"Real World" Prep

The College Application Process Should Be Considered Training for Future Executive Leadership

When we welcomed a son, our first born, eighteen years ago, high school graduation and applying to colleges seemed a lifetime away. We were blissfully unaware of what it would take to help our (very accomplished) high school senior with the daunting college application process.

With my perspective as an executive recruiter, I’m realizing that this process, albeit stressful, has become an exceptional training ground for my son (and other college applicants) to learn how to stand out, persevere and land a position they covet among an intense and highly-qualified pool of students/candidates. 

Get Those Test Scores and Extracurricular Activities Ready

In addition to stellar academics and test scores (SAT, ACT, and/or SAT Subject Tests), schools look for exemplary leadership experience across multiple activities, volunteer experience, and internships -- anything extraordinary about the applicant. Learning to stand out among a highly-qualified talent pool is a skill that is useful to anyone aspiring to a bright future, whether it is a top university or a spot in the C-suite. 

Amidst his rigorous AP course load, volunteer EMT schedule, playing a varsity sport, and numerous other school activities, my future college student is also now immersed in writing essays and taking several standardized tests.

It may seem like a lot for a young person to take on a multitude of responsibilities, but I also see how this emphasis on a well-rounded applicant is preparing him to become a capable adult.

Use Your Words

The essay component of the application process is immense. Admissions Committees prize unique content and top-notch writing. Students must select a topic from specific prompts and write a compelling response in their own voice, not their parents' or teachers'.

In addition to the common application essay, which most schools require, many schools also require an additional essay addressing why the individual wants to attend their school. Both have word count maximums so word choice, inspirational messaging, and thoughtful, concise writing are critical.

Your future college students will be required to write numerous term papers and essays during their college career. Learning  to write cogently with good grammar is critical from this point on - to succeed in college and advance in the business world.  

Get Organized, Learn to Meet Deadlines

Deciding which schools to apply to, how many, and within which timeline is an emotional game of roulette. There will always be schools completely out of reach (academically and/or financially), stretch schools, and safety schools - all with their individual application options and deadlines. The learning opportunities apparent in this part of the college application process have to do with prioritization and learning to plan and meet deadlines.

Fit Factor

One of the best ways to narrow the list of where to apply is to visit the campus, interview with an admissions counselor, and meet with professors, coaches, and current students or recent alums. In this way, the college application process is very different from building a career, but it can help students learn more about themselves and how different environments align with their goals.

This will not be the last time your child is asked to choose the best fit.  Choosing a college is good practice for making the best career choice. Chemistry, as we call it.

The “fit” matters and there is no substitution for an in-person assessment to help determine if you can envision yourself as a happy, contributing member of the student body and surrounding community.

Finance the Deal

Last but certainly not least, there is the financial challenge…the average annual cost for tuition, room and board at top private liberal arts colleges and universities is between $63,000 and $67,000. For most families this is an enormous expense, especially for those earning “too much” to qualify for financial aid. The only hope then is to receive a merit scholarship. Unfortunately many top schools only offer financial aid based on need, not merit. There are websites that list scholarship opportunities ( and and guess what? Most of these require additional essays in order to apply, so even though you have been on essay writing overload, only the most tenacious will prevail.

As we are quickly approaching Early Decision deadlines, the pressure and stress level is escalating. I have lost count of the number of essay revisions and am anxiously awaiting the day when this process is OVER! The clock has begun ticking down to January or possibly March. Soon we will know where our amazing young man will begin this exciting next chapter in his life.


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