Keep Calm and Get Accepted to College
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, taking standardized tests, fitting college visits into your already busy schedule—applying to college can be a challenge for even the most organized student.
But have no fear. With a little planning (and help from your parents and school administrators), the admissions process doesn’t have to be too painful. We have the college application tips you need.
NARROW YOUR COLLEGE LIST
The first step in the application process is figuring out which schools you most want to attend. You should start putting together this list during your junior year. Your final list of colleges should be completed by the beginning of your senior 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. Then narrow down the list to two to five of the most important factors.
To narrow down your list, Sarah Neal, senior assistant director of admission at Agnes Scott College (GA) suggests consulting resources such as The Princeton Review or CollegeBoard.org to sort through colleges and find the ones that specifically fit your most important factors. Plus, 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 (later) tour as many campuses as possible.
Neal also recommends consulting the College Board’s net price calculator (http://netpricecalculator.collegeboard.org) to determine whether the cost of attending a school is realistically within your family’s budget. Marshall University (WV) Director of Recruitment Beth Wolfe concurs that this is a good idea. “It’s heartbreaking for admissions officials to see students get their hearts set on an institution that ultimately will not work out for them.” Filling out the FAFSA early on will also help you figure out the affordability of a college.
While there’s no “right” number of schools to have on your list, in general, six to 10 schools is plenty. Make sure you include some “reach” schools (harder to get into) as well as some “safety” schools (easier).
If you follow these steps, by the start of your senior year, the bulk of your research will be done. Then you can focus your attention on visiting colleges, applying to your favorites and getting scholarships.
Each college application has many components, including recommendations, test scores, interviews and personal essays. 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 tailored to each institution. Also create a spreadsheet to easily track and compare college information. Including your research notes about each school and a schedule of application deadlines not to miss.
Another way to get organized is to download apps like My Study Life and the College Application Organizer, which you can find at the iTunes store. Apps like this can help digitally organize all of your deadlines.
Wolfe says staying organized also can help out the high school teachers and administrators who are writing your recommendation letters and sending your official transcripts. “It’s much better to ask for letters [and transcripts] all at once than to keep going back to someone over and over to ask for another copy of their letter,” she explains.
Finally, Jordan Bryant, director of undergraduate admissions at Trinity International University (IL), recommends making detailed notes in a notebook or on a spreadsheet directly after making a college visit so that when the time comes to apply, you can identify the schools worth focusing on: “Having them all in one place will help hone your filter.”
PUT GRADES AND STANDARDIZED TESTS FIRST
Before you focus on your essays or teacher recommendations, keep in mind that grades, strength of curriculum and test scores remain the most important factors in college admissions. So, keep your grades up and take as many AP/honors courses as you can realistically handle.
By the spring of your junior year, you will want to have taken both a practice and a final round of a standardized test (i.e., the ACT or SAT) at least one time. Ashley Buchanan, associate director of recruitment at Florida Atlantic University, recommends taking the test twice. “Students do not know what to expect the first time they take each test,” she says. “Therefore, taking the test twice will likely yield greater results.” If you take both the ACT and the SAT, take your best-scoring test a second time.
Make sure you devote enough time to study for your standardized tests. Hannah Brown, the senior assistant director at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, notes that now there are apps such as ACT Online Prep and SAT Up that can help you do so on your smartphone. Additionally, she recommends using Elevate—a mind-training app that helps with name recognition, grammar, syntax, comprehension and focusing—for 15 or 20 minutes a day. “It helps with everything from standardized test-taking to preparing for interviews,” she notes.
Also, remember not to slack off your senior year. Even though you’ll be busy with your applications, colleges also take into consideration senior-year grades and course loads. In fact, Cornell B. LeSane, II, the dean of admissions at Allegheny College (PA), says that admissions officers look much more favorably at students on an upward trend. “I’d rather see a student that has a rough freshman year, but improves, rather than the other way around,” he says. He also notes that if you have had uneven academic years, it’s worth it to explain—but not blame others!—in your essay or conversations with admissions officers.
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. “Most institutions would rather see a student be really committed rather than dabbling in multiple things,” Wolfe says. In other words, don’t join a club or a sports team just to impress a college admissions office.
LeSane says that extracurricular activities can show off more than your
interests—they can also prove that a student possesses both work ethic and discipline. “Participating in ongoing activities while maintaining academics shows a student has the ability to prioritize and manage their time effectively,” he says.
Devoting meaningful time to an organization or activity, as well as taking on a leadership role where possible, can give admissions officers a more holistic picture of who you are.
GATHER YOUR RECOMMENDATION LETTERS
If you’re going to approach a teacher, coach or guidance counselor to write a letter of recommendation, give them plenty of advance notice.
It’s easy to approach teachers who have given you good grades, but it often impresses colleges more if you ask someone whose class was more challenging. “Letters of recommendations tell us information about character, drive and determination to succeed,” says Brown.
Brown suggests providing the teachers 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.
Wolfe, a former high school chemistry teacher who has written many recommendation letters, suggests examining what type of student you are. If you’re a quiet student, she recommends participating more in class—and even asking the teacher to meet personally to get a better sense of who you are.
Most importantly, don’t be intimidated! Teachers expect to write many recommendation letters for college. And you’ll be complimenting them if you ask them—it proves that they’ve made a difference to you, especially if they taught one of your favorite classes.
DEMONSTRATE YOUR INTEREST AND WRITE ERROR-FREE ESSAYS
After grades and test scores, the most important factors are a student’s “demonstrated interest” and essay or writing sample. Admissions counselors often will 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—without harassing them, of course.
Luke Sweeney, an admissions counselor at William Peace University (NC), says that essays can really help a borderline student in the admissions process. Not only does a strong essay provide a student with a voice, it also offers an opportunity for them to explain themselves. “I want to hear where you faltered, and how you changed,” he says. “Then I can give you more wiggle room on the academics.”
FOLLOW UP ON YOUR APPLICATION STATUS
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 that they’ve 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. “Utilize your parents, teachers and peers to navigate through this process, because it is 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!
Brienne Walsh is a writer and photographer based in Brooklyn.
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
- Get a summer job, internship or study abroad program.
- Narrow down college list.
- Research scholarships. (www.studentaid.ed.gov/scholarship)
- Visit college websites and www.commonapp.org 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 to be sent.
- Write your college essays.
- Prepare and submit your applications on time.
- Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (https://fafsa.ed.gov) anytime after October 1.*
*Submit it to schools as soon as possible, since 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 TRICKS
1. DON’T WASTE YOUR HOLIDAYS OR SUMMERS
When school is in session, you’re likely overwhelmed. Brown recommends using your holidays to work on your essay. “Students can access the essay question for the common application the summer before their senior year,” she says. Summers are also a time when teachers and parents may have time off themselves. “It’s a great time to ask someone to look over your essay.”
2. BE CLEVER WITH ESSAY PROMPTS
Although some colleges ask very 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
Most admission counselors recommend that you visit a school before you apply—and certainly before you send in your acceptance letter. However, Wolfe says, if you are applying to 10 or more schools, it can be impossible to find the time or resources to see them all in person. “Visit the top three to five early in the process, and then visit those lower on the list after your decision letters start coming in,” she recommends.
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. Bryant of Trinity suggests you combat this by setting small, manageable goals for yourself. 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 this afternoon.” Small goals set the precedent for you to work on your application in a manageable way.