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Go-to Guide: Experts Peel Back the Layers of the College Application Process

Between them, University of Mary Washington’s Melissa Yakabouski and Sarah Lindberg hold a half-century of college admissions experience. UMW Director of First Year Admissions Sarah Lindberg (left), and Dean of Admissions and Associate Vice President Melissa YakabouskiBoth recruited as admissions counselors upon earning their own bachelor’s degrees, they work together to break the often-perplexing college application process into bite-size pieces prospective students and their parents can easily digest. Take, for example, their “pizza” analogy, where the crust, sauce and cheese are fundamental ingredients for students vying to get into the school of their dreams, and the toppings add flavor and flair. During Virginia College Application Week – hosted Oct. 23 through 27 by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) – participating high schools aim to increase students’ access to college by helping seniors apply to at least one postsecondary institution. And this team of two is here to help by tackling a few of families’ most pressing questions. “It can seem like a daunting task,” Yakabouski admits of the maze of steps to admission. But there is hope. “One of the biggest misperceptions of parents is that there is a lock-step process that you have to follow, but that isn’t the case. There’s more than one way to approach this.” Q: Grades, extracurriculars … what’s most important? A: We like to talk about the holistic approach to applying to college as a pizza. Your main three components are your crust, your sauce and your cheese. Your crust is your application; you’ve got to apply. Your sauce is the curriculum. How have you challenged yourself throughout your four years of high school – college prep, honors, AP, IB, dual enrollment? Your cheese is your grades. How have you done day-to-day? The toppings are all the other items – your essays, test scores (often optional), letters of recommendation, demonstrated interest, interviews, extracurricular activities. Toppings can enhance a pizza without the best sauce or cheese, but they can’t replace them. Q: The college essay seems so important. What do we need to know to get it just right? A: Everybody thinks they have to write something profound. You don’t need an earth-shattering topic. We’re looking for a glimpse into a student’s everyday life; we’re looking for THEM. The essay just needs to be well-written and address the prompt. Think of it as a movie trailer, rather than a full-length feature. We tell students to do a little self-reflection, then zero in on one thing, one event, one person and how they’ve made them grow. And edit, but don’t over-edit to the point where you’re losing your voice. Q: Once we’ve selected a university, how will our family be able to afford tuition? A: Know that the sticker price is rarely the amount you’ll pay out of pocket. There are academic scholarships, state grants you may qualify for, low-interest loans you don’t start paying back until you graduate, and outside scholarships through employers, community groups, churches and nonprofit organizations. And different opportunities come up as you progress, so you shouldn’t panic. Everyone qualifies for at least some federal aid through the Free Application for Federal Student Assistance (FAFSA), which parents need to complete. As an acronym, FAFSA can instill fear in parents just as SAT can create anxiety in students. But it really shouldn’t because it’s improved, and it’s changing again this year to increase the reach of Pell grants for families with the most financial need, include more features and make the process more streamlined.


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