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Differences, self-reflection key in college enrollment process

UPDATED: Sat., Oct. 24, 2015, 10:12 p.m.

Nicole King, right, with the EWU Athletic Department, takes a photo of students Katie Drinkwine, left and Brittney Carey with Eagles mascot Swoop last month. COLIN MULVANY colinm@spokesman.com (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Nicole King, right, with the EWU Athletic Department, takes a photo of students Katie Drinkwine, left and Brittney Carey with Eagles mascot Swoop last month. COLIN MULVANY colinm@spokesman.com (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

In a perfect world Philip Ballinger wouldn’t reject a single college application.

But the world of college admissions is no utopia, and Ballinger, the associate vice provost for enrollment at the University of Washington, knows it.

“You never, obviously, like to give negative news to a young person,” he said.

Ballinger, who has worked in admissions for more than 25 years, has some simple advice for parents and students applying to colleges.

Be yourself, and know generally, what you want out of school.

It’s advice high school seniors might heed this autumn as they evaluate colleges and submit applications.

“We’re not seeking clones. We’re seeking differences,” Ballinger said. “We just want to know who they are, and we want to know they will be successful, too.”

Ballinger reads roughly 1,000 college applications a year. The ones that stand out are honest, self reflective and show that the applicant is a good student.

Cezar Mesquita, the director of admissions at the University of Idaho, agrees.

“Ultimately, in the end it’s about finding the right fit institution for you,” he said.

What fits is different for each student. Some look for a niche academic program; others look for a geographic, financial or cultural fit.

And that’s why it’s important for students to understand what they want out of their college experience and communicate that in their choices and applications.

“Really, we can tell them there is not a right answer,” Ballinger said. “There is your answer but there isn’t a right answer.”

Mesquita recommends students create a calendar of important college application dates.

And Ballinger suggests that parents and students start simply when approaching the admission process.

“I always try to start with the most basic things, the foundational things,” he said. “And work your way up from there.”

There are numerous resources that can help students clarify their decision, Ballinger said. This can be an invaluable asset in what is often a confusing and overwhelming environment. The No. 1 initial resource he recommends is Bigfuture, a website run by the College Board.

Bigfuture asks prospective students 10 questions aimed at understanding what they’re interested in and good at.

Although Ballinger takes a big-picture view of college admissions, he doesn’t ignore the importance of the details. Students need to show that they’ve taken school seriously, participated in extracurricular opportunities and are willing to be themselves, he said.

Ballinger isn’t a hard-line advocate for four-year universities.

“College or university is not for everybody, but further education is pretty much for everybody,” he said.

Catherine Sleeth, the director of admissions at Eastern Washington University, tailors her advice based on whether the student is a junior or senior. Juniors’ families should plan vacations around or near the colleges they’re considering.

“They need to actually walk onto campus and get a feel because I very firmly believe that being comfortable is probably one of the No. 1 things for a student on a college campus,” she said. “It’s always fun to go to a football game, but visit when class is in session as well.”

As for seniors, they need to focus on details like specific deadlines.

Luke Schumm said he spoke to friends and relatives to get a sense of where he’d fit best. The freshman at Gonzaga University from Denver was especially concerned with the location and size of where he would attend.

“I knew I didn’t want a huge school,” he said. “I definitely work and learn better in a small environment.”

Schumm applied to nine colleges and got accepted into seven. Gonzaga, where his older sister also goes, ended up being the best fit, he said.

“I think it starts in the students’ imagination and self-reflection,” Ballinger said.

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