Four truths about the college application process

by | Dec 24, 2018 | Other News

1. It’s not the same as it was when we were applying.

Today’s college process hardly resembles what many of us experienced. We applied to the colleges we had heard about through neighbors and family. We took the SATs cold: being in school five days a week was preparation enough. We completed each application individually and, given the challenges of manual typewriters, if we wanted to make a change, it usually meant re-typing the entire thing. Stress was a word that meant emphasize. Stretch and reach were physical endeavors, and safety was something you used around a match, which was used to light candles or describe a round of tennis. Applying to five schools was more than enough.

2. It can be hard for a student to hear what parents have to say.

While much has changed, this much remains the same. Although we may remember adhering to the advice and admonitions of our parents, chances are we didn’t hear and appreciate all they had to offer.

Today’s students have much more information at their disposal than we did, reducing our attempts to influence them to one voice among hundreds or even thousands. Each college website offers the official voice of the school as well as blogs by students and faculty and links to other sources of information, which in turn link to more websites and resources. The spiral suction of the quest for information is endless. By the time the student comes up for air, it’s no wonder the parent’s lone voice can seem under-informed or old-fashioned. And even though parents know that their perspective synthesizes years of wisdom, teens may not be able to recognize that, even when they need that guidance most.

When I work with students and their parents, I often hear a sense of relief from both. One student, for example, felt her parents expected her to go into engineering. She had resisted it exactly for that reason even though deep down she felt it suited her talents and natural interests. Going through an objective process of examining her interests and abilities and exploring careers related to her talents led her…to engineering. Because she was able to explore independently, she went to her parents with pride and excitement to tell them of her decision and then went on to apply to engineering programs, to her and her parents’ delight.

3. It’s not the name of the school, but the name a child makes for himself at the school that counts.

For earlier generations, a top-name college opened doors not otherwise easily opened. Doors opened infrequently, with people staying for years in a job or at a company. The average stay in a job today is so much shorter and access to potential employers so much easier, that the college name shrinks in importance and other factors grow. What the student does, enjoys, accomplishes; how he develops into a responsible, communicative adult; and how the college student creates opportunities to learn, grow, and accomplish—these are what will distinguish him amongst his peers and put him on a successful track in life. As I tell the students I coach in the college admissions process, it’s not the name of the school, but the name you make for yourself at the school that will take you where you want to go in life.

4. The tools teens develop during the college application process can carry them through the internship and job application process, too.

In working with students, my agenda is twofold: to help them get into college and to teach them the tools they need to market themselves throughout life. How does the student figure out what her interests and Joni Fink Burstein talents are? How can he learn what opportunities are available, including those he creates for himself? How can she match her key characteristics to what the school or job is looking for? How can he present himself to show he’s the right one for the job or school? Learning how to navigate these questions and present themselves in powerful ways is a lifelong lesson all students should learn as a side benefit of a high-quality college application process.

Joni Fink Burstein


Joni Fink Burstein, a Norfolk native, was an Echols Scholar at UVA before transferring to Harvard. She attained her management degree at Yale. Burstein guides students in the college admissions process through her consulting practice, Burstein With Advice.