A Carolina expert offers 12 college search recommendations for students

Vanessa Infanzon

Photo by Tricia Coyne, Queens University

Researching schools is empowering because you get to explore, and it’s also overwhelming because the list of things to do grows each day. Students who are in the middle of the process or who are just starting out may appreciate Anna Davis’s recommendations about testing, grades, applications, essays and more.

Anna Davis

Davis owns College Guidance, a college consulting company in Charlotte. She worked in the admissions office at Davidson College as the senior assistant dean for six years before becoming a consultant. In May, Davis provided 10 College Search Recommendations for Parents. Now it’s the student’s turn.

Here are Davis’ 12 recommendations for students beginning the college search process:

1. Spend summers wisely.

Davis tells her clients to do something meaningful during the summer – which may be coordinating an internship, job shadowing or service work. A part-time job is another way to learn about the world of work, gain independence and life experience. Students can also use summers for test preparation and school visits.

2. Demonstrate interest.

College admissions officers want to admit students who are a right fit for the school. Even though a student may have the grades and test scores to meet the requirements, admissions officers want to know if the student wants to attend the school.

Admissions staff gauge a student’s interest by how they have interacted with the school. Things like clicking on links in an email received by the school, visiting the campus and taking a tour, emailing a question to the admissions counselor or visiting the representative at the high school college fair all show a certain level of interest.

3. Be smart about social media.

Davis asks her clients, “Does your Facebook and Instagram pass the grandmother test? Would you be embarrassed if your grandmother looked at your feed?” Some admissions staff may take a look at what you’re posting.

4. Show commitment to something.

In the past, colleges were looking for the “well-rounded” student – one who has been involved in sports, academics, community service and clubs. Now, “Colleges are really looking for students who have found two or three things and have dug deep and showed commitment and leadership and passion for those things, even if they’re fewer activities,” Davis said. “Colleges prefer students who have dug deeper rather than stretched themselves thin.”

Davis suggests students try several activities in ninth and 10th grade and then get heavily involved in a few in the last two years of high school by running for president or trying out for captain of a team.

5. Allow time for self-reflection.

Consider taking self-assessment tests and inventories such as the MBTI online or through the high school counselor’s office. Reflecting on who you have been, who you are now and who you want to become will make it easier to find a school that fits you and answer college essay questions.

6. Be strategic with SAT and ACT testing.

“I always tell my families and students to not overdo the SAT or ACT,” Davis said. “I have students who take it four, five or six times.” Davis recommends taking the tests two or three times (fall and winter of the junior year, and the summer before senior year and fall of senior year) – and avoid using an official test as a practice. Sign up for tests that don’t coincide with proms, sporting events or other activities that keep you up late the night before the test.

7. Keep up with your grades.

Grades still are the most crucial factor when admissions staff review applications. Although extracurricular activities may play a part in acceptance, grades and rigor are what the school uses to determine students’ readiness for college coursework.

8. Read for pleasure.

Davis recommends students read magazines or books or listen to podcasts because they increase vocabulary, writing ability and comprehension. It will not only make you more interesting, but it may help you answer college application questions about books and reading. Reading may also help students tell their story on the essay portion of the application.

9. Be kind to the people around you.

The teachers, counselors and parents are on your side – they want you to succeed in finding the right school. Thank them for all the extras they’re doing to make sure you get the transcripts, recommendations and reports you need to complete your college applications. Davis reminds students that parents are struggling with the big changes that are coming and may be having a hard time letting go. Find ways for parents to be involved, and sneak in a hug occasionally.

10. Avoid becoming obsessed with data.

There are so many ways to analyze the possibility of receiving an acceptance from a school. Students can spend too much time looking at a school’s published data about past acceptance statistics, scattergrams with plotted GPA and test scores or Naviance – a college and career readiness tool – to determine what their chances are at getting into a specific college.

Although Davis likes these tools, she understands they don’t include other factors that affect an acceptance into college such as special talents, an incredibly well-written essay or athletic abilities.

11. Aim high.

“I usually recommend to my students that they apply to six to eight schools,” Davis said. “You want to have a mix of ones you think you’ll get in, ones you think you have a pretty good chance and ones you don’t think you’re going to get in.” Add that dream school to your list so you don’t ask yourself, “What if?”

12. Carve out time for the college search process.

Visiting colleges, contacting admissions staff, writing essays and filling out applications require time. Take college tours and visit resource fairs. Build in time for the college search process with your already scheduled activities, athletics and schoolwork. Davis suggests getting as much done early as possible – it cuts down on stress and may increase your acceptance rate.


Vanessa Infanzon is a freelance writer based in Charlotte. In her former life, she worked in Student Life at Davidson College, UNC Charlotte and Queens University of Charlotte. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @morethanVMI.