Planning for College: Advice from a College Admissions Expert

No matter how organized and prepared you are, planning for and applying to college is just plain stressful. There are colleges to research, admissions requirements to decipher, essays to write, applications to fill out, financial aid and scholarships to find and apply for. And let’s not forget prepping for and taking important tests like the SAT and ACT.

When all that’s done, all you can do is play the waiting game and hope for that acceptance letter.

We wanted to shed some light on the college admissions process, so we decided to ask an expert. I sat down with Matthew Hebert, Director of Prospective Student Services at San Diego State University (my alma mater!)

Of course, every school is different, and there is a big difference between private and public universities. Even among public universities, different systems and institutions will have different requirements. However, as the largest four-year public university system in the United States, a look at the CSU system provides some good insight into what many colleges are looking for, and much of Matthew’s advice is general enough to apply to most students.

For students who are planning to attend a community college and transfer, who want to get an early start on college, or attend a private university, the admissions process will differ. But for those who want to attend a four-year public college after high school, this information is a good place to start.

LL: Does SDSU have students who attended online high schools or were homeschooled?

MH: Yes, to the best of my knowledge.

LL: What stands out to you most about a student’s application (AP courses, test scores, GPA, personal statement, extracurricular activities, etc?)

MH: As a California State University, SDSU ranks its freshmen applicants on academic factors such as GPA and SAT/ACT exams scores. We use neither a personal statement nor extracurricular activities for admission determination.

LL: Does the type or name of the high school play a role in acceptance, or are other factors of greater importance? (Students often ask Will I still be able to get into a college if I go to an online school?)

MH: No, the type or name of the high school does not play a role in acceptance, however students graduating from a high school within SDSU local admissions area (a geographic area around the university) have an additional consideration with their application.

Ed. note: While it’s not for everyone, attending a college close to home has some great benefits, including saving money, and in some cases, application priority. Check with the colleges in your area to see if they offer additional consideration or any other benefits to local students. It might be worth it!

LL: What factors most influence whether a student is rejected or accepted for admission?

MH: GPA and SAT/ACT exam score.

LL: Could you briefly outline the steps of applying to SDSU? Any differences compared to other colleges?

MH: The undergraduate application filing period is from October 1November 30 each year, for admission into the following fall. Applications are available online only at Applicants may apply to every CSU campus this way as well. We do not have spring enrollment for undergraduate students. Admission decisions are made around March 1 each year. Admitted students then have until May 1 to accept the offer of admission.

Private colleges/universities usually accept applications past November 30, and the UC campuses accept applications only from November 1-30.

LL: When should a student start planning for/researching colleges?

MH: As early as possible, certainly during their high school years and we encourage students to visit university during breaks, etc., once in high school. Students should begin preparing for SAT/ACT exams early as well and ensure they are completing the necessary college preparation courses that the CSU campuses will require for admission, called the A-G course listing, available here. Note that the needed courses begin in the 9th grade.

LL: What can students do to improve their chances and make their applications stand out to college admissions officers?

MH: Since we do not require/accept letters of recommendation or extracurricular activities, and since our decisions are made based upon academic performance, excelling in college preparation subjects in high school is critical as well as receiving a high SAT or ACT exam score. We recommend students take these standardized tests more than once, and we super-score’ the respective exams. [This means] we will use the student’s best possible Critical Reading section of an SAT exam and then use the student’s best possible Math score from a different sitting to give that student an even better SAT score.

AM: What is the average GPA for freshman and transfer students at SDSU and what percentage of students who apply are accepted? How does this compare to other colleges? 

MH: For fall 2013, our average GPA for admitted freshmen was 3.75. Our average GPA for admitted transfer students was a 3.2.

Overall, roughly, our acceptance rate is about 1/3. Every college/university, even within the CSU system, is quite different regarding the percentage of students accepted.

LL: What role should parents play in the application process?

MH: Parents should be involved in the application. Parents should never complete the application his or herself but rather we want the student and parent to work closely together to complete the admission applications.

LL: What one thing do you think students and parents should know about applying to college?

MH: There are a lot of options for higher education and each institution may have different deadlines and requirements, so knowledge is the key. Students should start early in their college search and become as knowledgeable as possible regarding the various options available.

A big thank you to Matthew Hebert for taking the time to talk with me! Do you have more questions about planning for or applying to college? Let us know in the comments and we’ll make an effort to answer your questions in future posts.

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