Taking a look at college admission

The La Cañada Thursday Club on Sunday screened “In 500 Words or Less,” an award-winning documentary on the college application process, to a packed room of parents and high school juniors and seniors.

Applying to college is a rite of passage for many, and the club invited a panel of high school counselors, an admission officer from the University of Southern California and recent high school graduates to speak about the college application and admission process.

The film followed four high school seniors as they struggled to fill out college applications, study for SATs, and most importantly, write personal essays in which they would share who they were, usually in 500 words or less.

The young adults in the film face different struggles. Lindsay tries to balance good grades and extra-curricular activities while her mother is bedridden and disabled by cancer. She wants to go to Wellesley College because it’s where her mother studied.

Molly wants to go to Princeton but doubts she’ll be accepted, and questions whether she took the right courses to impress Princeton admission officers. As the film progresses, the stress of not knowing if she’ll be accepted to college and where she’ll attend wears her down emotionally and physically.

“I am so stressed, I feel like a person died. I don’t know why, but I feel like I want to cry that much,” Molly says.

Leo, the son of a Dominican Republic émigré, knows his chance to live a better life than his mother’s rests in college.

After the film screened, each member of the panel was asked a different question regarding the application process.

Emily Toffelmire, assistant director at the Office of Admission of University of Southern California, said that there are quantitative and qualitative criteria she and her associates look at when admitting students to college. High school transcripts, academic history and test scores are all crucial. But admissions officers look at qualitative data like dedication and achievement in extra-curricular activities, and weigh the personal essay statement carefully.

“The essay is really important, I can’t overstress that enough,” said Toffelmire. She also explained that looking over the data and admitting students to USC “is an art, not a science.”

Sally Spangler, a La Cañada High School counselor, said that students can choose how they approach the application process. They can do so with fear, or with confidence and intention. She also advises students to take advantage of resources, such as books, college search engines, and meetings with college representatives. Spangler stressed that staying on top of deadlines and managing time are skills students need to use in order to make it through the application process calmly.

Joanna Hartigan, director emeritus of college counseling at Flintridge Preparatory, said that a student should know why they want to pursue college before filling out paperwork.

“Four major areas affect where students want to go. Location, academics, lifestyle and finances,” Hartigan said.

Katie Cooper, a recent high school graduate who will be attending Emory University in the fall, said, “Don’t apply to college if you don’t love it. Even if it’s a reach school … you should only be applying to schools you love.”

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