Inside the Admissions Process: GAA Workshop Offers Advice, Answers for College-Bound Students

Linda Pace ’77 drove her 14-year-old son, Gerald, to Chapel Hill from their home in Atlanta so he would hear what she’d been telling him all along: Grades count. So do SAT scores. Get involved and challenge yourself in high school. And pay attention to deadlines.

“I wanted him, as he starts his freshman year in high school, to see what colleges expect of him,” Pace said. “I wanted him to hear it from the experts, not just mom or dad.”

Mother and son were among the nearly 120 parents and teens who attended the 2007 Alumni Admissions Forum sponsored by the GAA. The crowd, casually but carefully dressed in a first-impressions-count manner, listened attentively to the presenters: a University admissions director, a scholarship and financial aid expert, and a counselor who readies high school students to apply to college. The daylong forum at the Friday Center in June included a special section on admission to Carolina and a tour of the UNC campus. Participants even got a taste of how difficult decision-making is for admissions directors by reading several mock applications and selecting who would be admitted, awarded scholarships, wait-listed or turned down.

“The admission process is becoming more and more unpredictable,” said Barbara Polk ’79,Carolina’s senior associate director of undergraduate admissions, one of the three presenters. “More parents than students are scared and anxious about the process.”

The annual forum aims to ease some of those anxieties with information, detailed and specific, and sometimes obvious but overlooked. Is it better to risk a B in an AP course or go for the sure A in a less rigorous class? How important are extracurricular activities? Does a recommendation letter from a well-known person who doesn’t know you well carry more weight than one from a teacher who thinks the world of you?

“Everyone has a story of some highly accomplished student who didn’t get in to a top school, and they want to know why,” said presenter Karen Kimberley, director of college counseling at Porter-Gaud School in Charleston, S.C. “The decisions are not arbitrary. It’s a competitive environment, and there are other wonderful students. Sometimes it’s hard to tell a parent that.”

Finding the right fit between student and school increases the chance for acceptance. Polk and Kimberley walked participants through searching for schools on college board Web sites.

Yolanda Paylor, a rising senior at Orange High School, was one of a dozen high school students that Seletha Pherribo Bumphus, career counselor at Durham Technical College, brought to the forum. She found the college search information the most helpful. “I learned about entering different parameters when doing a search to make sure I can get the options I’m looking for,” Paylor said.

Tom and Leigh Stiles ’85 came from Richmond, Va., with their oldest daughter, Laura, 15. They left with a timeline and plenty of information on financial aid. “We didn’t know what to expect as far as the application process, and what we need to be doing to prepare Laura,” Leigh Stiles said.

Austin Shaw, a rising junior at Wake Forest-Rolesville High School, brought his parents to the forum. He sat at the front table, listened intently and took notes. “I want to know the details that sometimes go unnoticed,” he said.

A detail that doesn’t go unnoticed, especially by parents, is how to pay for college. After the teens left to hear a panel of UNC students talk about selecting a college and adjusting to life on campus, Vince Amoroso talked with their parents about funding higher education. Amoroso, UNC’s deputy director of scholarships and student aid, discussed need-based and non-need-based financial aid, and the tools for calculating the expected family contribution. He gave tips on ferreting out merit scholarships outside of the university and their unique application processes. He reminded parents that “higher education is a business like anything else.”

Selecting a college is a family process, Polk said. Parents need to determine what the family can realistically afford, but students need to own the application process and make the ultimate decision of where to go.

“Students, it’s your life and your choice,” Polk said. “Parents, swallow hard and accept your child’s choice.”

Nancy Oates


  • High school performance should show that the student can do college-level work.
  • Extracurricular activities should show how one follows one’s passions.
  • Don’t take the SAT or ACT before you’re ready.
  • Colleges don’t view a “gap year” as a negative.

Selecting a School:

  • Apply to a reach school, a target school and a safety school.
  • College reputation and ranking can be overrated; find a school that fits.
  • One can make a big school smaller, but you can’t make a small school bigger.
  • Use a college search Web site to find schools that fit your criteria.

Finishing Touches

  • Students should strive to show parents that they are responsible and capable of making good decisions – including in the choice of schools.
  • Admissions officers want to see a passion and commitment to extracurricular activities more than a wide range of things in which one has dabbled.
  • The most effective recommendation letters come from people who know the student and the student’s work well and believe in the student’s ability to succeed.

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