College Application Tips
Follow these college application tips and increase your chances of getting in!
There are a lot of stressful events in high school, but applying to colleges might be the most stressful of them all. Gathering together 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 with focused 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. Chances are you’ll even have some fun. Here are the application tips you need to know.
Narrow Your Application List
Start putting together a list of preferred schools during your junior year. 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. Explore college websites to learn more about specific programs. Email questions to college admission counselors. Tour campuses to determine if they’re right for you. Be curious!
The closer to October 1 that you can fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA—https://fafsa.ed.gov), the sooner you’ll figure out the affordability of a college.
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.
Start organizing your deadlines with 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.
You can also download apps, such as My Study Life and the College Application Organizer, which you can find in the iTunes App Store.
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 just to maximize your GPA.
“It is always better to be successful at one or two [AP or honors] courses than to challenge yourself in too many and just do OK,” says Jennifer Brennan, a transfer admissions recruiter and counselor for Georgian Court University (NJ). “AP courses can definitely help jump-start your college education, if you take the exams, and the college you are going to accepts credit for the scores you receive.”
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, you can think about taking your best-scoring test a second time. Prep for this test, too: taking it a second time can often improve students’ scores. If you’re still far from your target score, study hard during the summer, and take the test again as a senior.
“If you’re not a strong test-taker, look into colleges that are test-score optional,” suggests Brennan. “You can also contact a college’s admissions department to find out what you can do to make your application stronger if your test scores do not meet their requirements.”
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. 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,” says Lauren Scott, associate director of admissions for University of North Carolina Wilmington.
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 college-level coursework.
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.
Demonstrate Your Interest And Write Error-Free Essays
Admissions counselors look favorably on students who have made their interest in the school very clear.
“Visit and meet the people who will be reviewing your application!” says Brennan. “There is nothing an admissions counselor likes more than putting a name to a face and meeting the students whose files will be stacked on their desk in the coming months. Sign up for open houses and information sessions, or take a private tour to get to know your college’s representatives.”
When you write your 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.”
Brennan agrees. “To make your college essay stand out, tell a story. Remember that the people who are going to be reading your essay are human just like you. Capture a moment, a memory, an image or an experience, and connect it to your goals and dreams.”
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.”
On the other hand, 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 the wrong school here.”
Follow Up On Your Application Status
Admissions 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.
Because all 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 their online portals before the deadlines, to make sure they received all of the necessary materials.
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.
Winter 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.**
** Scholarships may reduce need-based financial aid.
Five Time-Saving Tips
1. Make the Most of 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. (But also remember to take time to rest and take care of yourself!)
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.”