College Application Tips
Where Should I Apply?
Once you have your SAT or ACT under your belt, it’s time to apply to colleges. There are thousands to choose from, so you may want to narrow your selection before you begin. The best way to do that is to set up some criteria. You can begin by asking yourself some important questions:
Research institutions with strong programs in the field you want to study, and put them at the top of your list. If you can’t decide yet what you want to study, look for universities with a high overall academic rating or ones that specialize in some of the general areas of study that interest you. Using a college search website such as College Navigator and College Search allows you to filter schools according to your preferences and interests, which can be very helpful.
- How far do I want to live from family?
College means leaving home, and for many, it’s the first time. Some will enjoy the distance, while others will want to be closer to home. Going to a college close to home makes it easier to visit friends and family on holidays or weekends. However, attending a college that is farther away allows you to experience a new community and culture, which is part of what makes college so rewarding.
- How much tuition can I afford?
Tuition could vary anywhere from $5,000 a semester to above $60,000 a semester. Be sure to check tuition prices at the institutions you research, and make firm decisions ahead of time, preferably with the guidance of your parents or school advisors, about how much you can afford to spend.
- Do I want a large- or small-school experience?
There are advantages to both large and small campuses. Smaller institutions usually provide better teacher-to-student ratios, but large ones usually have more degree options and larger student communities. If you’re unsure which suits you best, choose to apply to some of each.
Once you’ve pared down your list, take a look at how long it is. Be aware that colleges and universities usually have application fees. If that doesn’t limit the number of applications you send out, the effort required to complete an application might.
Reach, Match, and Safety Schools
When finalizing your list of schools to apply to, group them into one of three categories:
- Reach—competitive schools with high standards and a highly competitive selection process
- Match—institutions where your test scores and grades match that of the average acceptee
- Safety—colleges for which you are well qualified or exceed qualifications
The idea here is to make sure you give yourself options. You may not be accepted to your reach school, but it’s still worth trying for it. You will most likely be accepted to your safety school, which will provide a good backup plan should all the other schools fall through. Your match schools are the sweet spot, where you have a solid chance of acceptance. Be sure you apply to at least one of each type.
There’s a lot to keep track of when submitting a college application. Here are a few tips to help you stay on track:
Make a note of the application deadline, and then make sure you don’t miss it. The best application ever made is useless after the deadline. Keep track of your deadlines, and stay well ahead of them. Do not miss any of the college admissions deadlines.
Get familiar with the requirements, and make sure you fulfill every item on the list.
Meeting requirements and deadlines is largely a matter of being organized. Ask for letters of recommendation at least a month in advance. Get a copy of your high school transcript. Put together a folder of all necessary documents, and make sure you keep copies for yourself. It may seem like a lot of work, but when something gets lost in the mail or a fax doesn’t send, you’ll be happy you have backups.
Speaking of losing things in the mail, consider sending your documents using the U.S. Post Office’s "return receipt requested" service. You should still double-check that the university received your application, even if it was electronic. These days, confirmation usually comes as an email, so if you go a few weeks without hearing from them colleges you’ve applied to, follow up. Once your high school counselor has sent in all of the documents (Secondary School Report, official transcripts, letters of recommendation, etc.), you should also follow up with the college admissions department to make sure your application is complete.
Almost every application is going to require a personal essay, although these may vary in length. It’s easy to overthink the essay, so keep the following in mind to help you focus on what’s most important:
- The essay is about you, so use your own voice.
What admissions departments are looking for in these essays is a little piece of who you are and what you have to offer the college and the world. What makes you unique, and where can you stand out? Don’t be overly casual with your writing style, but do write the essay so it sounds like it would if you were to speak the words out loud. Give the finished essay to someone who knows you well, and ask, "Does this sound like me?"
Telling admissions "I’m an excellent team player" doesn’t actually tell them much. Instead, demonstrate with a personal anecdote or a solid explanation of your value. Don’t give them a statement; give them a reason to believe. Just be sure to be honest about it.
In this context, it’s best to zoom in on one or two details so that you can reach deep with your essay. Trying to stretch your essay to cover too many topics will leave it thin and lacking in substance.
Don’t leave the fate of your college application in the hands of spell check. Proofread it yourself, and when you’re done, have someone else review it as well. Check for grammar mistakes, poor word choice, and awkward phrasing. Make sure your essay has a logical flow of ideas, and double-check that it meets length requirements. Again, what seems like extra effort will actually make all the difference.