The Showcase Magazine - Articles

The journalist’s approach to college admissions: 5 Ws and an H for less stress,

more success throughout the process.


by Erik R. Slagle



As a tutor, one of the questions I get most often is, “how much do your students improve?” That varies, of course – are we talking about the SAT or the ACT? What point on the scale do you want to start from? (Higher-scoring students naturally have less room for error and it’s harder to “move the needle,” whereas starting from the middle of the pack means students can improve 150-200 points or more with the right coaching and practice.) Do you want to look at results from programs where practice tests were completed along the way? (Equates to better results.)

Lately, though, I’ve been finding this doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s not a conversation to shy away from – some of my students improve quite a bit, some see a nominal improvement, a handful have scores that didn’t improve at all, and there are factors that go into all three. But what stands out to me are the reports I get back from students at this time of year. I call it the “I got in!” cycle.

More than 90% of students I’ve worked with over the last 3 years have gotten into one or more of their top-choice colleges, many with generous Financial Aid offers And I certainly won’t take credit for their efforts: they’re the ones who did the work, committed hours to improving test scores, buckled down on the Common App, created some truly remarkable essay drafts. And it all seems to start at the selection stage: knowing which colleges to target by setting aggressive, but realistic, goals based on a few key questions. For anyone who took journalism courses “back in the day,” you’ll recognize the 5 Ws and an H.

WHO do you want to be on campus? A big fish in a small pond, or part of a large, vibrant community? Do you like the personal attention in smaller classes, or can you succeed as one among many in large lecture halls? How much personal attention do you want, or need, to have from advisors, faculty and staff?

WHAT do you want to be when you graduate? Not a specific job title, necessarily, but in more general terms.

WHY do you want to be that? Salaries, potential for growth, personal fulfillment, these are all valid reasons for being interested in a particular major. Or if you’re undecided, they can start pointing you towards something more specific.

WHEN do you want to graduate? Certificate, Associate Degree, Bachelors, and higher-level credentials all have pluses and minuses to them.

WHERE would you like to be, geographically?

HOW do you want to pay for your education? Or, HOW much debt are you comfortable committing to when you graduate?

It’s important, too, to note that “reach” schools don’t have to equal Ivy League, and “top-choice” might also mean “safety schools”: if you have your heart set on a particular college and your grades and test scores put you well within their range, let that be your #1 target. Not your only target, of course, but never feel like you’re “settling” if you’ve truly found the place you want to call home for the next four years.

To anyone navigating the college application process right now, think ahead to next year’s “I got in!” cycle and know that almost everyone ends up exactly where they were meant to be. And if I can be of any assistance throughout the year, don’t hesitate to reach out.