If you are a parent of a college-bound student, be they in preschool, weaned on Mozart for Babies CDs, or high school, you already know that the admissions statistics are daunting. Case in point: a scant nine percent of students applying to Princeton are admitted, according to dean of admissions Janet Rapelye. For the class of 2009, Princeton received a record 16,077 applicants, a 17 percent increase over last year. Are you nervous yet? The average SAT scores of the accepted early admission applicants were 730 verbal, 730 math, and 94 percent are in the top 10 percent of their class.

Even if your child is not planning on applying to Princeton, it doesn’t hurt to get advice from experts such as Rapelye, who speaks on “Navigating the College Admissions Process” as part of Alumni Day, on campus on Saturday, February 26, at 10 a.m. The program is designed for alumni with children in grades 9 to 11 and is not technically open to the public. However, walk-ins the day of Alumni Day events are usually not turned away.

“Parents often treat their children’s college acceptances as a report card on their parenting,” writes Rapelye in a 2003 article posted on the Nobles School’s website. Rapelye is a 1977 graduate of that private school, located in Dedham, Massachusetts. She graduated from Williams College in 1981 and earned a masters at Stanford in 1985. In the article she advises parents and their children to focus on what is the best fit for the student, both intellectually and personally. “Selecting a college is not about where parents wish they had gone or about where they did go and want their child to follow. It’s also not about the Ivies.”

Rapelye says the admissions process is very different from 20 years ago, when many of today’s parents were applying to school. It is important, she says, to think of your child’s primary and secondary education not as a means to an end but rather as an experience in and of itself. Going to a “good” high school doesn’t give you a ticket in. “Nor should it,” she says.

The interview, for instance, is not weighed as heavily by admissions officers as it was in the past, says Rapelye. Instead, recommendations from those who know the student well at school are much more important. Rapelye served as dean of admissions for 12 years at Wellesley before coming to Princeton University, and in a 1999 article posted on Wellesley’s web site she writes: “Teachers recognize the tremendous responsibility of helping students present themselves in the best light,” she says. “The importance of each recommendation, coupled with requests from as many as a dozen students, can make the whole process very stressful for teachers.”

She offers the following advice for teachers and students in writing effective recommendations:

Don’t limit requests to teachers in your best subjects. Writing a meaningful recommendation for a top-notch student can be difficult. Teachers often feel that the student’s record stands for itself and that there is little the teacher can add. “We often encourage students to think beyond a teacher in whose class she has excelled. Some of the most telling and valuable recommendations are from teachers in whose class a student has struggled and really had to work hard,” Rapelye says. “These teachers are able to describe a student’s persistence, her determination, and desire to master concepts and course work.”

Talk before you write. “A student should talk with each teacher who is going to write a recommendation,” says Rapelye. “This conversation provides a context for the teacher’s recommendation. Find out where the student is applying and what type of program she is interested in and why. Talk about the student’s applications essays. We encourage teachers to ask students if there’s a particular aspect of her high school experience that the teacher should highlight in the recommendation.”

Write about the student’s progress. “The best recommendations are those that provide the ‘how’ and ‘why’ behind a student’s record of academic achievement,” says Rapelye. “What did the student struggle with? What made her stick with something academically challenging? We want to see that students have challenged themselves beyond the basic high school requirements, that they are not afraid to grapple with material that is new and perhaps difficult.”

Detailed and personal recommendations are best. “Although many teachers are hesitant to include personal observations about a student, we encourage them to do just that. Give examples of accomplishments. Note how the student worked with others in her class. Tell us what excited her. Rather than write solely about individual performance, tell us her role in the class,” notes Rapelye.

“The least useful recommendations are very generalized. Don’t say that a student is ‘excited about learning’ because that could describe anyone. Give an example of a project that really piqued her interest and how she put in extra effort just because she was fascinated by the topic.”

Don’t wait until the last minute. “Although it should go without saying, don’t wait until the last minute to begin writing or to ask for a recommendation,” says Rapelye. “We encourage students to think about which teachers they’d like to ask for recommendations around the end of their junior year. We encourage teachers to heed their own advice to students: don’t wait until the night before the deadline to write the recommendation. Just as with application essays, it’s easy to spot a recommendation that has been written at the last minute.”

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