5 Tips for Navigating Any College Admissions Landscape

By Erika Giaimo Chapin,  Director of College Counseling
Our college counseling team at Hopkins spends a great deal of time studying key trends in the admissions world and communicating those trends to students and families. Examples of recent developments include the increase in college applications over the last five years and “test optional” policies implemented during the pandemic that have led to a further deepening of the candidate pool across the country. Knowing what the big picture looks like is essential, but experience reminds us that there are constants that ring true regardless of any changes in the college landscape. In this article, we break down five of those constants that are worth considering wherever students are on their college admissions journey.

1. Take Advantage of Resources

Because colleges are constantly evolving, it’s always important to stay on top of the latest information coming out of schools (as well as our own college counseling resources at Hopkins). The pandemic made the traditional college visit more challenging, and therefore many schools ramped up their online offerings so students could get a feel for the campus and culture of their institutions remotely. This created the ability for students from any part of the world to find important information and gain access to virtual tours, videos, webinars, and other key resources typically unavailable pre-pandemic. 

The good news is, in most cases, those resources are here to stay. While there is no substitute for an in-person visit, students can get an immediate feel for an institution without ever leaving home. This is helpful for a junior who is getting ready to apply soon or for a younger student simply dipping their toes in the water. It also allows students and their family members to have a better sense of direction when the in-person visits begin.

2. Look Inward Before Looking Outward

Making informed decisions on where to apply to college doesn’t just mean knowing the ins and outs of each school. It also means knowing oneself. That’s why in our initial college counseling meetings, we ask students to fill out an extensive self-reflective questionnaire to help them gain an understanding of the kinds of school environments they would prefer. Are they, for example, the type of individual who would be comfortable far away from home? Are they a big-school or small-school person? What are their beliefs and interests and how do those align with the school communities they are hoping to join? While some of these elements might change throughout the high school experience, these important questions help students begin to understand that researching higher education isn’t just about finding the school that looks the best on paper. It’s about finding the right fit to continue the tremendous growth gained at Hopkins en route to a fulfilling life. After all, our goal as college counselors is to encourage independent reflection and research in our students, and also academic and personal growth. These key initial steps assist us in guiding students to consider the schools that will truly bring out the best in them.

Another aspect of looking inward is knowing where one is in the college admissions process. For example, if a freshman or sophomore isn’t quite ready to begin the deep dive process, we often advise them to simply be. Be a high school student. Be a good friend. Be a considerate member of the community. Build connections with teachers. Be active and engaged in all aspects of school. A Hopkins education is an outstanding opportunity for self-discovery, and seizing any moment to learn and grow as an individual is time well spent.

3. Focus on Authenticity 

Throughout every school year, our college counseling team hosts programming that focuses on topics such as financial literacy and college entrance exams, as well as a panel presentation with college admissions officers to provide context on the current admissions landscape. One of the constants of the application process that often arises during those discussions is the importance of authenticity. As an example, we are often asked the question by students: How many community service hours should I have logged by the time I’m ready to apply to colleges? We typically respond with questions of our own, such as: What kind of community service activities are you doing and why? More often than not, colleges want to admit students who are positive members of their communities and are also motivated by the work itself. Beyond grades and test scores, schools are interested in investing in people who engage in activities with purpose and meaning. Therefore, students who wish to support their communities should look for causes that matter to them and not just think of extracurriculars as checking a box. This goes beyond community service. Students should always be looking for clubs or programs that speak to their real passions and interests. This way, when writing about these experiences in the application, the passion students have for the work will come across as genuine and purposeful.

4. Play to Your Strengths

The landscape in selective college admissions has become less and less predictable, and schools are on the lookout for the attributes that make students stand out in their applicant pools. Once students have done the hard work of school research, continue to look inward, and are focusing on an application centered around authenticity, it is important for them to consider the additional strengths of their candidacy. The pandemic provided great examples of how Hopkins students demonstrated a resilient spirit during a challenging time. Some students used their extra time at home to learn a new language, tutor younger students via Zoom, or embark on civic-minded projects to contribute to their communities. When writing their college application essays, these students were able to do more than just share challenges; they were able to paint a genuine picture of overcoming those challenges. This created applications with depth and dimension. Tying in the previous concept of authenticity, focusing on strengths gives students opportunities to showcase their creativity, resilience, and determination.

5. Be Open to Change 

It’s always so exciting to see how much students change and grow in their time at Hopkins. Embracing that change is important when it comes to the college admissions process as well. For example, as sophomores and juniors at Hopkins participate in class meetings and college fairs to familiarize themselves with the variety of options available to them, we advise them to keep an open mind. When entering those college fairs, we encourage them to speak with representatives from as many schools as possible to learn about the opportunities available to them as undergraduates, and possibly to rise above preconceived notions they might have had at the beginning of the journey. Likewise, younger students may start with a set plan or a list 
of schools, but as the self-reflection process breeds new ideas, casting a wide net allows them to explore all possibilities. The best way to truly discover the right fit in a school is to compare and contrast it with several  others, keeping in mind the student’s ideas and goals.

The best part about the entire college counseling process is that it is indeed a process. And like any process worth the effort, it takes time, hard work, and self-awareness. Students and families should expect to learn something—about themselves and about institutions—during this unique time. It can seem daunting at first, but the true evidence of a successful college counseling process is when students feel empowered to make decisions that reflect their true selves. And ultimately, empowering students is the entire purpose of our work at Hopkins.

This article was originally printed in the Summer 2022 edition of Views, the Hopkins School Magazine. 
    • Student meeting with Erika Giaimo Chapin, Director of College Counseling

    • Students review mock college applications with a visiting college admissions officer.

    • One-on-one meeting with Jessie Ramos-Willey, Associate Director of College Counseling

    • Student meeting with Sanil Patel, Associate Director of College Counseling

    • College reps visit campus to meet with Hopkins students and learn more about the Hopkins experience, a program called "A Day on the Hill"

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Hopkins is a private middle school and high school for grades 7-12. Located on a campus overlooking New Haven, CT, the School takes pride in its intellectually curious students as well as its dedicated faculty and staff.