Tips from college admissions expert Brennan Barnard

Brennan Barnard is a college admissions expert with more than 20 years experience in the field.

Photo courtesy of Brennan Barnard

Brennan Barnard is a college admissions expert with more than 20 years’ experience in the field.

The college application process can be one of the most stressful, confusing, scary and time-consuming experiences of a young person’s life. 

Researching, touring, filling out endless forms, writing essays: all so that a college can choose whether or not they want you to attend.

Then, if accepted, you have to decide where you’ll spend the next four years of your life. 

Brennan Barnard, who has worked in the college admissions process for more than twenty years, now primarily serves as an admissions counselor for several independent schools across the country. 

He has even written a book, The Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together, on the college application process. 

Interviewed recently, Barnard offered the following advice and tips to students about to begin the process.

Note: Italicized sentences indicate my own reflections on what Barnard said.

How can students prepare to apply for college?

I guess what I would say is, do what you love and let the rest come together. Colleges are really looking for students who are authentic and to be more engaged in their community and who follow their interests. Sometimes we think, ‘How can I get into college?’ And it should be more about identifying what you’re really good at and what you love, then saying: ‘Okay: now what school is going to help me take that to the next level?’

That said, there are some things that you want to make sure you are doing like taking challenging classes and being involved in your school. During the summer don’t just sit at home, but get a job and volunteer or something that gets you out and about.

Follow your interests.

This was interesting because I think a lot of students believe they should chose their activities and extracurriculars based on what they think colleges want, but in reality, colleges want to see that you can make your own choices.

But at what age should this process really begin? Sophomore year? As a freshman? Or even in middle school?

I think the earlier the better. Not to start like applying for college, but to at least have conversations with your family about finances, like how much money is going to be available for college. And what are some of the expectations your family has? 

As far as touring, I think if you’re able and you’re on vacation somewhere you might not go back to anytime soon, it might be nice to stop by and see a college, just to get a feel of the environment of the campus.

In junior year really try to set up a criteria range: Big school, small school, region, etc. There are a lot of schools across the country, so identifying that you like a small campus, or the east coast, or a city environment, can really help narrow down your search.

Touring and researching schools is very important in the application process. You will (most likely) be living at the school for at least four years, so enjoying the campus size and feel is crucial. With virtual visits and tours it has become easier than ever to explore school from around the world from the comfort of your own home. Take advantage of these meetings, especially as most are free to attend.

What is one thing prospective students often miss, or overlook, during their college research?

I think it is important for students to ask the questions they have and to see the parts they want to see. If you want to see a classroom, see a classroom. If you have questions, ask them. Colleges want to see that you are interested and engaged on these tours. Pick up a newspaper and see what some of the activities are around the campus. If you are into wellness, visit the gym and cafeteria. 

This cannot be stressed enough. Ask the questions you have. Most schools have admissions counselors’ email addresses on the website, or they will give them to you after a tour. It is important to show interest in a school, because most colleges track this information now.

Do you suggest that students apply to the early deadlines (if schools offer it)?

I would say early action definitely. It really depends on the student and their situation. Maybe if they struggled during their junior year and their grades weren’t as strong, I would suggest not applying early action and waiting until you have your senior year grades to show. But with early action, schools are filling larger proportions of their class during the early process. Say your school has early decision and it’s really clear that that is where you want to go. You should consider applying, because, again, the acceptance rate tends to be a bit higher for the early processes.

Do you think students applying early decision to their first choice school, their clear favorite, should still pay for applications to other schools?

If you apply early you should receive your decision by the regular decision deadline, but I do think that it does help increase your offers. Some schools offer fee waivers that make the application free, so see if you qualify for those.

Some schools offer fee-waivers to you if you even just attended an in-person tour or virtual session.

Following the application process, say a student is accepted into several schools they equally like. How do you recommend they make their final decision?

Take advantage of the admitted student days. They offer chances at most schools, both in-person and virtually, to visit and meet some of the other accepted students and their faculty. I would definitely recommend attending those. 

Then make pros and songs list of what you’re looking for. List the positives about each school and then list what you wish they had. Every school is not going to be great and there won’t be a college that meets all your requirements, but it’s about finding the best fit. 

Every student I know going into college has experienced a low point when the novelty of college and being there and the independence wears off and you may regret your choice. But this is the way everyone feels. When you’re making a decision, I think it’s important to do it in the context of ‘Yeah there’s going to be things I wish were different, but I’m making the best choice for me knowing what I know now.’

Brennan mentioned that every college student he knows, which is a lot, has experienced some regret or unhappiness during their freshman year about their school choice. This is completely normal. When applying, make your choice based on how you feel in the present. 

When do students learn about about their financial aid offerings from schools?

Most schools send the financial aid package either with the acceptance letter or shortly thereafter, assuming the student has completed all the applications. All the offers are contingent, though. They’re basically their estimates until they get the final numbers.

It is important that your parents and/or guardians fill out the FAFSA and CSS forms to ensure colleges can get a better understanding of your financial situation and can offer an appropriate amount.

If an accepted applicant receives an underwhelming or insufficient financial aid offering, is it appropriate to ask for more?

Yeah, definitely. It depends if the parent’s potential situation has changed since they applied. Maybe a parent lost their job or something. Some schools, even with scholarships, will offer some more money and they will bump up the scholarship to make it work. It never hurts to ask, but also be prepared to hear ‘no.’

What is one last piece of advice you have for students applying to college? The one thing for them to remember from this interview?

I would say that, if you’re going to college and you get to do this, it’s a real privilege and it’s an experience. College admission shouldn’t be a slog. You shouldn’t have to feel like this is something that is happening to you and its a passive thing. It is something you get to do. Something that is full of opportunity and possibility. It can be fun and is no reason to stress.

It’s not something to get totally overwhelmed about throughout high school.

When getting stressed about the applications process, I also think it’s important to take a step back and remember that this is supposed to be exciting and fun. You won’t always get the good news you want, but things have a way of working themselves out. If you didn’t get into your number one school, perhaps it’s destiny calling you to another school.