The college admissions process can be daunting for students and their parents. There are so many moving parts to keep track of that it’s hard to know where to begin. The overwhelming nature of this process often results in students waiting until the last minute to sort through important details and get everything in order.
Putting off what needs to be done only creates more anxiety, which is why it’s far more advantageous to get started with plenty of time to spare. If you’re a student (or a parent) looking for some guidance on where to start, the following tips should help you out:
Focus On Your Grades All Through High School
Admissions officers want to make sure you are capable of keeping up in a college-level academic environment, which is why grades and ACT/SAT scores are both heavily weighted. If you are a senior, try not to fall into the senioritis trap that affects so many students. When you’re so close to graduating, it’s natural to feel mentally finished with high school, which is why seniors tend to skip class and don’t complete homework assignments from time to time. Even if it’s tempting, try your best to keep up with your studies. The better your grades and your overall GPA, the more clearly you can show admissions officers that you’re ready to work hard in your college classes, too.
If you’re not yet a senior, you have time to develop solid study habits, sign up for honors and AP classes, and broaden your extracurricular activities. Keep in mind that admissions officers love to see students who push themselves academically and develop well-rounded skills and interests.
Don’t Wait to Prepare for the ACT or SAT
Colleges generally accept scores from either the ACT or the SAT, but your state may mandate one over the other. If your state does choose which one you’ll take, don’t feel limited, as you can always still take the other exam. It may help to do some research on the main differences between the tests so that you can choose the one that appears to suit you best.
A good way to prepare is to take a practice test as a sophomore or early in your junior year of high school, as it will help highlight your areas of strength and areas you need to focus on a bit more. You can use this information to help you prepare for the real exam. It’s best not to wait until your senior year, as you will lose the opportunity to take the test multiple times. This means that if your score is not to your satisfaction as a sophomore or junior, you still have more opportunities to improve your score. As a senior, your time is more limited to keep testing towards your ideal score.
Another option to help you prepare is to look into an ACT/SAT test prep course. You can find classes or private tutors that can help you develop a personalized path to your success. They know how these exams work, and this insight can make a big difference on how well you do on the test, especially if you’re not someone who generally performs well on tests.
Talk With Your School Counselor or an Admissions Consultant
If you’re unsure how to seek out colleges that would work best for you, or you’d just like some guidance on the process in general, speaking with a school counselor or an admissions consultant can help alleviate some of your stress.
Those who specialize in admissions consulting can help you with filling out applications, planning college visits, finding financial aid options, and selecting colleges that would serve your interests and ambitions. They even assist with that all-important essay! If you’re overwhelmed, it can be tremendously relieving to work with an expert who can calmly walk you through each step you need to take.
Research and Visit Colleges You Want to Attend
The exciting part about going to college is choosing which ones you’ll apply to. It’s nerve-wracking filling out the applications and waiting to hear back, but it also symbolizes new opportunities for your future.
Take time to really research what the culture is like, if the university will have resources to support your areas of interest, and/or which kind of campus amenities will be available. It’s also important to consider cost as well as what the college requires applicants to submit.
If you can, it’s best to physically visit the school and talk to some of the other students and staff members. This will allow you to get a much broader sense of whether a school feels right for you or not as well as give you first-hand insight into what being a student there is actually like.
It’s good to apply to a handful of schools (10 is a good number to aim for), as doing so will increase your odds of being accepted. Most students apply to schools they are extremely likely to get into (frequently called safety schools), schools that they have a solid chance of getting into (target schools), and competitive, selective schools that are harder to get into (reach schools).
Fill Out Your College Applications Early
Filling out your college applications early will relieve the stress of rushing to fill out multiple ones at the last minute (unless all your schools accept the Common App). Because the specific requirements may vary from college to college, starting early allows you to thoroughly attend to every detail.
Generally, applications will require you to provide the same items, such as high school transcripts, letters of recommendation, your extracurricular activities, and your ACT or SAT score. In addition, most will also require a written essay, and some may also have supplemental essays.
If you are requesting transcripts, make sure you know how your high school provides them to colleges. Most high schools transmit transcripts electronically; however, if it’s by postal mail, it can take some time for them to arrive, which is why you want to get this part in order quickly. Similarly, letters of recommendation can be a great way to show colleges more about your character and work ethic, but you don’t want to ask someone to write you one at the last minute. Whether you want to ask a teacher, employer, or volunteer coordinator, keep in mind that people are busy. The more advance notice you give, the more likely that person is to say yes as well as provide a well-thought-out letter.
Apply for Financial Aid Well In Advance
Financial aid is a crucial part of applying for college, especially if you won’t have help from family. The sooner you see what kind of aid you’re eligible for by filling out your FAFSA, the sooner you’ll be able to evaluate which colleges you’ll be able to afford. October 1st is the first day you can submit your FAFSA, which is a good personal deadline to keep in mind.
Some stipends and grants are given out on a first-come, first-served basis, so don’t save this part until the last minute. Additionally, there are many colleges and private companies that give out scholarships, and the more aggressive you are about finding and applying for them, the better your chances are of earning a few. Here is a database that provides a huge list as well as scholarships separated by category, but you can also find more on individual college websites.
Organize Important Dates and Information
Because there are quite a few steps to the admissions process, keeping everything organized will make things go much more smoothly.
Make a to-do list based on order of importance, and keep track of important dates. Deadlines for submitting applications, filling out financial aid information, completing financial aid counseling (most loan providers and some colleges require this), submitting necessary paperwork (e.g., vaccine records, proof of health insurance, income verification, etc.), and registering for classes can be programmed into your phone or computer so that you get alerts when deadlines are approaching.
Keep an eye on your email and voicemail, as admissions officers will also reach out with important reminders, updates, and information.
Put Your Best Self Forward in Person and Online
Of course, you want to present your best self to admissions officers, but it’s important to think past your application or an in-person meeting. Some admissions staff members will view your social media profiles as well, so you may want to consider setting your accounts to private. Regardless, it’s for the best if you don’t post anything online you wouldn’t want them or a future employer to see.
Hopefully, this information helps clarify what steps are involved in the college admissions process as well as actions you can take to make applying to colleges smooth and successful.
If you take your grades seriously, access assistance when you need it, and start planning well in advance, you should be on your way to attending your perfect college or university and forming a path to a bright future.