Today, I spoke with Jaye Fenderson, who is a college advice columnist for and the author of Seventeen’s Guide To Getting Into College. We’ve spoken a lot about the economy and it’s impact on employment, as well as tips that regular job seekers can use to get ahead in these tough times.  In this interview with Jaye, we walk through what high school students are experiencing right now, as they apply to colleges.  She gives us the low down on the college admissions process and walks us through how high school students can stand out, while protecting their online identities in the process.

How hard is it to get into school in this economy?  What about Harvard University?

Well, in this economy the dynamics of college admissions have changed a bit.  Affordability is a top concern for most families but at the same time they still want to get a quality education.  This means more students than ever are applying to highly regarded public universities that are able to offer in-state tuition discounts. But at the same time, many public institutions are facing state budget cuts which means they’re having to raise tuition prices and turn away even well-qualified applicants. On the flip-side, smaller, private institutions are nervous about lower enrollment rates, so they’re actually increasing their financial aid packages to reach out to families who might otherwise think a private education is unaffordable.

Harvard, of course, is still very competitive, and even in this economy their applications were up 5% from last year.  Part of that, I think, can be attributed to their phenomenal financial aid packages–families making between $60,000 and $180,000 are only expected to pay an average of 10% of their annual income for tuition.  That’s a pretty good deal that makes a Harvard education, at least financially, more attainable.

What does the current admissions process look like?

“College admissions takes into account a number of factors: grades, class schedule, standardized test scores, extra-curricular activities, recommendations, essays, and interviews. “

Schools will vary in terms of their specific requirements. For instance, there is a growing trend of schools that are no longer requiring standardized tests.  Instead, they’ll ask for a minimum GPA or an additional essay in lieu of taking the SAT or ACT.  It’s a good idea to research schools earlier on in the process to get a sense of what the school is looking for or their minimum expectations for applicants.  And keep in mind that everything starts to count in 9th grade.

How can a high school student stand out during the admissions process?

When I was reading applications at Columbia University, the ones that stood out were able to effectively communicate their passions, personality, and intellectual curiosity.  We looked for students who had clearly identified talents whether in the sciences or arts, politics or athletics.

I think there is a myth circulating that colleges are looking for well-rounded students when the truth is that colleges are looking to build “well-rounded campuses” comprised of students with very distinct talents and ideas to contribute to the community.  So, it’s important for students to develop their unique interests and abilities and then clearly communicate those in the application.  That’s going to help a student stand out and make their application more memorable.

A recent survey by Kaplan found that 1 in every 10 admissions officers use social networks to conduct background checks.  What are your thoughts about this?

I think it’s really interesting to watch how technology changes our processes of evaluating information. When I first started in admissions, Columbia was one of a handful of schools that was reading applications online.  There were critics of that method, but ultimately it helped us do our job better and more efficiently.  I think the same is true with social networks, blogs, vlogs, etc. The way we communicate is changing, and I’m not surprised that admissions officers are using those resources to better understand applicants.

Students need to be aware of the public information they leave on the internet, set their privacy settings accordingly, and use discretion when posting photos or comments.  I think it’s just a reality that potential employers and colleagues use the internet to research backgrounds, so students need to get in the habit of controlling their online footprint and know that information may be considered in the college admissions process.

What is the most important thing for a high school student to do in the admissions process?  Is it the essays or still the GPA/SAT?

There’s no doubt that the four-year academic record is still the largest factor considered in the application process. And it’s not just the grades a student receives but how she challenges herself by taking advantage of the tough classes her high school offers.  Standardized tests are still important at many colleges, but if you had to choose where to invest your time and efforts, good grades and tough classes will increase your chances at scholarship money and college admission.

That’s not to diminish the importance of the essay (which, by the way, is not a requirement at all schools).  When you have two students with similar grades, testing, and activities, the essay can be the deciding factor of who gets in.  So it’s important to write an essay that is well-written and an honest reflection of a student’s personality and character.

Jaye Fenderson is a college advice columnist for and the author of Seventeen’s Guide To Getting Into College. As a former senior admission officer at Columbia University, Jaye found a passion for creating greater awareness about the college admission process and decided to use the medium of entertainment to educate students and families about what it takes to get into college.  In 2005, Jaye co-created and produced ABC’s The Scholar, an unscripted television drama that gave 10 high school seniors the chance to compete for a full ride college scholarship. Jaye is currently in production as producer and director of the feature-length documentary film First Generation which takes a thought provoking look at the state of equal opportunity in education by chronicling the lives of low-income high school students who are first in their families to attend college.