:

Extracurricular involvement is one of many elements a school will look at when evaluating your application; it almost never outweighs the importance of program of study, grades, and testing (exceptions are evident in cases of “the special talent” – see the following section on “other admission factors.”) Thus, it is not necessary or desirable to boast a resume with endless clubs and activities but without depth. Choose a few pursuits, pursue them to their fullest extent, and enjoy them. Colleges don’t have an investment in how many extracurricular activities a student pursues, but they do want to know what interests YOU.


Recommendations from the college counselor and teachers help define your accomplishments and potential. A strong recommendation demonstrates the writer’s personal awareness of you and reflects direct, specific knowledge of your accomplishments, character, and ability. An additional recommendation from a source such as a coach or an outside activity leader can add positively to your application—if it adds different insight and if you have demonstrated interest, talent, and the desire to continue to be active in these areas.

You should be aware of the expectations that each college has for recommendations. For example, some colleges require one recommendation from a math or science teacher and another from a humanities/arts teacher.


Writing an essay is one of your opportunities to make the application process more personal. Discussed in a later section of this handbook, we provide you with guidelines and recommendations for writing essays.

Other Admission Factors

  • In-State / Out-of-State Admission Status: If you apply to a public institution, state residency sometimes will give you an admission preference over out-of-state applicants. Many state institutions publish both in-state and out-of-state requirements. While policies vary from college to college, some public universities consider the children of alumni within the parameters of in-state admission standards. Out-of-state student enrollment quotas and admission standards vary greatly from institution to institution.
  • Legacy Status:  At some colleges, sons and daughters of alumni are given preferred status in the selection process. Because colleges define “legacy” in different ways, preferred status sometimes does not extend to siblings, grandchildren, or cousins of alumni. Nor does an alumni connection matter significantly at all (or even most) institutions. While legacies are accorded preference in different ways by colleges, an admission committee still typically must be able to predict a legacy’s success in its academic program in order to offer admission. Whether or not an alumni connection affects the admission decision, it never hurts your case to make sure that the college knows that you have a connection to the institution.
  • Demonstrated Interest in the College: Colleges appreciate students who have expressed interest in attending, and they assess this interest in a variety of ways: campus visits, email contacts, on-campus or alumni interviews, attendance at high school visits, meetings at a college fair, and so on. It is wise to inform a school that you are interested through the means listed above. Continued contact with the school is important, but be sure not to overwhelm them with your communication.
  • Minority Students:  Recognizing the advantages of multicultural diversity in the collegiate setting, colleges seek an ethnically and racially diverse population, and under-represented minorities are actively recruited. Different campuses define the under-represented population specific to their institutions. While a college will be looking for evidence of achievement and a prediction of success, minority student status may be an advantage in the admission process.
  • First-Generation Students: A first-generation college student is defined as a student whose parent(s)/legal guardian(s) have not completed a bachelor’s degree.
  • The Special Talent:  A student with exceptional ability in an area and who meets basic academic standards may receive special admission consideration. Examples of a special talent include a winner of a music competition, an all-state distance runner, a published writer, ore a highly talented artist. Colleges in all of the NCAA’s various divisions have an interest in recruiting talented athletes. Admission officers are seeking to admit a diversely talented student body. If you have a special talent, speak about it with your Process Coach, write about it in your application, and communicate with the appropriate person on college campuses.

Timetables for Application

Rolling Admission

Although with rolling admission there may be a date after which applications are not accepted, students apply throughout the fall and winter.  Decisions are made by the admission office on a “rolling” basis and replies are generally sent out within four to six weeks of receipt of a completed application. As with regular decision, admission comes with no obligation to attend.

Early Dicision

Under Early Decision plans students apply by an earlier deadline than the regular decision date, such as November 1 rather than January 15. Under this plan students receive their decision late in the fall. Offers of admission are binding, and if you are accepted you are obligated to attend that institution. Applications to other colleges cannot be made after acceptance under this program. Consequently, you should apply Early Decision to a school only if you are certain it is your top choice, and after considering how applying early will affect other possible factors like financial aid packages.

Early Action

Early Action is identical to Early Decision, except that the decision is not binding. You may be accepted under an Early Action plan and continue applying to other schools.

Some schools offer Restricted Early Action. REA is a non-binding early action admission option in which you may not apply to any other schools’ early program, except:

  • A college outside of the US
  • A non-binding rolling admission program
  • A public college or university whose admission is not binding.

“Early” application programs have exploded in popularity, but the great majority of students are still admitted through the regular decision process. Before you commit to any obligation at any school, make sure it is truly your top choice.  Too often students exclaim, “I am definitely applying early, I just don’t know where.” It is a mistake to take this approach. Remember, the vast majority (usually around 75-80%) of any class will not commit to any final college choice until spring of the senior year.

The Application Essay

The most difficult portion of the application is often the essay or essays. Though challenging, the essay provides opportunity not found elsewhere in most applications. It is the forum in which you tell schools what you most want them to know about you, in your voice and with your personal style.

Your Writing Coach is eager to brainstorm topics, read drafts, and make suggestions. It is often helpful to write a draft, put it away for some time, and then return to it with fresh eyes.

Be Yourself!

A common mistake is to ask yourself, “What does the admission office want to hear?” This leads to writing that sounds all too much like many other essays and is devoid of any individual personality. Think about what is and is not covered in the rest of your application, and then identify what you want to communicate to the admission staff about yourself. Usually, you can then fit those ideas into the answer for any typical application question. Allow for parts of your character to emerge in your writing and be honest in your words. Do not try to be anyone other than yourself.

Pick a topic of genuine interest.

First and foremost, what you write about should be of real interest to you. Admission officers look for commitment, enthusiasm, and real passion from potential applicants. These traits can only come through in your writing if you choose a subject that elicits emotion on your part. The best essay we read one year centered on a fight between two sisters. Anyone reading this essay learned a great deal about the student (mostly very positive) from this account. Do try to avoid “McEssay” topics: the big game, your favorite pet or family member, the most popular book of the year, etc.

Write with conviction, depth, and specificity.

Too often, students write on wonderful topics but only scratch the surface with their message. Strive to achieve real personal depth, using cogent anecdotes to illustrate your points. English teachers typically advise their students to “show, not tell” in their writing, and the same lesson applies here; be specific. If you do feel the need to write on one of the more common “McEssay” topics, work to make it original and distinct to you. Focus more on what an admissions team will learn about you than what they will learn about your topic; the topic is just the lens through which they will view you. Often it is best to choose the narrowest lens—a single moment in time—to allow you to shine through with specific and illustrative examples.

Specifics ALWAYS beat generalities. For instance, don’t write a travelogue of your trip to Chile. Instead, write about one afternoon spent talking with a teenager there about politics, and what this tells us (and told you) about yourself.

Avoid writing in strictly biographical facts.

“I am a senior at Eastside Preparatory School. I compete in crew and am interested in studying history…” is not the best way to approach an essay. Remember that you already have given them a great deal of factual information in other portions of your application and thus there is no need to regurgitate your resume. The essay is an opportunity to elaborate on some of those facts. What do you enjoy about rowing? Why is history an interest? Show who you are through your writing!

Do not feel that you must be perfect.

Many good essays contain admissions of a candidate’s weaknesses as well as strengths. The aforementioned “fight” writer portrayed herself as sloppy and a bit stubborn; however, a lot of real strengths came out as well. These strengths were made more believable by the honesty shown early in the writing.


There is no excuse for any type of error in an essay of this importance. Errors that could have been corrected with revision often distract completely from otherwise solid material. It is a good idea to let someone else read your essay, both to review clarity and to catch any mistakes you might otherwise miss. Remember, to do a good job of proofreading and sharing your essay with someone else, the essay must be started well in advance of the deadline.

Letters of Recommendation

Most colleges require at least one recommendation from a school official, and many require more than that. The “school recommendation” is written by your college counselors. Additional recommendations usually need to be from teachers at EPS. In addition, letters may be sought from current or former employers, coaches, church or other civic organization leaders, or even alumni of the particular college. The main criteria in a useful letter are that the writer knows you well and they can add information not already included in your file.

Counselor Recommendation

The counselor recommendation is intended to describe the applicant from a “whole-school” perspective. Your counselors work together to write a one- to two-page narrative describing your accomplishments and role in the Eastside Prep community.

Teacher Recommendation

Many colleges require additional recommendation letters from teachers. The purpose of these letters is to describe you as a student, and specifically how you perform and contribute to the classroom environment. Colleges read these letters to understand who you are in the classroom—not for holistic knowledge of you as a person.

Consider carefully which teachers (generally limited to those who taught you in 11th or 12th grade) best know you as a student. A good teacher recommendation need not come from the course in which you received your highest marks. Teachers who have seen your best effort and can vouch for your abilities and attitude in the classroom are the best choices to write for you.

Other Recommendation

As stated above, there are numerous sources for other letters to support your application, though in many cases schools want only teacher and counselor recommendations. Those who know you in a context other than academics may be able to add significantly to the “picture” being created in your application. Be mindful of two key thoughts in assembling these letters:

  • Additional letters beyond the counselor/teacher letters are not essential.
  • Quality is of far more importance than quantity.

Choose (at most) two other people who know you well and can add points that are not covered previously in your application.


If a college or university grants individual interviews, we strongly urge you to take advantage of this opportunity. A one-to-one meeting with a member of the admission staff is always productive and helpful.   Since admission office calendars are usually crowded, it is important to telephone the office well in advance of the day you wish to visit, or set an appointment for an interview online.

Interviews are usually not the basis on which admission decisions are made. Instead, the interview is an opportunity for you to learn more about the institution and for you to augment the information that you gave (or will give) in the application.

Many colleges provide “local” or “alumni” interviews. In this instance, students meet with an admission or alumni representative here in the Seattle area. Ask the admission office if they schedule such interviews, especially if you have been unable to visit the campus. It shows that you are taking an active interest in that college, and gives you a chance to learn more about life on that campus.

Preparing for an Interview:

Even though it is impossible to predict exactly what an interviewer may ask, certain types of questions are common. One bit of general advice for you: keep up with current events. The interviewer may be interested in your opinion on current news, so be sure you know what you think. It is also a good idea to be prepared to discuss something that you have read recently for your own enjoyment.

The typical college interview lasts about thirty minutes, and usually opens with questions that you can answer easily and comfortably. Then, the interviewer may pose more difficult—or surprising—questions.  Be prepared to answer questions about yourself, your school, your work, and your interests. In some instances, you may need to pause for a few moments before producing an answer. It is perfectly all right to say something like, “I need to think about that,” and then reflect for a short while before responding or ask to come back to it later. Overall, the interview atmosphere will be conversational, so do not feel as if you are about to face an inquisition or interrogation. However, take great care to be diplomatic and respectful.

Of equal importance are the questions you ask of the interviewer. Again, preparing beforehand is essential; you do not want to ask questions already answered in the information session or on the tour, or questions about programs that the school does not have. Try to make your questions open-ended, like, “Can you tell me about students’ involvement in community service?” rather than, “Do you offer community service programs?”

Your Process Coach is happy to do a mock interview session with you at EPS before you have your first interview. Most of our students take advantage of doing a dry run and report that they are much more relaxed during actual interviews because they have an idea of what might be coming.

See below for sample questions that the interviewer might ask you and sample topics for questions that you might ask the interviewer.

Interviewer Sample Questions:

Tell me a little bit about yourself.

Which subjects interest you the most? Which have been the most difficult for you?

What are your favorite activities outside of the classroom?

Have you read anything interesting lately?

Are you thinking about a specific major or career path? If so, what is it?

What specific things about this college interest you?

If you had a million-dollar grant to give away, who would get it, and why?

What are the “hot issues” at Eastside Prep right now?

What do you like best about Eastside Prep? What would you change?

Describe the qualities of the best teacher you ever had.

What are your best qualities?  What are your limitations or what would you change?

Why are you interested in this institution?

Sample Topic Areas for Questions You Might Ask the Interviewer:

Academics and faculty: Ask specifically about the programs you are interested in.

The student body: What is the culture like?

Social life and campus activities: How do students spend their weekends?

Campus facilities: What are future plans?

Financial aid: What are need-based and merit aid options?