Nervous about applying? Insiders’ guide to gaining school acceptance letters

Navigating the school application process is a daunting task. Fortunately, King Country Magazine teamed up with some of the best in the industry to share what every admissions department looks for in your application but, won’t tell you to give them.

How to pick the right school for you

Across Canada, thirteen institutions offer fashion and textile design courses, and sixty-seven schools offer accounting. Every single one of them is unique in some way.

Within any discipline, there are many different strands and many different approaches. You can line up representatives from each of the sixteen Ontario institutions that offer accredited engineering degrees only to discover that each has a different focus and boasts a unique social dynamic. The types of people who survive and thrive there are often very different from one school to the next.

In short, not every applicant is right for every spot and not every spot is ideal for every applicant. Making sure that the schools you select align with your beliefs, motivations and worldview with work to your advantage.

What Admission Departments won’t tell you

Sought after schools have an ever-evolving need to outmanoeuvre potential candidates looking for golden tickets in chocolate bars. There isn’t much difference between Willy Wonka’s search for a successor and a school’s search for next year’s student body. In the end, the reputation, wealth and resources of a school are at the mercy of their student attrition (drop-out) rates and alumni success stories. Who they pick can either advance or damage their legacy.

That’s something most of your competition doesn’t fully understand. There is a huge difference between getting in and succeeding. Schools can openly ask only for what most people can be expected to have by the time they graduate from high school. That doesn’t mean they don’t need more from you.

Our current elementary and high schools are geared toward equity, not excellence. Though the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive, experience teaches us that they are. Education in our publicly funded school systems is meant to be accessible, not comprehensive. Teachers are constantly told to reduce the homework load to accommodate for more unstructured free time in the evenings, robbing students of guidance and direction to explore further and reinforce the subjects they are studying in school. Examples abound of teachers being assigned to subjects that they have a marginal comfort level in themselves.

In theory, as long as students apply themselves, any child graduating from an Ontario school should have everything they need to compete for the spot of their choice. Kids shouldn’t require outside education but, we know that they do.

“Schools will always look for the most developed skill they can have. Where you get it is up to you,” confides Joanne Dice, owner, designer and creative director at Haute Couture Academy of Fashion, Fine Arts & Design. It’s not unusual for Haute Couture’s students to out-compete against other applicants vying for the same spots, as well as finish at the top of their classes in the programs of their choice. That’s because many of the school’s students are with Haute Couture throughout their high school years, and often even earlier. By the time they start working on their portfolios, many of those kids have already had four to ten years of sewing, design and pattern making in their back pockets.

Deciphering the questions

No matter where you submit to, you need to pay attention to how your responses align with that school’s focus, culture and philosophy. Admissions departments receive tons of applications. A large number of excellent candidates get dismissed because their answers are too generic, lacking proof that they understand and want what the school has to offer.

Schools care a great deal about the character of applicants who make their short lists. They search for signs of tenacity, resilience and a willingness to learn. Your application and portfolio, if required, should clearly and neatly illustrate your focus, talent, skillset and evidence of a growth mindset (the belief that you can acquire your goals through learning and practice).

Don’t just pilfer their website for catch phrases. Show that what you want is what the school has to offer. As Kai Shin Karate’s Sensei Giancarlo Esposito says, they are looking for kids “with an open mind and a willing heart.” That sounds simple enough but, we know it isn’t. Keep reading. We’ll get you there.

Every school’s task is to assemble a student body comprised of individuals who collaborate well with peers and educators. They judge suitability base on how well-rounded you are and your appreciation for the world around you. Schools want people who demonstrate a capacity to be genuinely interested in the things that matter to their institution.

Scholar's Edge Tutoring
Rajesh and Monica Verma own & operate Scholar’s Edge out of three locations: Woodbridge, Nobleton, and now Aurora (inset).

While schools are pretty open about their philosophies, it is their social dynamic that will seal your fate. That is the hardest element to predict. You can improve your chances by attending campus tours, looking for opportunities to eat lunch with current students, and maybe auditing a class or two. These are great ways to gain a better understanding of what you are up against.

 

Another important consideration to take into account is the schools’ industry partners. Many of the coolest toys at colleges and universities (like state-of-the-art printing presses) are donated or sponsored by industry partners. They are also the ones who often end up hiring the best from the graduating classes. If you want to know what schools are looking for, try to find out who is getting the attention in the senior classes. Chances are, they’ll be the student ambassadors the schools will present to you during their open houses. If the type of character that gets the prized job isn’t somebody you see yourself wanting to be, reconsider your picks. There are many schools from which to choose.

Natalie Rapallo portfolio spread
Haute Couture Academy of Fashion, Fine Arts & Design:
Joanne Dice, owner of Haute Couture, likes to remind people that there is a difference between artistry and skill. “Artistry is the ability to do it. Skill needs to be developed.”
People have varying degrees of artistry. Some are born to paint, sew or sing. But, the technicalities of honing those skills are universal and the difference between two talented people boils down to commitment.
Each September, Joanne is inundated with students looking for help building the portfolios they need for their college or university entrance applications.
She helps them but, she warns them, too. “A portfolio is just an indicator that you can sew and draw. You can have a great portfolio but, if you don’t have the skills to back it up, you don’t have the skill set to carry you through the program once you’re there. Your portfolio should be the culmination of your best work.”
The person who puts in the time to practice, and actively seek opportunities to leverage, will always surpass even the most artistic of people who neglect their talents.
Joanne’s studio places a great deal of importance on teaching fundamentals, including courses on bra corset and pattern making. To understand how to make a gown you have to understand those basics.
Haute Couture’s teachers help students piece together their portfolios and assemble concise and effective resumes. They teach that work must be presented cleanly and professionally to be taken seriously. How careful you are with your work reveals the nature of your character.
Haute Couture’s staff is comprised of experts in their fields. In many cases, they work elsewhere, too. They choose to teach at the school because they love the atmosphere and the opportunity to mentor kids who are passionate about their craft. “Our perspective is you are going to learn more and better from somebody who actually has a lifetime of working experience in that area.” That expertise comes in handy when the kids are making their own formal wear for prom and graduation, too!

How to package yourself

There are many ways to present yourself. That part is up to you. But, ignoring the need to show how well you’ll fit in with their social dynamic is the same as submitting an incomplete application. Some schools look for extroverts. Others don’t. Some have a high tolerance and appreciation for self-driven initiative and creativity. Others don’t. Two equally skilled candidates might see very different results based on their individual characters.

A way to address that is by listing your extra curriculars like karate, dance, curling, hockey, or music lessons. When asking about your ‘outside interests or hobbies,’ they are giving you a chance to demonstrate who you are. It is one of the areas where you can afford them a view of your capacity to apply yourself and stay on task rather than always looking for instant gratification. As a bonus, it also shows your ability to build strong relationships with peers and adults.

The mentors that parents select for their children also

provide valuable background clues. Sensei Giancarlo, Keys Piano’s Karen Kastner, and just about any coach at the King Curling Club, are great examples of people who place importance on quality over accolades. As a result, the awards and recognition their kids receive are worth more. Interviewers are no longer allowed to ask certain questions. But, volunteering that information helps them set you apart from your competition.

 

An increasing number of companies are partnering with academia to change the quality of their graduating classes. Industry, not schools or, even governments, are the ones pushing for the emphasis on learning skills and ability to be self-motivated, creative problem solvers.

Karl Davis, co-owner of Green Tractors suggests, “you almost have to interview the parents before you interview the kids to know what you’re going to get.” Many employers agree with that sentiment. They are struggling with a pandemic. Companies, across the board, are finding it difficult to hire qualified staff with a growth mindset. Graduates who can show confidence, humility and willingness to learn are pretty much able to name their price.

Scholar’s Edge Tutoring
Scholar’s Edge Tutoring:
17-year-old Iggy Mazza dropped AAA hockey in favour of CrossFit training. His focus is on competing on the world stage in the CrossFit Games. But, Iggy knows that he’ll need something beyond sport and ultimately wants a career in environmental architecture.
His dedication and focus on performing at an elite level means that even regular days include three-hour workouts. To keep himself on track, Iggy relies on Scholar’s Edge Tutoring.
Iggy isn’t alone. Many kids and their families balance the demands of school, outside interests, and learning styles with the aid of this tutoring service. In some situations it’s competitive dance or hockey. In others it is simply the understanding that kids benefit from routine reinforcement and expansion of what they cover during the day.
The approach to teaching at Scholar’s Edge is reflected in the buildings from which to choose to operate. They recently expanded to a third location, this time in Aurora. Once again, they chose a heritage home, built in 1860. As with their Nobleton purchase of the postmaster’s house, built in 1856, Scholar’s Edge enjoys paying homage to and building on solid foundations.
“Even though we have always been strong in teaching academics, our focus has always been in teaching self-study skills to develop independent learners,” explains Rajesh Verma, owner of the widely respected local tutoring school. “We emphasize transferable skills. If your foundations are strong, you are basically prepared to face challenges in school and in life.”
Scholar’s Edge operates under two models: group lessons and 1:1 tutoring. As in Iggy’s case, Rajesh works closely with teachers to minimize disruptions while serving to accommodate special requirements.
“I believe it is a common goal that we are working toward in developing their child overall,” says Rjesh. Scholar’s Edge collaborates with parents and teachers to determine what is in the child’s best interests. For grade eleven and twelve students Scholar’s Edge offers career path guidance, supplementing school guidance to further improve the students’ chances of success in post secondary education. They offer flexible schedules and often continue supporting students throughout their post secondary education, as well.

 

What you need to tell them

A person that is teachable will always rise above those unwilling to admit that they can improve. Schools want students who are coachable and resilient. Many tend to place more weight on the learning skills section of reports cards than they do on academic performance. While marks matter what your next set of educators want to know is what your previous ones thought of your propensity for responsibility, independent work, collaboration, organization, initiative and self-regulation.

You have to demonstrate to your current teachers that you care for and are careful with what you are doing. Establish a reputation for being tenacious and resilient in the face of challenges, admit that you are not yet at your goal. But, keep believing in your ability to get there. Show that you approach your work with integrity, effort and passion. This is where presentation matters. Evidence of research, neatness, etiquette, proper spelling, grammar, and an attractive presentation are excellent ways to speak to those points.

Tips on investigating potential schools

The earlier you start your research, the better because, it takes time to settle on a shortlist and prepare that winning application.

Schools tend to welcome requests for tours by prospective tuition payers. In many cases, getting to see what a school is like, and possibly even sharing a lunch hour with current students, is a simple phone call away. Book an appointment and go for a tour.

Haute Coutre organizes an annual New York college campus tour to for its students. As well, each year Joanne offers up spots to fifteen of her graduating students to work backstage at Fashion Week in Milan.

Her years of experience in the industry and willingness to support and partner with external interests pays off in numerous advantages for her students: everything from internship opportunities to actively preparing for and participating in professional fashion shows. Choosing stong local mentors allows you to leverage their reputation and relationships. Over the past 24 years, Scholar’s Edge has gathered extensive insight into what various schools are looking for.

In Ontario, there’s no excuse to claim ignorance about university and college options. Private and speciality schools host open houses where you can speak with faculty and student ambassadors. Beyond any specially organized private tours we, also have plenty of readily available and free tools at our disposal. One great place to start is the Campus Tour website at campustour.ca. As well, each year, universities and colleges collaborate amongst themselves to offer free public access events where they gather under one roof to answer questions and provide information.

The annual Ontario Universities’ Fair (OUF) is a free, 3-day event taking place each fall at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. This year’s dates are September 22-24, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Each of the twenty-one Ontario universities hosts a booth at OUF, as well invite you to view scheduled presentations. If you can’t make it to the OUF, all twenty-one universities also set up booths at high schools throughout Ontario as part of the University Information Program. Anyone is welcome to attend either the OUF or the UIP. The full schedule is available at ouf.ca/docs/uip_schedule_2017.pdf.

Ontario Colleges offer a similar event on Tuesday, October 24, 2017, from 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. and Wednesday, October 25, 2017, from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., at the Enercare Centre, at Exhibition Place. Again, admission is free and open to everyone. The Ontario College Information Fair organizing committee even offers a $250 bus subsidy as incentive for schools to send students to the event. For more visit ocif.ca.

If you are considering going to school in the U.S., think about attending a public event from 6 to 8 p.m. at either York Mills C.I., on October 24th or Oakville Trafalgar High School, on October 25th. A sampling of US Colleges and Universities will be on hand to offer insight into all aspects of the U.S. Admissions process, from selection, application, and financing to student athlete considerations.

Avoiding hidden traps

Schools provide applicants with forms and outlines. There may be a theme. There may be guidelines. There are deadlines, and so forth. Submit what they want, how they want it, and when they want it. Being too creative will get your application dismissed very quickly. Ignoring what the guidelines they give you is how to fail the first question instantly: are you coachable?

Find a way to be creative in the confines of what they tell you to do to pass the second one: how strong are your learning skills? They’re asking you questions that don’t have wrong answers. How well can you turn that to your advantage?

Providing evidence of planning and working through a process answers the third question: are you tenacious? This is where presentation matters. A clean, organized, well-presented application show that you care about what you are doing and about the school for which you are applying.

Offer evidence of how you arrived at your best work to answer the final question: are you resilient? Every school understands that the person applying to get in is a work in progress. They want to know you appreciate that honing a craft takes time. They want to see that you are willing to put the time in by showing them your absolute best work and giving them some indication of what you did to get there. Tell them where you started, how long ago that was, and how it helped you get closer to where you want to be.

Lady of the Vally Look #2 from Nicole Dice’s, Evellyon lingerie line
(Model: Rachel Romu) Lady of the Vally Look #2 from Nicole Dice’s, Evellyon lingerie line collection. The line was prepared for Mass Exodus, Ryerson University’s annual year-end fashion show featuring the work of its graduating class. The Collection took six months to prepare and was featured again in Calabria, Italy, garnering Nicole a coveted spot at the May 2018 Camera Nazionale Giovane Designer fashion show in Italy. This fall, Nicole launched her company, Evellyon, selling the ultra feminine lingerie commercially.

Building your credentials

The most successful applications tend to belong to people who start preparing for them some time in advance. You need the grades but, you need all the other things, too. “Our approach to teaching gives each student significant insights and detailed learning techniques that can be applied to any post-secondary art or design program, thereby boosting student marks and catapulting our students to the top of their class,” explains Joanne.

Kai Shin, Keys, King Curling Club, and any number of other quality extracurricular service providers in the area, don’t replace the need to have a solid relationship with your high school but they are another resource that has gotten to know you over a significant period of time and will serve as great references. These people help describe your qualities through the lens of educators who are experienced in helping lots of other kids grow into their potential.

By the time Scholar’s Edge clients are ready to apply for post-secondary education, in many cases, they have spent years working on developing strong, transferable learning skills at the tutoring practice. Rajesh and his staff are so familiar with the kids that he is very comfortable helping them narrow down their school choices and dedicates an entire week, each year, to review all of his graduating students’ college and university applications. His combined insight into who they are and what schools are looking for allows him to work with students to maximize the impact and consequently the chances of their application’s success.

There’s no magic formula to what Haute Couture or Scholar’s Edge do for their charges. They spend a long time developing their students’ learning skills. Then, when the time is right, they help the kids discover how to package and market themselves, armed with the insight that comes from knowing and nurturing children for as long as they have.

When parents partner with great mentors for their children, they gift their kids with experiences and information that are impossible to acquire at home. People like Joanne, Rajesh, Giancarlo and Karen work with many kids. They see many applications. They know what tends to work. They strive to develop and maintain community partners and industry relationships, giving them a good understandign of the philosophies and culture of the various schools to which your kids are applying. Those are invaluable details when looking for the right words and ways to assemble your story.

Of course it, is possible to get into the school of your choice without any outside help. But, as Joanne says, schools are always looking for the best picks from that year’s crop of applicants. Some of it is luck. The rest is up to you.

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