Applying Yourself

A Local College Consultant Confirms That It’s Harder To Get In Nowadays

College Guide

Betty Delk, a college consultant from Isle of Wight, has been helping students apply to college for 35 years. She knows all of the ins and outs of getting to “yes” and exactly how the ins and outs have become more challenging. She talked with Hampton Roads Magazine to shed some light on the process as it stands today, not necessarily how it was back when you applied. The following are excerpts from that conversation:

HRM: When should students start thinking about college?

BD: Younger students should watch older siblings to get an idea of the process and listen to their parents and their ideas. At the beginning of their junior year, that’s when they should really sit down and think about it. They have a better idea about what they want for themselves at that point. In the winter or spring of that year, they can go on college tours with the parents. Then they should later go alone in their senior year, have an interview and stay overnight in a dorm.

I recommend attending classes in their majors if they know their major. Do that at each school, in their major, so you’re comparing apples to apples, not an English class to another major-related class. They’re working to go from a long list of schools to a short list.

HRM: Do students have to work with a private college consultant (something that most parents never heard of when they were applying to colleges)?

BD: I don’t think everyone needs to. [However], we do use professionals for everything. There’s a lot going on when applying, a lot of frustration—deadlines, essays to write, applying for financing. And there’s separation anxiety. It’s a lot for a parent, too. Parents don’t want to [nag]. They get worried [and do nag].

A college advisor can step in, be neutral, keep the student on track and be someone who visits lots and lots of colleges and knows about them, when the student and parent can’t, and the consultant can make a match with his or her learning style.

HRM: What do the students and parents sometimes do wrong?

BD: Students procrastinate. They wait for the last minute. They put it off. They come in with writer’s block for their essay and say, “I don’t know what to write.” It’s a lot of pressure, and you want to enjoy the pinnacle of your high school career. I want to avoid the pressure. I have a sign on my desk that says, “Your procrastination will not be my emergency.” 

Also, not keeping a focused mindset—they think they have to get into that [one] school. I ask them, “Will you drop off the face of the earth if you don’t get into that [favorite] school?” They laugh and say, “Probably not!” I ask them to keep an open mind.

Just because it was your mother’s school, your father’s school or your best friend’s school doesn’t mean it’s the school for you. Parents need to know that schools change, too. The school they went to is not the same school today. JMU was Madison College at the time; Mary Washington was all female; Randolph College is a completely different place than Randolph-Macon Woman’s College was five years ago.

HRM: When should you start working with a consultant?

BD: Some parents will bring in their children at the start of 9th grade to map out a four-year program and be sure they’re taking the highest level classes and to have a long-range plan for extracurricular activities. Sometimes I’ll see them once or twice in the 10th grade, but usually 11th grade, late fall or winter, is when we’ll start.

The whole process is much more involved. You want to thoroughly visit the campuses in the junior year. There’s a lot of pressure to perform well in your senior year (so starting in 11th grade takes off some pressure). If you have a first choice, you know what you want, you can apply for early decision.

HRM: How many colleges should a student apply to?

BD: I used to say three or four. Now I say four to six. It’s more competitive. More students are applying, and the schools are more selective. More aid is available than before, and colleges look to differentiate. They want a mix of demographics.

The applicant pool is up. Be sure to apply in three different categories: 1. Reach schools (where you might get in, but the school is highly competitive). 2. Match schools (where your grades and overall application make you a good fit, but not a guarantee). 3. Likely schools (where your chances of acceptance are high based on the same criteria).