College Application Tips
Increase your chances of getting in with this advice on putting together your application.
There are a lot of stressful events in high school, but applying to colleges might be the most stressful of them all. Gathering together all of the right application materials, studying for and taking standardized tests, keeping track of deadlines, and fitting college visits into your already busy schedule can be a challenge for even the most organized students.
But have no fear. With a lot of planning—and a little direction from the admissions officers at some of the country’s top colleges and universities—the application process doesn’t have to be too painful. Here are the college application tips and techniques you need to know.
Narrow Your Application List
The first step is figuring out which schools you most want to attend. Start putting together this list during your junior year. Deciding which schools are right for you requires research. Consider factors such as college size, distance from home, academic programs and athletics, and cost and financial aid. Consult resources such as The Princeton Review or The College Board to find schools that specifically fit the factors that are most important to you.
Cornell LeSane, vice president for enrollment and dean of admissions at Allegheny College (PA), warns against getting too caught up in rankings. “The decision should really be based on the student’s interests and fit,” he says.
Talk to high school counselors for their professional input, go to college websites to learn more about specific programs, email questions to college admission counselors and tour campuses to determine if they’re right for you.
Daniel Forster, vice president of enrollment management at Washington College (MD), recommends consulting the College Board’s net price calculator to get a clear picture of what you’ll pay to attend each school. “If you’re looking at a lot of schools, the calculator is a great way to see if each one is a possibility, financially, for your family,” he says. “It can help you limit your search.”
Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA—https://fafsa.ed.gov/) early on will also help you figure out the affordability of a college.
If you follow these steps, by the start of your senior year, the bulk of your research will be done. Although there’s no right number of schools to have on your list, six to 10 schools are plenty. Make sure you include some “reach” schools, as well as some “safety” schools. Then you can focus your attention on visiting colleges, applying to your favorites and getting scholarships.
After you finalize your college choice list, your next step should be to organize your deadlines. One way to do this is to make a folder (one on your computer and one hard copy) to keep things such as college recruitment brochures and outlines for personal essays. A spreadsheet can help you track and compare college information.
Chris Beiswanger, director of the Office of Admissions at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, suggests getting a separate calendar to keep track of deadlines. “Don’t use your phone or a daily planner,” he says. “Get a 12-month calendar, and post it on the wall, not tucked away, so you don’t miss application and scholarship deadlines.”
Another way to stay organized is to download apps such as My Study Life and the College Application Organizer, which you can find at the iTunes store.
“Students rush through the application process,” says Lauren Scott, associate director of admissions for University of North Carolina Wilmington. “This is the most important step to enrolling at your dream school, so slow down and pay attention to the details.”
Put Grades And Standardized Tests First
Your transcript is a significant part of your application, but don’t take the easiest courses your high school offers to maximize your GPA. College admissions officers want to see if you’re challenging yourself by taking honors and AP-level courses.
That being said, keep in mind your own capabilities and limits, and don’t bite off more than you can chew. Typically, it’s best to only take honors or AP classes if you can achieve a B or higher.
Use winter break of your junior year to prepare for standardized tests. Take one or two full-length practice tests so you know what to expect, and take the January SAT or February ACT. Unless you ace it, plan on taking it again during the spring. If you took both the ACT and the SAT, take your best-scoring test a second time. Prep for this test, too, but even just taking it a second time will likely improve your score. If you’re still far from your target score, study hard during the summer, and take the test again as a senior.
Each school weighs standardized tests differently. Large public and private universities weigh them most heavily, and many smaller liberal arts colleges don’t require test scores at all. Most schools fall somewhere in between.
This past fall, Allegheny College went test optional. “This is our way of telling students they’re more than a test score,” LeSane says. “We’re going to put more weight on four years of high school than on how they did on a four-hour test.”
Show Off Your Skills
If you aren’t already involved in extracurricular activities, then choose at least one or two to get involved in during your junior year. The activities should reflect your passions, and if there isn’t a group or program at your school that currently supports these passions, ask an administrator if you can create one.
But don’t join a club or a sports team just to impress a college admissions office. “It is not a long list of activities that is important but rather a deep level of involvement in a few areas,” Scott says.
Devoting meaningful time to an organization or activity, as well as taking on a leadership role, can help you demonstrate your commitment and maturity. Although being the president of the debate club is impressive, leadership skills can be demonstrated in a wide variety of ways.
“I believe that leadership is influence, not just a title,” says Jordan Bryant, director of undergraduate admissions at Trinity International University (IL). “If you can show in your application and essay that you are influencing your peers in positive ways, that will go a long way.”
Gather Your Recommendation Letters
Although it might be easy to approach teachers who have given you good grades, the best recommendation letters often come from teachers who can speak to your intellect and character and your preparation for rigorous collegiate coursework.
“Get a recommendation from a teacher in whose class you struggled and then succeeded,” Beiswanger says. “If you’ve overcome difficulties in high school, it shows you have the ability to overcome obstacles in college.”
When you approach a teacher, coach or guidance counselor to write a letter of recommendation, give them plenty of advance notice. It also helps to provide them with a résumé of your proudest accomplishments and a list of future goals. This will both refresh their memories and help them tailor the letters to your strengths. Most importantly, don’t be intimidated! Teachers expect to write many recommendation letters, and you’ll be complimenting them if you ask them.
Demonstrate Your Interest And Write Error-Free Essays
Admissions counselors look favorably on students who have made their interest in the school very clear. In addition to visiting the campus, it’s also a good idea to stay in touch with a particular admissions counselor at your preferred institutions.
“Schools are looking for students who have visited, completed their application and paid attention to deadlines, and done research that shows they know what the school is about,” Forster says. “You don’t want engineering students putting that as their No. 1 major to a school that doesn’t offer engineering.”
When you write your essays, write about something that matters to you. The best essays discuss something meaningful in your life and show a passion for the subject you’re writing about. “I don’t want to hear what you think I want to hear,” Bryant says. “I want to really hear who you are.”
If your grades are good but not fantastic, you could push yourself over the edge to acceptance with a great essay. “The essay is often the very last part of the college application over which the student has complete control,” Scott says. “Grades cannot be changed. The standardized test results are what they are, but a carefully thought-out, well-constructed essay that answers a university’s questions and provides more information about the student might have an impact on an admission committee’s decision.”
But even if your grades and scores are great, a poor essay could really hurt your chances for acceptance at certain schools. So proofread, proofread, proofread. LeSane says, “We don’t want that last line of the essay to say: ‘And that’s why I’ve always wanted to go to “insert name of wrong school here.”’ Unfortunately, schools see these oversights more often than you’d think.”
Follow Up On Your Application Status
Admission offices will receive a huge number of applications on deadline day, and applying early is one way to distinguish yourself. “A good rule of thumb is for all applications to be submitted by Thanksgiving,” Bryant says. “That is to say, all seniors should be able to be thankful that they are done applying to college at the Thanksgiving dinner table.”
Because all of the different components of your application won’t arrive at the same time, it helps to call each college you applied to or check your application status in the college’s online portal before the deadline to make sure they received all of the necessary materials.
If you stay organized, this should be easy. But don’t be afraid to ask for help. “You are not alone,” LeSane says. “Use your parents, teachers and peers to navigate through this process. It’s hard for everyone.”
If you follow all of these steps, you can lower your college admissions stress and focus on what’s important: enjoying and excelling in school your senior year!
College Application Timeline
Spring of Junior Year
- Take college admissions exams.
- Meet with guidance counselor to make sure you’re on track.
- Visit colleges that interest you.
Summer Before Senior Year
- Find a summer job, internship or study abroad program.
- Narrow down college list.
- Research scholarships.
- Visit college websites for deadlines.
- Brainstorm ideas for your college essays.
Fall of Senior Year
- Visit colleges you’re considering.
- Get letters of recommendation.
- Request your high school transcript be sent.
- Write your college essays.
- Prepare and submit your applications on time.
- Fill out the FAFSA any time after Oct. 1. *
* Submit it to schools as soon as possible because financial aid is usually given on a first-come, first-served basis.
Spring of Senior Year
- Make your final acceptance decision.
- Contact school of choice with questions about financial aid.
- Notify school of choice that you’ve selected them, and submit any required deposits.
- Keep applying for external scholarships.
5 Time-Saving Tips
1. Don’t Waste Your Holidays or Summers
When school is in session, you’re likely overwhelmed. Use your holiday breaks to work on your essay and study for standardized tests.
2. Be Clever With Essay Prompts
Although some colleges ask unique essay questions, most will have prompts that are similar to other applications. You may be able to use portions of your essay for more than one application.
3. Time Your School Visits
If you are applying to a bunch of schools, it can be difficult to find the time or resources to see them all in person. Visit your top three to five schools first. It’s the best way to know if a school is right for you.
4. Create a Master Deadline List
When you have your college list finalized, create a document that lists the deadlines for transcripts and recommendation letters. Give these deadlines to administrators and teachers writing your recommendations so they have the information in advance.
5. Set Small Goals Every Day
The amount of work that needs to be put into a college application can be paralyzing. Jordan Bryant of Trinity International University (IL) suggests combating this by setting small, manageable goals. For example, rather than telling yourself, “I’m going to choose the 10 schools I want to apply to this week,” say, “I’m going to take today to browse through three college websites.”