The process of applying to colleges–and then choosing between your offers–can seem daunting, but it needn’t be. The following is a basic roadmap of the steps you need to take in order to successfully apply to college. Having been through this sometimes terrifying process myself, I can tell you that if you start early and stay organized, there’s nothing to worry about.
By now you should have a pretty good idea of the schools in which you’re interested enough to apply. Once you have a shortlist, start scheduling visits. It is a good idea to visit every school to which you want to apply in you junior year. Applying to a school you’ve never visited is like getting married on a blind date, and visiting all the schools your junior year will keep you senior year from being so packed with visits that your applications become frenzied.
Most schools have specific visiting and tour days, on which a large number of students come and see the campus through a series of scheduled events. Search university websites to find these dates. If you’re like me and prefer to tour schools alone, call the admissions office of a university to schedule a visit. Typically, a student or administrator will take charge of the day, showing you the campus and answering any questions you have. You may also be scheduled for an admissions interview if the school requires one. As a bonus, many schools will waive application fees if you visit the campus by a certain date. Be sure to visit on a day when classes are in session so you can see what a day on campus is actually like.
Learn About Financial Aid and Begin Looking for Scholarships
Most high schools begin offering information sessions to their students during junior year. If so, attend one. If you school doesn’t offer this, virtually all universities offer financial aid information sessions during group tours, or offer to set up an interview for you with a member of their financial aid staff if you make a solo visit.
Many people decide not to apply for FAFSA (federal aid) because they know–or think they know–that they won’t qualify for much. This is one of the worst decisions you could possibly make. While you probably won’t be getting fat cash, a subsidized federal loan can make the difference between being able and not being able to pay for a certain school. Please also be aware that many schools do not consider applicants eligible for aid from the university unless they have applied for FAFSA.
During this time you should also begin looking for and applying for private scholarships. For more information about applying for financial aid and different types of scholarships, please read my article, “Finding Scholarships: A Guide for High Schoolers and College Students Alike.”
Think About What You Want
Is it particularly important to you that your college have a newspaper program? A choir? A radio station? Do you know what you want to major in? If not, will your ideal school have a major discovery program? Do you want to be in the middle of a big city, or far removed from one in the country? Are you going to need a job? If so, do the schools you are considering offer on-campus employment? Are they near private businesses that might employ you? This is the time to think about what is most important to you in a school, and look closely at which schools meet these criteria. Try not to focus on the “name brand” of a given university. Going to Harvard is quite an accomplishment, but if you want a liberal arts education in a rural setting with a student population of 2,000 or less, Harvard is not for you. Remember, this is going to be your home and/or primary workplace for the next several years. Find somewhere you can be happy, while receiving the education that you want.
Begin Applications and Application Essays
This is where crunch time begins. Organize your applications. Buy a pocket folder for each school to keep all of the papers associated with the application process. Pick out teachers you feel would give you a positive recommendation if your school requires a letter or form (and virtually all of them do), and give them the necessary information well in advance of the deadline. As a rule of thumb, no less than two weeks notice should be given. If you really want to wow them with your preparedness, give three weeks to a month advance notice. Be clear about deadlines, and supply addressed and stamped envelopes (usually provided by the university in the application packet). Be sure to thank teachers who take time to write a letter–a thank you note is always a nice touch.
Begin your essays as soon as you can. If you have the topics, begin the summer beforehand. Have the whole essay completed by the time school starts. It doesn’t have to be perfect at this point. Proofread it and look for major errors in spelling, mechanics, etc. Then, ask a member of the English department at your school (your past or present teacher is the best choice) to review your essay. Chances are they have done this before, and would be happy to do it again. Provide the prompt, and tell them it is fine to write on the essay copy that you have given them. As with recommendation letters, advance notice is a requirement. Unlike with recommendation letters, the minimum advance notice for an essay review is about one month. Remember, these people have other assignments and papers to read over for their classes as well. Be patient and, as always, express your thanks when the deed is done.
Review and revise your essay until it looks how you want it to. Proofread it one last time (you simply cannot do this enough). Once you have everything together, put your application in the envelope and mail it (or press send if you’re completing it online). Now breathe. You’re done. The best plan is to have all your applications submitted by November 1. This usually is not a deadline (except possibly for early decision) but if it’s all in by then, there’s nothing for you to worry about, and nothing to interrupt your end-of-year festivities.
Submit Financial Aid and FAFSA Applications; Finish Scholarship Applications
Be sure to submit these one time. Failure to do so could result in a $35,000 bill that neither the government nor the school will be helping you to pay. Any private scholarship applications or school scholarship competition days should be organized and completed. It never hurts to try, and if you don’t you’ll always wonder if that money could have been yours.
Make the Big Decision
All right. It’s happened. Your acceptance letters are all in. They’re sitting on a table, still in the envelopes, all lined up. Take a deep breath–and open them. Put the rejection letters in one pile. Tear them up. Recycle them. Don’t dwell. Now turn to the monumentally happier task of considering your acceptance letters. Maybe you know right away which school to choose. If so, fantastic! Go ahead and skip to step 4. If not, it’s list-making time. Create pro/con and comparison lists for every school you are still considering. Be brutally honest: Lying to yourself now will only make you miserable later. Be sure to consider everything, every factor: location, cost, aid, areas of study, extracurricular programs, study abroad options, size, school colors–everything. This is a big decision that no one can successfully make for you. Don’t be rash. Take your time and follow your gut reactions. If you can, do this with someone: a parent, sibling, friend, creepy neighbor–it’s all good. It’s nice to have someone to bounce your notions off of, even if they don’t actively contribute to the decision-making process.
Once you’ve chosen a school, send the enclosed reply cards (or original letters) of thanks but decline for offers from the schools you will not be attending. Then tear up the letters. Recycle them. Don’t dwell. Turn to the papers from your new school, and follow their instructions to accept their offer and claim your financial aid.
Jump Up and Down and Smile A Lot Because You Are Soon to Be a College Student
Schedule a Visit
Visit your chosen college again, this time as a future student. Ask the new questions you have. Check out the dorm rooms and the cafeteria. Start getting used to the campus as your new home.
Go Home and Enjoy the Rest of Your Senior Year, and Get Ready for College In the Fall!