What stands out on college applications and essays for Admissions Counselors? When should a high school student start thinking deeply about which college to choose? What types of questions should high school students be asking when choosing a college? What really stands out to colleges in your college essay? How involved should parents be in the college application process without hindering the student’s acceptance?

Get answers to these questions and more in this episode of the podcast, as we learn what it looks like to set yourself apart in the college application process. Hear directly from former members of Impact 360 Institute’s Enrollment Team, Nikki Dutton and Hannah Purdie who are phenomenal at helping students navigate this. Whether you are a parent or a student, this episode will provide with some valuable secrets to rock your college application now!

Learn More About Our Guests:

Nikki Dutton

I am so honored to be a part of today’s Impact 360 Institute podcast! I was commissioned in 2011 as a part of the fifth year of the Impact 360 Fellows program and then spent the next three years studying communication at Liberty University with a minor in Psychology. After finishing up at Liberty, I came back to work for Impact 360 Institute and have been on staff working with students and families in enrollment since. I love learning more and more about students every day and appreciate that we in enrollment get to intersect student and family lives and be an encouragement at such a massive transition point.

I have been speaking for about five years now and drinking Coca-Cola for much, much longer. I believe that following the Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit and grace of Jesus Christ is THE most exciting and abundant way to live. I also believe that God has so much more in store for us to learn about Him than we could ever imagine. When I’m not speaking, writing and working for Impact 360 Institute, you can find me throwing a party for just about any reason and spending all my free time with friends. https://www.nikkigentryspeaks.com

Hannah Purdie

I’m excited to join Nikki and Jonathan on this podcast! I am an Impact 360 Institute Fellow and went through the program in 2009. After commissioning, I went on to study Public Relations and French at Mississippi College. After graduation, I started working on the enrollment team here in 2014. I love walking along students as they journey to discover God’s call on their life through college. I know there is confusion wrapped around a college decision and It’s such an opportunity to champion students throughout the process.

Go Deeper:

Take a Gap Year, become an Impact 360 Institute Fellow!

Six steps every parent can do to help launch your college student successfully!

Grab a copy of Welcome to College by Jonathan Morrow for your teenager (includes discussion guide for parents and leaders)

Sign up for Preview Day!

Episode Transcript

Welcome to the Impact 360 Institute podcast where our goal is to explore Biblical worldview and servant leadership to equip you for everyday influence. Here’s your host, author and Director of Cultural Engagement, Jonathan Morrow.

Jonathan Morrow: Well, welcome to the Impact 360 Institute podcast. Really excited about our topic today which is how to rock your college application. So, this is going to be huge for you students if you want to go to college, you’re in high school, you’re looking down the road, what does it look like to set yourself apart? Uh, I’ve got some experts today with me, uh to help you navigate this process. And, Mom and Dad it’s great if you want to listen in and help send this to your student as well, um, because this will be some really valuable information. So I what I want to do is introduce our experts for you today. And we’ve got Nikki Gentry and Hannah Purdie with us today who are in our enrollment team and they are phenomenal at helping students navigate, uh this process. So, first of all, welcome Nikki and Hannah, I’m so glad to have you guys on the podcast.

Nikki Gentry: Hey, thanks! We’re so excited!

Hannah Purdie: Yeah, it’s fun to be here. We’re excited to share some secrets with you!

Jonathan Morrow: Awesome. So, let’s, let’s do this, um you guys tell us a little bit about how um, you bring your lens to this and how this helps students.

Nikki Gentry: Yeah, so, I mean, I’ve been to college and I graduated so I’ve navigated this process successfully and am now in my Masters degree and so, I know that working with students there’s just a lot of stress that comes around this decision. You feel like you have to make the right decision or you’re going to just really mess up the sequence of life events that happen after that. And so, we really see it as a way to disciple families and just to encourage them in a really, really difficult time of making this first major decision outside of the home.

Hannah Purdie: Yeah, we really love this because we remember being the student ourself. I remember being really nervous about my college essays, where should I go to college? How do I figure all of this out? And honestly, my enrollment counselor was super helpful. So, we just want to share some of the things that we’ve learned and since we’ve been on this side of the table for a couple years now and reading lots of college essays and lots of applications, we’d love to share some of the things that stand out to us.

Jonathan Morrow: That’s awesome man. So, you know, if you’re listening to this, this is such a great conversation because I have the privilege of working with these two, Nikki and Hannah and they’re phenomenal at what they do so these secrets are going to be awesome and really help you uh, navigate this season, it will take some stress out of this and also give you some confidence. So, without further ado, what is secret number one that you’d like to share with us about how to, how to rock your college application?

Nikki Gentry: Secret number one, how to rock your college application is to decide what matters to you, the student and the school. There are a lot of advertising efforts spent to get your attention to tell you what matters and even well meaning parents are trying to help shape that as well. But, ultimately you’re going to be the one spending yo, the next four years at that school and so what matters is that you need to think about, do you want to be in a small town? Do you want to be in a larger city? Is there an area of the US that you feel like the Lord has just really drawn your attention to? And then praying into that to see, “Okay, could this be where the Lord would have me spend my college years?” Being close to home or farther away from home. Is being close to home, within four hours, does that really matter to you? Um, you need to even think about who is someone who you admire and just ask the question of, “Where did they go to school?” And, “How was that experience for them?” What we found is whenever we talk with students about making this college decision, it’s very easy for a student to tell us what is expected to them, it’s harder for them to tell us what they actually want, what’s genuinely important to them. And so, I would say for the student, just to carve out some space and it may start with something really silly like you really love this certain athletic team and you would love to be at that school. That might seem really insignificant but it’s a starting place and so from there you can build those questions into okay, now we’re looking more at the majors, we’re looking more at the cost, we’re looking more at what it would logistically look like to get accepted and to be there. But, it should start with what matters to you and to ask yourself what those questions would be.

Jonathan Morrow: I love it and I think that’s great. And even as they’re listening you know, about when do you think a student ought to start thinking about these things? Like, what, what age, what year in col, in high school? Say, say a little bit about that.

Hannah Purdie: Yeah, I would think that junior year is when you really start taking it seriously. It doesn’t mean you have to visit 10 or 12 schools but you know there’s easy things that you can do online. You can look at the student population, you can look at even Nikki was doing a great job explaining, do you want to see a familiar face every day you go to class or are you okay with going to class with a lot of people that you see new faces every single day? So, star-start-starting that research your junior year can help you kind of carve out, “Where would I like to go my senior year?” And understanding how finances play into the role, where, we’re seeing more and more students paying for their own tuition. So, asking about scholarships, asking about student loans, asking all of these questions are really important because you don’t want to be burdened with a huge loan after you leave college. So, thinking through, “Am I doing this on my own? Is there an opportunity for me to earn extra scholarship? Can I work while I’m in school? What are the academics of the school?” So probably that junior year, senior year is when I would really encourage students to get on campus and visit and meet other students that are already there.

Jonathan Morrow: That’s awesome. So our first secret was to decide what matters to you in a college. So what is secret number two?

Hannah Purdie: Yes. So, secret number two is um, helping you guys understand how to rock your college essay. So, we read lots and lots of essays and man, you guys are so involved. You’re involved in sports teams and SGA and clubs on campus, you have jobs, you um, babysit, you walk the neighbor’s dog, you do so many things. Um, we see so many students listing all of their activities but what really stands out to us is when you can articulate what you’re learning based on what you’re involved in. What does that transferrable knowledge that you know, I’m spending my time watching or babysitting, what is something you’re learning maybe about yourself or that you’ve learned in this season that you’ll be able to apply during your next season of college? So, we’re kind of looking for that transferrable knowledge piece. Uh, it’s awesome that you’re planning so many meetings in SGA and you’re taking notes and that you’re checking to see if everyone’s there. What are you learning since you’re serving, since you’re working with so many students? Talk to me about what’s been hard? What’s something that maybe you didn’t do really well during this year that you’re like, “Man, I, if I was given the chance, I would change it and do it this way.” So, we’re kind of looking for that application, back up outside of all of the tasks and everything that you have on your schedule because everyone is really, really packed. Tell me what you’re thinking through and how are you processing through that? What worked and maybe what didn’t work.

Jonathan Morrow: Yes. So, having an opportunity to reflect on that, right? And so, that’s such good advice because you know, what you want to do is have your application stand out. You want to have your application, you know, say, “Hey, this, this is what I’m doing with all this.” And then, so that’s great advice um, on that. And so uh, wh-what’s another secret that’s ?? to know on how to rock their college application?

Nikki Gentry: Yeah. So the next secret to how to rock your college application uh, has to deal with moms. Mom, I mean my mom, (hi mom) is amazing and I know that if you’re a mom listening, you are resident chauffeur, chef, you do it all for everyone, every day of the week, even on Saturdays. And if you are a student listening, I know that you appreciate all that your mom or your dad or your grandma or your grandpa have done for you, however, she will not be going to college. So, when it comes to the college application process, the enrollment counselor wants to hear from you, not from your parents. And it shows so much to us when we see a student taking initiative to figure out how to get their SAT or ACT scores. And, here, here’s another hint, here’s a free tip, if you don’t know how to send your ACT or SAT scores just Google it and you’ll find it out, you’ll figure it out, it will be okay. Same for transcripts, trying to get your transcripts in or checking on the process or the progress of your application. If we’re hearing from the mom or the dad or someone else in the family, and we see that the student is not the one driving that process, then that is a big red flag to us and in those cases most often that student will not be accepted into our Fellows program which has a very competitive application and enrollment process. So, if you’re a mom listening, we applaud you for everything you’ve done but we just ask that you take this opportunity to champion the student to really lead this process themselves. Even when you’re on the campus tour, for them to ask questions as a student, ask questions. And we understand there are many parent questions that need to be answered that are very important but for the student to really be in the one in the, the captain’s chair, is really, really important for rocking your college application.

Hannah Purdie: You know, and with that, even being said, often you think that the student has to nail the application process all the way through. You know, if you don’t get it right the first time, still the student taking initiative is by far more impressive than Mom getting everything turned in right away, timely in the way it should be turned in, because you’re seeing the student try. And we tell students often, they try to order their transcripts and they accidentally send them to the wrong school; that’s okay, we’ll get it figured out but we’re seeing them take ownership which means that when they’re a student on campus they’re going to take ownership and they’re going to get themselves up and go to class and be on time and get their homework done because we’re seeing them test it out and try. So, we’re not looking for students to do it perfectly but we’re just looking for them to take step one and try it out.

Jonathan Morrow: An-and I can totally echo that. So, as one of the faculty, I really appreciate when students take that ownership, especially during the college years and beyond. That’s what’s going to set them apart. That’s what’s going to prepare them for success so, you know, go ahead and start that now, and, and give your, give your student, if you’re a mom or dad listening right now, the space to do that and the freedom to fail while you can still kind of coach along the way. But, that’s such great advice, that’s awesome. Alright, so maybe what’s another secret? I mean, I feel like, I mean we should be paying for this, this, but we’re giving this away. This is, this is great. So, um, I hope you’re taking good notes. But wha-what’s another secret to how to rock the uh, college application process?

Hannah Purdie: Yeah, so one of the things that always, always makes a big difference is saying “Thank you.” We just get high, get high remarks to the students that come back and thank us for being involved and helping them. We just think that that is really, really cool. Everyone loves getting snail mail, right? We don’t send snail mail often but if you visit a college campus or you work with somebody that is just very helpful in the process, maybe it’s in the financial aid office, maybe it’s a student hosting you for a tour, saying “thank you” to them is above and beyond. One of the things that we recommend with students is go ahead and buy a packet of thank you notes, keep them with you during your senior near-year and have stamps and within about 48 hours after your visit, go ahead and just drop a quick note; it doesn’t have to be long, maybe 3 or 4 sentences, just telling something that you enjoyed and thank them for helping you. This is just a way to be above and beyond. That’s like a real opportunity to do something that’s not necessarily expected of you but to make your application stand out, it’s just to leave that trail of gratitude.

Nikki Gentry: Yeah, and you may be wondering, “Well, how will I know their first and last name? How do I know what address to send it to?” When you’re with that individual make sure that you get their first and last name. You can just put it in a note on your phone or text yourself so that you have their first and last name. You can also normally, if they’re an enrollment professional or someone on staff at the university, you can find their name and how to spell it on the staff portion of any university’s website but then if you’re unsure of where to send that thank you note, send it to the department address. So, it’s pretty easy to get in touch with the school or even just go to the bottom of any university’s webpage and you’ll see at the bottom where it says ‘contact us’ and you should be able to find the addresses for each department, whether that’s financial aid or student life or if that’s admissions. And you can just put the person’s name on the note, on the envelope and then you can send it to that department’s address. And so that’s an easy way to figure out how to actually get it to that individual.

Jonathan Morrow: That’s great. That’s such helpful information to think through this process and very practical ways. I mean, there’s so much we can talk about. I guess one thing I want to get, kind of, take it more personal um, direction in terms of you guys, just, you know, those students who are listening right now who are feeling some apprehension um, maybe think back, what was one of the things you, you guys were apprehensive about in your college search process, your college application process and maybe a way to kind of get them some encouragement in that, in that area.

Hannah Purdie: You know, I was really nervous about what I was going to study in college. My problem was that I was interested in everything and through many conversations that I had with my parents, my dad really helped me think through, “Okay, when you go to college, why don’t you have three main majors that you’re willing to try out, so if you change your major, let’s kind of stick in this field of, these are, these are really strong strengths and talents that I see in you that maybe if you do change, you’re kind of, you have a guided way of navigating this process.” And that really helped me feel a little bit of freedom to say, “You know I can get on the college campus, start taking classes for a semester but I’m not going to be aimlessly trying 6 or 7 different things. I know that maybe this one class would help me understand, ‘I really like this field’ or this other class would be an opportunity me, for me to learn about another field.” That was probably my biggest thing was feeling like I didn’t know what I was going to study. Um, but really sitting down and kind of making a list of you know, “These are environments that I like to work in.” For example, one of them was I do not like to sit at a desk every day. I like to change and have a new, new environments and spaces and people that I got to meet. And so through this process, I was realizing these are environments that people who work in this field really get to enjoy this and really get to see some of this change. So, don’t feel like you have to have it down to the T, organized exactly what you’re going to do but maybe if you have 2 or 3 things, ask the people around you, ask them, “Hey, what, what strengths do you see in me? What things do you think I do well?” Then start thinking through and that will help you land in a general field and you’ve got a little bit of time to figure it out without feeling like you’re getting to college and you’ve got to try nine different majors because you have no idea.

Nikki Gentry: I would say that adjustment is not failure. Uh, a lot of students want to go into college and you want to get it right the first time. You want to get the university right the first time. You want to get the major right. Uh, for me, when I was a senior in high school I had chosen my university. I did it based off of a sports scholarship that I was offered and they had a major that I thought that I would be interested in and then lo and behold April of my senior year, a new opportunity came up and that was actually Impact 360 Fellows, our gap year program and it was really hard for me to understand that although Impact 360 was a far better fit for me, that I could make, I had the freedom to make that adjustment. That was, that was really hard. And then, even as I was considering where to go after our gap year program, uh, just to think about not going to that original university that I had selected and then when I was at that school, making a major change was hard, it was humbling, it felt like failure and you hear all these words of people saying that, “You know, this class is to weed people out of this major and this major,” and so it felt like I was, I was making a big mistake or I was messing up. And looking at where I’m at now, and the opportunities I was allowed through making that college choice change and making a major switch, um, I mean I’m so glad that I did but it w-was hard, it was really, really hard. So, just know that um, it’s possible to be a good steward and to think through things well and wise but that does not mean it will be a clear and straight path so if you have to make an adjustment that’s okay. That is okay! Um, the Lord is big enough to cover that. And so, just know that um, you do have freedom you’re not locked in and that freedom comes with a lot of responsibility but that’s why we’re here, is to help you hopefully make that decision well and even make those adjustments even better.

Jonathan Morrow: That is super helpful advice. You know, and just thinking about it’s okay to um, adjust, it’s okay to fail at things, it’s an opportunity to do it again, just better a-and sometimes we have a, in our culture where every moment is on social media and it’s perfect and everything, it’s like, “No, adjustment is fine, you know, course corrections, you know, that’s okay.” Um, one, one last thing I’d love to hear you guys speak to so th-the student who is a follower of Jesus, what’s one thing about how they, their lens should be in terms of how they view these college years? What is just one thing you could tell? I know you guys mentor a lot of the students here and you get to interact with all sorts of different students and your own stories and experiences but what’s one thing as a Christ follower that um, you might encourage a student listening to kind of view this as an opportunity in this next season?

Nikki Gentry: Yeah, something that was hard for me was because I am a Christ follower does that mean that I have to be at a Christian university? My opinion is no, it is not. I did go to a Christian university and I loved it because that’s what I was looking for. However, I’ve had so many friends and roommates who have gone to public universities because they love Jesus and they still loved Jesus on the other side. And, the Lord used them in major ways. Whether it’s on a Christian campus or a public campus, you have the opportunity to make an impact for kingdom influence for the Lord. And so, just know that whatever affiliation you’re going into in your college, you still are going to have plenty of ministry opportunities. And I would say as well, um, use college to try out new things, as far as like even this morning we were joking as we were setting up that this felt like a radio show. Hannah and I both had the chance to work on radio shows at radio stations during our college years and we got, I, I played intramural broom ball which like this is quite literally…

Jonathan Morrow: Wait, intramural broom ball?

Nikki Gentry: Yes, champions, hello! Yeah, we, we won uh, our last season, it was pretty epic. That has no significance in my life, literally none, it-it’s not, I don’t make money off of being a broom ball like, champion…

Jonathan Morrow: Sponsorships that come rolling in…

Nikki Gentry: Sponsorships have not come like as they were promised but it was just fun, it was fun and it was something to do and it was different. I even remember um, going to different groups on campus, different Bible studies that just had a different flare to them that I had never, I had never been a part of a group like that, just based off a, a certain denomination or whatever and I thought that was so helpful just to go in and to try new things. So, that would be Nikki Gentry’s advice to you: go hard when you’re playing broom ball and then also take chances on new things.

Hannah Purdie: Yeah, a-and even to echo that, quite honestly, I felt like college is such a selfish season; you do everything for yourself, for your future, for your career, what you’re going to offer; do something outside of yourself. We understand that you need to study and you need to get your tests and you need to be in class on time, believe me, I get that, I was there. But, being involved maybe in community service, being involved with a campus ministry, something to take your perspective off of just your test and quizzes, um, to get outside of yourself, to help you remember that the future that the Lord is giving you is to be a part of His kingdom work and not just what I have to offer. Um, that was one of the best things that I did, was being involved with a, with a campus ministry in college that when my weeks were full and I felt stressed and I went and served in this area it was just a reminder that like, wow, the Lord is present here too and I get to be involved with his work, outside of my campus and outside of my plans for the future that like the Lord has plans for us in this present moment. And so, so don’t miss that. So, just like Nikki said, be in, be involved and try new things but I think get involved in something that’s outside of yourself, something that pushes you and that’s just a little bit out of your comfort zone.

Jonathan Morrow: I love it. This is such helpful information, so practical but also will set you up for success during this next season. So, here’s a couple things for resources for you so if you’ve been either running or driving and couldn’t write anything down, if you’ll come to Impact360.org under our podcast link you’ll have show notes to this, you can come back and review these awesome secrets about how to rock your college application. Um, another thing uh, that might be helpful to you is a book that I wrote called, “Welcome to College: A Christ Follower’s Guide for the Journey” which is really honestly everything I wish I would have known about college before I got there and had to learn along the way. So, lots of short chapters for you to kind of learn about everything from all sorts of stuff about from roommates to conflict to you know, why is Christianity true or how to live out your faith or whatever those things might be. That, the link to that will be in the show notes as well. And also, you know, we’d love to be an ally and it’d really help you during this search so, if you want to reach out and, and need some help with this process or honestly, you know, we’d love for you to consider, hey, would God consider you, um, call you perhaps to take a season of, of nine months to come to Impact 360 Fellows and be with a community to sharpen these things as well? So, again, Nikki and Hannah are awesome resources to, to, to reach out to and learn from. We hope these secrets have been helpful to you um, in this process. Would I encourage you to do something with this, especially if you’re heading into that junior year, senior year of high school so you can really set yourself up for success. But, I just want to thank Hannah and Nikki for your time today. So, thanks guys for being on the podcast today.

Hannah Purdie: Yeah, thanks for inviting us.

Nikki Gentry: It was a lot of fun.

Jonathan Morrow: And if you enjoyed this podcast and we sure hope you did and we assume you did, then it would really help us if you go to iTunes and rate the podcast uh, 5 stars are awesome. We do love those. Um, people will show up delivering pizzas to your door for a 5 star review, whatever that might be; I’ve just heard rumors, I don’t know if that’s true or not. So, but definitely do that and that helps us and just get the word out and also share this with a friend if this is helpful to them as well. But, we hope this has been helpful to you and we will see you guys on the next episode.

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For more information about our on-campus worldview and leadership experiences for students and our accessible online courses like Explore Truth and Explore the Resurrection visit impact360.org. Impact 360 Institute, Know, Be, Live.