College Application Strategies – Time to Make a Plan
By now you’ve gotten at least a handful of glossy brochures in the mail and probably have begun narrowing down what you’d like to study in college. But there is still what seems like a gaggle of decisions to make until the day when you promenade through the door of your fine new institution of study. We have a few thoughts and guidelines to make some of those decisions a little easier.
Compiling your list
You might have a couple of “dream schools” in mind as well as a few schools you know you have a good shot at getting into. By now you might have also considered whether you’d like to go far away from home for college or whether you’d rather stick close to family. A good rule of thumb is to apply to a few “reach” schools some schools that you think you may get into and a few safety schools. Let’s break these down one by one:
Go ahead and apply to two or three schools that you really don’t know if you have a shot at but that you’d love to get into (i.e. you’ve had one of these school’s pennants up on your wall since fifth grade). You never know; top colleges look for particular students to make up a diverse student body each year. You might be the kind of fit one of these colleges is looking for. By all means apply.
“Good Chance” Schools
Apply to three or so schools that you’d really enjoy being at and that you think you have a reasonably good shot at getting into. You might end up at one of these schools and find it’s just the environment you were hoping for.
Lastly apply to a couple of schools you’re nearly positive you could get into and excel in. Keep in mind that you may also really enjoy your time at one of these schools whether it’s a larger state university with scads of school spirit or a less-selective cozy private college.
Deciding when and how to apply
There’s a lot of admissions vocabulary being flung around these days—early action early decision nonrestrictive early action rolling admissions regular decision single-choice early action— how can you keep it from dissolving into muddled confusion (or keep your brain from short-circuiting in the process)? Let’s break these terms down briefly so that you can make a more informed decision about when to apply to each of your preferred schools.
This plan is reserved for your absolute dream school. You may only apply under early decision to one school. When you apply early decision you are making an agreement with the school that you will attend if accepted and that you will withdraw all other applications after that. An early decision agreement is binding so you should only apply early decision if you have a top-choice school and are absolutely sure you would want to attend there above any other even if it means you’ll have to pay in full. Early decision applications are usually due around November or December depending on the college or university.
If you need a minimum amount of financial aid as a condition to early decision be sure that is clearly spelled out in the early decision application/contract.
By the way when, we say binding we mean it! It would be a serious mistake to try to get out of an early decision contract. In addition to reflecting very poorly on your personal integrity you risk being “blackballed” when you try to attend other schools.
Early action is not a binding agreement to attend like early decision is. You’re able to opt out if you decide you don’t want to attend that specific institution. In most cases you can apply to more than one school on an early-action basis. However some schools restrict you from applying early action to other schools in which case you would have to apply to those other schools under their regular decision option.
Regular decision lets you apply by standard deadlines (typically January through March). There are no restrictions on what other colleges you may apply to.
Rolling admissions admit applicants as they apply throughout the year generally in the order received.
Beefing up your application
Your GPA and SAT/ACT scores are a natural start to putting together your application. While grades and test scores are important there are other factors that can sway the decision in your favor. Here’s a two-minute guide:
Schools are interested in whether you’ve gotten involved in extracurricular activities community service or part-time work. If you haven’t been able to commit to many extracurricular activities because for example you’ve been babysitting your little brother put that on your application. Remember however that colleges prefer that you devote meaningful time to just a few activities rather than be involved in a lot of activities but not devoting any significant time or involvement to any of them. Leadership positions in an organization or two are always important as well.
Your personal essay (or personal statement) is really where you have the greatest chance to shine as an individual. If you have a witty personality put some humor into your essay; describe a funny (or traumatic sad or challenging) event that helped you grow. If you’ve really had to overcome a distinct challenge as a teenager there’s no place like here to write something honest about it (avoiding TMI of course). Nowadays you might also look at what kinds of creative options a preferred college has for personal statements. You may be able to put together a short video or animated essay if you’re a wicked video editor for example. Or you could submit some musical recordings or artwork if the college allows for these extra supplements to your application.
You’ll generally be required to submit at least two recommendations usually from your guidance counselor and a teacher. Of course you’ll want to ask a teacher who knows you and your work well (and of course was impressed by you!). You can also submit an additional recommendation(s) such as from an employer.
Other things to do
Keep in mind that you should start visiting some of the campuses of schools you are interested in attending. The summer after your junior year is an ideal time to do that (although you should go back when school is in session before making a decision) and also to participate in a precollege summer program. Again remember there are many factors to consider when you’re choosing a college not just where it’s placed in those ubiquitous lists of rankings. Think about the location of each school its size its strength in your intended major whether it will challenge you academically how much financial aid is available and the student mix and social life. See our article on “College Choices.”
One last thing
You might apply to schools the fall of your senior year and—happily— receive more than one acceptance letter. Congratulations! And now how do you decide on “the one” (besides comparing the financial aid packages of course)? One helpful idea is to talk to your parents a teacher you respect and perhaps some other relatives and friends. Often these people recognize aspects of your personality and interests better than you do and can help you sort through your interests values goals and expectations about college.
Most important of all visit the schools in which you’re seriously interested. There’s nothing like putting a finger on how you’ll feel walking the grounds of a particular campus. After considering everything just go with your gut. With instincts and preparation you’ll likely land in a challenging and stimulating school that you can call your own for the next few years!
Jill Hicks is a writer and editor currently living in Missouri.