College Apps 101: Quality Versus Quantity

It’s arguably the most competitive sport on the North Shore: college admissions.


And the season is upon us. Once your kid has taken the SAT and as many honors classes as possible, it’s finally time for him or her to fill out the application and knock the socks off admissions officers.

So, here are some tips to give your child an edge during this very competitive process.

Demonstrate a deep commitment to an extracurricular activity

As parents raising children in an environment where the choice isn’t if you go to college, but where you go to college, where should we draw the line at the plethora of activities our kids can pursue to beef up their first really important “resume”?

“What the extracurricular activity is matters less than the level of involvement,” says Michael Mills, an associate provost in Admissions at Northwestern. “You have to walk a fine line as an applicant.”

Mills notes that while many North Shore communities, for example, New Trier Township, are well-known for the breadth of extracurricular activities, the admissions officers who screen the applications will look beyond quantity for something substantial.

“We have trained them to look for meaningful experiences over resume building … leadership in a few activities rather than sparse participation in a lot of activities,” he says.

Barb Tubekis, director of The Volunteer Center, backs that notion up when it comes to loading up applications with volunteer experience.

“A laundry list of volunteer jobs is not as impactful as a well-developed relationship with a particular non-profit … Starting a project to help solve a social issue is now pretty pervasive in youth across the country, so just as with the rest of the application, students should make the experiences meaningful—learn from them.”

Think outside the box when choosing schools

Mills says there’s also merit to taking a somewhat different tack when helping your child choose where to apply.

When well-qualified students apply to public universities over the elite, top-tier private institutions, almost every single one them gain access as honor students, according to Mills.

“There’s the ‘I can be a big fish in a somewhat smaller pond,’ idea,” Mills says. “These students say, ‘I can do the honors program at …’ Who’s to say that’s not a better choice?”

Don’t sweat it: Your kid’s going to get into school

There’s also something to be said about taking a deep breath and relaxing. In a January 2009 article on, researcher and former Mercy College President Lucie Lapovsky discusses a survey in which 88 percent of students that apply to college right out of high school were admitted into their first-choice institution.

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