College Apps. What to prioritize AND how to be successful

What college do I apply to? What major? What program? Do I apply to the college itself or the individual school that houses my major? Does it make a difference? Do I send my SAT/ACT scores as a whole or superscore them? Do I report all scores? Or use score choice? Do I need one or two letters of recommendation? Do I need letters at all? Apply early or regular? Or maybe restrictive early? Or is it rolling? Do I need to officially send test scores or can I self report? Wait, does the admission counselor track if I communicate with them? Isn’t that called demonstrated interest?

Hold on, do my senior grades matter? Will my test scores arrive to the college in time for my app to be reviewed? Hmmm, didn’t my counselor say something about requesting a transcript? But what about that community college class I took, should I send that transcript? Shoot, don’t I have an AP Spanish quiz tomorrow? I definitely didn’t do my gov homework. Okay but how do I find out if I get money for college? What is the CSS Profile? FAFSA? My parents should do that, right? But what about scholarships?

I am exhausted. I am sure you are too. Not just from reading the first paragraph, but at navigating it all on top of your day to day life. Where to start and what path to take. It varies student to student, and college to college. So ya, applying to colleges can be quite complicated.

Make it smaller. Make it smaller for yourself and create small goals for big impact. Build momentum with knowing key markers that help you feel like you’re not lost in a world of deadlines. Make it smaller by doing some self discovery research and getting a sense of what it is you actually want and what makes sense for you.

If you’re a senior, that begins with researching colleges and fine tuning where you’re applying. It also means including college affordability in your college search. Which can be as simple as using the Net Price Calculators on a college’s website to get a rough estimate of financial aid from that specific school based on you and your family. You can also use the FAFSA4Caster or the EFC Calculator to get an estimate on what a college will feasibly ask you to pay per year.

And while you’re narrowing down your college list you’re paying close attention to academic programs, classroom/learning style and the student community/campus vibe/local community. Ensuring that the schools on your list match your wants, needs and strengths. CollegeXpress is always great for this, as well as the good old fashioned book option (which I love because it’s less distracting than online!) Fiske Guide to gain perspective.

When you figure out WHERE to apply it can be easier to figure out HOW to apply. What website? How many essays/letters or rec? Do they need me to officially send test scores or can I self report? Remember, that each college admission office will have their own dates, deadlines requirements and institutional priorities (a fancy word for the college’s internal needs) and more, so it’s helpful to narrow down your list and get real nitty gritty from there.

Also considering what admission plan is the best for a stronger application. Maybe an early plan is offered, but you’re still tying up SAT/ACT testing in the Fall and want more time to showcase first semester senior grades so you decide on regular. Or maybe you fall in love with that one school and do the financial research and feel it makes sense to apply to a binding early program. Ensure that you’re applying because it is appropriate and will strengthen your chance of admission, not because your friend or someone told you it’s better to get in with a certain plan.

This is also when getting to know your admission counselor can be immensely helpful. At our school we are able to host upwards of 120 colleges and universities, but maybe your school doesn’t have them all. That’s okay! Every school with have a regional representative that can answer or at least point you in the right direction for that specific university. A simple Google search or phone call to admissions asking will get you the info. They are there to help you through the process and answer any questions, don’t be intimidated to use them as a resource!

Making an easy spreadsheet to keep track of your dates and deadlines can be helpful. This can be as simple as downloading our college organization chart at the bottom of THIS PAGE or getting out a binder and creating columns to hand write it. Having your college deadlines and requirements plus comments and essay topics in ONE place allows you to visually see the workload and which application to prioritize.

Speaking of prioritizing, don’t over apply to universities. You can only go to one. I repeat, you can only choose one. So why would you add more essays, more username and passwords and cram more to do with more apps? You end up diluting the apps you really care about because, well, lack of time and you may end up taking a space at a school that was someone else’s real dream school.

You’re looking to apply to around five to ten colleges that are balanced, where you have reaches (schools academically are above your range or are selective, less than 20% of applicants accepted), target (schools you should get into are well in the range, but not a guarantee and likely (schools you above the academic range, and/or are accepting more students).

According to NACAC among the thousands of schools available to you, the average acceptance rate for four year institutions was 65.4%, source. So finding a likely school is fairly simple.

Think about what you want to walk out with beyond your diploma? Internships, experiences, mentors, peer groups, a solid resume, a solid letter of recommendation, study abroad experience, the one opportunity that that one school had that happened to separate you from the pile.

When all is said and done, the college application process is just the beginning. So why not take the time to make it as specific to you as possible so you feel pretty confident about attending an institution that will celebrate, enhance and support you as you move forward in your life.

Because let’s face it, even though it feels like it, things don’t end in the college application process. In fact, it’s just the beginning. And that’s kind of exciting.

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Published by Casey Barneson

Author of The College Wellness Guide. Beverly Hills High School College Counselor.

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