July 26, 2010

Contact: Peter Rooney
Director of Public Affairs

AMHERST, Mass. – Especially for rising high school seniors and their parents, carving out time this summer for the college search and application process will mean less worry later on, according to Katharine Fretwell, Amherst College’s director of admission.

Katharine Fretwell

“The whole process is like an extra class during the fall, so students will be happy—and save themselves some stress—if they spend some time on it this summer,” she explained recently during a college-coordinated conversation on campus about the admissions process for Amherst employees who are experiencing the college search as parents .

While acknowledging that the whole experience often bristles with tension, anxiety and frustration, Fretwell offered some data and practical advice gleaned from 20 years of admission office experience to help demystify and remove stress from the process.

Tops on her list is to use the summer and early fall as an opportunity to conduct as much research as possible on colleges and universities.

That research may include in-person tours of campuses, but could include virtual ones as well. In addition, Fretwell suggested using guide books, college websites and online resources such as the College Board’s College MatchMaker to help gain insight on the following key factors: size, location, academic programs, undergraduate life, facilities, instruction/faculty, alumni and cost.

And, she shared this insider tip:

“Admission officers try to make everything on campus look shiny and wonderful,” she said. “Take a look at student newspapers for unfiltered messages from students themselves. Also, look at the extracurricular activities at a college and see whether the clubs are run by students. If so, that’s a good sign.”

Regarding faculty, Fretwell said it’s not only important to research whether graduate students, adjuncts or tenured professors are teaching courses, but whether students have ready access to professors, as well as opportunities to conduct research with them. She said that while faculty-student ratio is important, a more reliable indicator of faculty resources is the average class size. (At Amherst, for example, the average class size is 16.)

Alumni can be a huge resource, too, she said, adding that prospective students shouldn’t be afraid to reach out to former students of the colleges they find interesting.  Questions to explore include careers alumni pursue after graduation, and how supportive they are of their alma mater, not only financially, but also in terms of offering internships, and visiting campus for events such as career panels.

“A high level of alumni engagement usually indicates a strong level of satisfaction,” Fretwell said. “That’s why it’s worth researching.”

On the financial side, cost of tuition is always a concern, but Fretwell counseled parents to not be initially deterred by it. She reminded them that there typically is a sizable difference between the full “sticker price” of a college and the “discounted price” that parents and students actually end up paying after financial aid and grants are taken into account.

“Tuition is enormous, but colleges offer a full range and complex array of options,” she told the group of college staff members, from departments that included custodial services, the comptroller’s office, dean of students, design and construction, corporate and foundation relations and public affairs.

She advised parents to read financial aid policies and become familiar with terminology such as need blind, need aware, merit aid and the phrase meet full demonstrated need. “That’s a good phrase to see,” she said. (For an overview of Amherst College’s financial aid policies, click here.)

For future college students themselves, summer can be a great time to get a jump on the application, Fretwell went on. She said she urges students to download the Common Application, accepted by Amherst and most other colleges and universities, start lining up teacher recommendations  and begin thinking about choosing an essay question to answer from the six provided in the Common App.

“Look at those essays early,” Fretwell said. “Students may get a great idea in the shower or on a run, and the questions will be in the back of their minds for a while.”

She also suggested that essays should help enhance and position other aspects of a student’s application, and that points made in one essay shouldn’t be repeated in other essay questions, such as the supplemental essay questions that Amherst and other colleges often require. 

Although essays are an important part of the admission process—as are extracurricular activities, work experience and test scores in the case of colleges and universities that require them—academic performance in challenging courses trumps everything else, Fretwell said.

And fall semester of senior year might be the most crucial term of all, she said.

“Admission committees will not make a decision without fall senior grades,” she said. “They’re very important.”

Despite her efforts to explain a complicated process, Fretwell acknowledged that admission decisions don’t always seem to make sense. Against the backdrop of broad demographic trends and financial concerns, colleges and universities are usually guided by different factors and institutional priorities during a particular year.

Those variables may benefit individual students, or work against them, with no apparent rhyme or reason.

“There are very mysterious decisions that are made in admissions offices,” she said. “You will not always understand why one student got in, and another one didn’t.”

That said, Fretwell assured parents that if they and their children are realistic, open to guidance, and resourceful in their search, they will achieve the most important goal in the process:  finding the right fit.

“Like a good shoe, there are many schools that will fit,” she said.

NOTE: The Amherst College Office of Admission offers individual admission counseling sessions with children of Amherst employees who are in the college search process. It’s recommended to conduct these sessions during the summer or early fall. To arrange one, please call 2328.