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10 Questions Students Ask College Counselors + How to Answer Them

The college application process can be quite confusing, and as such, many students will ask you, their college counselor, many questions. The responsibilities of you as an IEC include preparing for these questions and having an answer ready for them, which will reassure them as you are helping them curate their application. 

Because of the importance of having a clear line of communication with your students, we published this article to help guide you on some general questions to expect below.

10 Questions to Expect and Prepare for

Here are some of the most common questions to anticipate for as a college counselor.

1. What factors should I consider when choosing a college?

With thousands of colleges and universities to choose from, students may find the task of finding schools that align with their academic and personal aspirations daunting. It's crucial to guide them in considering not just academic programs and prestige, but also factors like campus culture, location, size, student-to-faculty ratio, and opportunities for research or internships that align with their interests. Financial considerations, including tuition, potential financial aid, and scholarship opportunities, are equally important. 

In your answer, encourage students to reflect on their learning style and preferences: Do they thrive in large lecture halls or intimate classroom settings? Is a bustling city campus appealing, or do they prefer a quiet, rural setting? Understanding these preferences can help narrow down the search and find colleges that will not only enhance their academic growth but also contribute to their personal development. In addition, talk about attending college fairs, speaking with admissions representatives, and, if possible, visiting campuses to get a firsthand feel for the school's environment. Highlight the value of engaging with current students or alumni to gain insights into the student experience and academic programs.

2. Can you help me understand the financial aid process and scholarship opportunities?

The financial aid process can be complex and intimidating, with various forms, deadlines, and terminology that students and families may not be familiar with. For many students, it will be the first time they are deconstructing their family’s finances and navigating a complicated financial process, so easing their worries will be very important. Moreover, it’s not just the student – their parents will likely be invested in learning about financial aid and scholarships as well, so this is a critical topic to address for the family. 

Break down the basics, explaining the differences between grants, scholarships, work-study programs, and loans. Emphasize the critical role of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in determining eligibility for federal and state aid, and the CSS Profile for institutional aid from some colleges. Guide students in researching and applying for scholarships, emphasizing the importance of starting early and being mindful of deadlines. Discuss the concept of net price versus sticker price and encourage the use of net price calculators available on college websites to estimate the actual cost of attendance after financial aid.

3. What are the key components of a strong college application?

A strong college application is a cohesive narrative that presents the student's academic achievements, extracurricular involvement, personal interests, and character. However, most students are still in the process of understanding their high school journey, so they will be looking to their college counselor for guidance on how they should present their 

Explain the importance of each component: transcripts showcase academic rigor and performance, standardized test scores (if applicable) provide a standardized measure of academic ability, and letters of recommendation offer external perspectives on the student's character and contributions. The college essay or personal statement is a unique opportunity for students to voice their individual stories, perspectives, and aspirations. Encourage authenticity and reflection in the essay, advising students to choose topics that resonate with their personal experiences and growth. Extracurricular activities should reflect genuine interest and commitment, demonstrating leadership, initiative, and impact, whether in school clubs, community service, sports, or personal projects.

4. Should I apply Early Decision / Early Action to schools?

Deciding on Early Decision (ED) or Early Action (EA) requires careful consideration. ED is binding and should only be chosen if a student is absolutely certain about their top-choice school and has reviewed financial aspects to ensure it's a viable choice. It shows strong interest and can offer higher acceptance rates, but it commits the student to attend if accepted.

EA, on the other hand, is non-binding, allowing students to hear back early from colleges while retaining the freedom to explore all options and financial aid packages. It's ideal for students who have completed their applications and are ready to submit them early, but who also want the flexibility to compare offers.

Students should weigh the benefits of receiving an early decision against the need for flexibility in choosing among multiple offers. It's essential to not let the timing pressure compromise the quality of their application or limit their options. Applying early should be part of a strategic approach, carefully considering how it aligns with their overall college admission strategy, ensuring they make an informed choice that reflects their best interests and long-term educational goals.

5. How important are standardized test scores, and should I retake the SAT/ACT?

The SAT or ACT is a great source of concern for many students, but standardized test scores are just one component of the college application, and their importance varies among institutions, especially with the growing number of test-optional and test-blind policies. 

Discuss the student's scores in the context of their target schools' average ranges, considering whether retaking the test could realistically improve their chances. Address test preparation strategies, the potential for score improvement, and the emotional and time investment involved in retaking exams. Encourage students to focus equally on other application components, such as grades, essays, and extracurriculars, which provide a broader view of their abilities and character.

6. Can you assist me in crafting a compelling personal statement or college essay?

The college essay is a critical component of the application, offering a window into the student's personality, values, and writing skills. Many students struggle with selecting a topic that is both unique and reflective of their identity, and they may fall into the trap of choosing a boring or overdone topic because of its perceived safety. Good mentorship will be necessary for students to find the right track in writing their personal statement.

Guide them in brainstorming sessions to uncover meaningful experiences, challenges, or achievements that have shaped their character. Encourage writing drafts without worrying about word count initially, focusing instead on capturing the essence of their story. Provide constructive feedback on structure, tone, and clarity, ensuring the final essay is polished, authentic, and reflective of the student's voice. Remind students that the best essays often come from personal reflection and a willingness to be vulnerable. You may also refer them to past student’s works as examples, such as Johns Hopkins’ Essays that Worked section.

7. What extracurricular activities or experiences will strengthen my college application?

Extracurricular activities are a significant aspect of the college application, offering insight into a student's passions, commitments, and time management skills. Some may struggle to find an extracurricular activity that compels them or is related to their field of interest, while others may have too many extracurricular activities and become overwhelmed with incredibly busy schedules. Any student will benefit in understanding more about extracurricular activities, and being selective about their time to pursue the ones that will be most helpful for their application.

Clarify that colleges value quality over quantity, looking for depth of involvement and leadership roles rather than a long list of activities. Encourage students to pursue interests that genuinely excite them, whether within or outside of school. Discuss how personal responsibilities, such as part-time jobs or family care, are also valued for the skills and maturity they develop. For students with unique hobbies or talents, explore how these can be presented in their applications to highlight their individuality and dedication.

8. How do I request letters of recommendation, and who should I ask?

Requesting letters of recommendation is a crucial step in the college application process, as these letters provide colleges with insights into a student's character, work ethic, and academic abilities from third-party perspectives. Students should approach teachers, counselors, or mentors who have had a significant impact on their academic journey or personal development. It's important to choose individuals who can provide specific anecdotes and examples that highlight the student's strengths, contributions, and growth.

When asking for a recommendation, students should do so respectfully and thoughtfully, providing recommenders with ample time—typically at least a month before the deadline. It's helpful to provide a "brag sheet" or resume outlining their academic achievements, extracurricular involvement, and any particular points they hope the letter will address. This not only makes the recommender's task easier but also ensures the letter is as personalized and detailed as possible. Additionally, students should consider the balance of their recommenders; for instance, choosing one STEM teacher and one humanities teacher can provide a well-rounded view of their capabilities. For programs with specific focuses, such as art or technology, a letter from a mentor in that field can be particularly impactful.

9. How can I explore potential majors and career paths based on my interests?

Some students know right off the bat what field they want to pursue and what job they want after college graduation. On the other hand, many students feel pressure to choose a major early, often without a clear understanding of potential career paths. Encourage exploration through elective courses, online resources like the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook, and informational interviews with professionals in fields of interest. Suggest summer internships or part-time jobs in related areas to gain hands-on experience. Discuss the value of open-mindedness and flexibility, considering that many students change their majors and that diverse academic interests can lead to unexpected and fulfilling career paths. By providing detailed, empathetic guidance in response to these common questions, IECs and college counselors can significantly demystify the college application process, empowering students to make informed decisions that align with their personal and academic goals.

10. How can I make my college application stand out?

In the sea of college applications, students often wonder how they can distinguish themselves from other candidates. The key is to emphasize unique aspects of their personality, experiences, and achievements. Encourage students to delve deep into their personal stories, particularly in their essays, where they can share impactful life experiences, challenges they've overcome, or unique perspectives they bring to the table. Advise them to highlight specific examples of leadership, creativity, initiative, or community impact in their extracurricular activities, rather than just listing memberships.

Additionally, recommend that students take advantage of any optional application components, such as additional essays, portfolio submissions, or interviews, as these can provide further opportunities to convey their unique qualities and interests. Remind them that authenticity resonates; admissions officers are skilled at discerning genuine passion and commitment from resume padding. Encouraging students to present their true selves, with all their quirks and individualities, can make a significant difference in helping their applications stand out.

Final Thoughts

Navigating the college application process can be both exciting and overwhelming. As students pose these common questions, it's crucial for counselors and advisors to provide not just answers, but also guidance that empowers students to make informed decisions. Remember, the goal is to find a college that fits the student's academic, financial, and personal needs, fostering an environment where they can thrive. Encourage students to approach this journey with an open mind, resilience, and a willingness to explore all their options. Ultimately, success in college is less about the name on the diploma and more about the experiences, growth, and opportunities seized along the way.

If you’d like to recommend a rigorous research program open to high schoolers, you may want to consider the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, a selective online high school program for students founded by researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 4000 students apply for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here. You can also reach out to us at to know more, or to have a chat about possible collaborations!

Also check out the Lumiere Research Inclusion Foundation, a non-profit research program for talented, low-income students. Last year, we had 150 students on full need-based financial aid!

Lydia is currently a junior at Harvard University, studying Molecular and Cellular Biology and Economics. In high school, she was the captain of her high school’s Academic Decathlon team and attended the Governor's School of Engineering and Technology. She aims to become a life sciences consultant after graduation. 



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