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Writing TutorBy Meagan Phelan, Writing Tutoring Instructor, Prepped & Polished, LLC

A tour guide in a bright t-shirt walking backward, nimbly navigating libraries, gyms, and sprawling lawns; this is the image I conjure when I remember my own visits to college campuses.

If you are a junior or senior, you’ve probably been on several such visits, with more in the queue. How much time do you spend, on average, preparing for these?

If your answer is, “I review the school’s website, talk to others who went there, and get to know its core curriculum requirements,” that’s a good start. But you could be doing more—additional preparation that would make you standout to busy college admissions counselors and advisors you might meet.

Let’s face it: admissions counselors and advisors meet dozens of potential students a year. In the end, those who will stand out to them are very likely those who reflect a passion—and can tell a coherent story about how they arrived at that passion. To maximize your opportunity to discuss this meaty and memorable topic during the brief interviews, you might have or during university functions for prospective students, try to avoid asking questions you could know the answer to simply by studying the school’s website (or course catalog). Questions like whether you have to take SAT II subject tests or four years of a foreign language, the school’s average SAT score, majors, minors, or concentrations offered, and information about study abroad programs.

Ask and answer thoughtful questions

Taking time to study the information above will mean you won’t have to spend time asking questions about these topics—and can instead focus on more qualitative queries that burrow more deeply into what it’s like to be a student at the school. Here’s an example: “How has the head of the biology department’s emphasis on science majors understanding how scientific study results are perceived in the world at large influenced the number of science majors who are adding English/media courses to their curriculum? And/or how has it influenced the possibility for students to pursue independent majors with a science communication-related focus?”

Answers to qualitative questions like these can be different every time, depending on the college staff person you ask.

Not only should you be ready to ask thoughtful questions; you should be ready to answer them, too. College staff may ask prospective students, directly, “Why do you want to attend this school?” If you’ve not yet articulated the answer—but just had warm, fuzzy feeling about the place, or if you like it because your parents both attended—you might want to take some time to think about the features of the institution that have really captured your imagination.

College staff may also ask about your interests—books you have read, or thoughts you have on particular topics in the news. Each question gives you a chance to speak to your interests. In turn, it gives the person asking it a chance to get a sense of who you are. The opportunity to interact in this way can be missed when you spend your brief college visit simply asking the basic questions—about course curriculum, etc.—outlined above.

Pursue other interests

If you are thinking, “This sounds good, but I’m still fleshing out who I am, and I’m not quite sure how I’d answer these questions,” that’s ok. There are numerous opportunities to pursue interests complementary to (and beyond) your current course curriculum in order to identify areas in which you are passionate.

Do you play high school tennis? After your season is over (because, undoubtedly, you won’t have much extra time during the season), consider teaching tennis to local youth. This would not only provide a way for you to engage with your community—an activity sure to impress college admissions staff and one they like to see students in college continue—it’d also offer you a chance to see how you do in a coaching (or leadership) role. Colleges look for leaders among those they accept.

Maybe there is a field about which you already feel excited, like politics. Dig deeper! If talking about tax cuts fires you up, contact your local Congressman and see if that person would be open to you shadowing or providing write-ups for a local political blog. If you love literature and find you have an appetite for it that extends beyond the courses currently available at high school, investigate courses available at your local community college; they typically offer high school enrichment classes. Colleges love to see high school students taking steps like this to get real-world experience, feed their brains, and get ahead!

If you’re still working to provide answers to the kinds of thoughtful questions college admission staff may ask—about how you’ve become who you are and what you want to contribute to the world—consider how you use your free time. Options abound for self-discovery.

Not only will the activities you pursue help you determine where your interests are really rooted—which is critical as you decide upon a career—they will also make for memorable stories when it comes to sharing your narrative with college admissions staff. To stand out in their minds, make sure your own interests first stand out in yours.

About Meagan Phelan

Meagan Phelan holds an M.A. in Science Writing from The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD and a B.A. in Biology from Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pa. She has freelanced as a science writer and is a Fulbright Scholar. She currently works as a Senior Writer and Editor at AIR Worldwide, a catastrophe risk modeling firm based in Boston.

What are some good questions to ask admissions officers? Will you ask thoughtful questions on your next school visit?

Post your tips/comments below.

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