How to Apply for College: What to Do and When

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Applying to college might seem like a complicated task, but like so many other things, it’s really just a series of small steps that all need to come together in the right way. The first step is to understand what you’re looking for in a college, and the kinds of colleges that are out there. Visiting college campuses is a great way to add to that knowledge, and those visits help you understand all the information the college needs to know about you as part of the application process. After taking the required tests and sharing some insights into who you are by writing any required personal statements, you submit your application, and then go back to making the most out of high school, keeping an eye on your email in case the college needs any additional information about you before making a decision on your application.

1. College Readiness & College Awareness

In the last section, we talked about all the things you can do in high school to be ready to make the most out of college. Taking good classes, developing strong study skills, and learning more about the world through extracurricular activities and community service give you a clearer understanding of your interests and skills, and offer some strong insights into what you might want to do with your life once high school is over. This kind of knowledge is called college readiness, and it’s one of the most important parts of making the most from college, and earning your college degree.

This section is going to focus on a very small set of skills needed to make a college choice that matches up with your goals, skills and interests. College awareness is the understanding of what kinds of college options are out there, and how to apply to college. It’s likely you’ve heard a great deal about the steps involved with college awareness, since social media spends a lot of time talking about how stressful applying to college can be, and high school seniors talk an awful lot about how much time college applications can take up.

Before we talk about the specific parts of college awareness, it’s important to understand two things about applying to college. First, most colleges admit nearly two-thirds of the students who apply for admission. Your social media accounts may focus on the few schools where getting admitted is challenging, but these schools are in the minority. For most schools, if you apply on time, submit all the required information, and have strong grades, your chances of admission are really very good.

Second, while some seniors spend a lot of time talking about how hard it is to apply to college, they don’t really feel that way once they’re through applying. Sure, it isn’t easy to find time to complete your applications while you’re busy doing your homework and participating in activities like homecoming. But when it comes to the actual task of applying, you’re providing the college with some pretty basic information — your name, address, the school you attend, your senior-year schedule. That means applying itself isn’t hard, but finding the time to apply might be. We’ll talk about that later.

2. College Knowledge

At some point in your life, you’ve gone shopping for clothes. Whether you shop because you love it, or you shop just because you have to, a successful clothes shopping trip is based on two key pieces of information — what you like to wear, and the kind of clothes available at the different stores.

Knowing what you’re looking for, and where you can find it, makes clothes shopping a more enjoyable experience — and the same is true for finding a college. Through all you’ve learned and experienced in school and in life, you have some good ideas about the way you learn, and where you feel comfortable. Finding a college that’s right for you combines those two qualities: a place that gives you the opportunity to learn more about yourself and what you’re interested in, that also challenges you while offering you the right amount of support. Even if you don’t know what you want to major in as a college student, you do have some ideas about how you like to learn, and what you like to learn. That’s more than enough to begin a strong college search.

The good news is, you don’t start a college search with a blank slate. You may have friends, parents, or teachers who have talked to you about what college has meant to them. You may love to spend Saturdays watching the big games on TV. You may have taken a field trip or summer class at a local college that you just loved, or been inspired by a celebrity who talked about their college experience at a concert you went to. No matter where you live, it’s likely you’ve had exposure to conversations and experiences about college.

Now it’s time to take those experiences and perceptions for a test drive. Ninth- and tenth-graders can begin to develop their college knowledge by taking what’s called the gas tank tour. Most people in the US have a number of colleges that are within a day’s drive of where they live — and that’s where your tour begins. Big colleges, small colleges, colleges that focus on one or two majors, colleges where you can study everything, colleges in the city, colleges in the country — go and look at as many as you can, and write down what it feels like to be on that campus.

As you visit these campuses, you’re going to develop a better picture of what you’d like your college experience to be like. You may have started out looking for a school that has an active campus, and lots of school spirit — but once you’ve visited a few campuses, you now know you also want a school that offers lots of internships, or a chance to study in another country. You may have started your tour thinking you want to study history, but you also had the chance to sit in on a class in anthropology, and now that’s another interest. Where can you study both? You may have thought you wanted to go to a college that’s a long way away from home, but you’ve discovered a college that’s only an hour away that just feels right.

This is all part of the process of learning about the kinds of colleges that are out there, and there are two important rules to follow in your search. First, don’t worry if you don’t know everything you want in a college — especially your major. There are all kinds of factors that go into a good college decision — the size of the school, its location, the campus atmosphere, how far it is from home, how the food is, what the residence halls are like, what the other students are like. If you have some idea of what you want to study, that certainly can be part of the mix, but if you don’t, that’s fine too.

Second, don’t let your search be limited by the cost of the school. We’ll talk more about this in the next section, but there are ways to make what seems like an expensive school affordable. You also might visit the campus of a pricey school and decide that it’s not for you, but you might see something on your visit — a special program, or a student activity — that will give you more insights into what you’re looking for in a college. So keep looking.

There are lots of resources that can help you make the most out of a college visit. This video gives you a quick overview of what makes a good tour, while this one goes into more detail. This checklist can help you structure your visit, and gives you space on the back to write down your impressions of the school. It’s important to write down your thoughts as soon as you’re done visiting, and before you talk with your parents about the visit. That way, you can keep your opinions separate from theirs.

3. Learning More About Colleges

Once you have a few college visits under your belt, you can expand your college search beyond the campuses that are close to home. An online college search tool can provide you with all kinds of information about colleges throughout the world. Using the same qualities you used to choose which campuses to visit, you enter some basic information on what you’re looking for, and the search tool gives you a list of colleges to consider. You can then follow up these suggestions by visiting each college’s webpage. Some colleges even have virtual tours that allow you to get a glimpse of their campus.

Another way to bring distant colleges closer to you is to attend a college fair. Typically held in the spring or the fall, college fairs bring together dozens (sometimes hundreds) of colleges, where you can ask questions about their programs, campuses, financial aid, and more. This is a great way to learn about a lot of colleges at once. Following up with looking at their websites can give you some additional insights. Ask your school counselor for the schedule of college fairs near you.

One of the best ways to learn more about colleges is to attend a high school visit, where an admissions officer comes to your high school to talk to students about everything that college has to offer. These visits give you a chance to ask about issues that are important to you. It also gives you a chance to talk with the person who will probably read your application once you’ve submitted it. Talk about a great chance to make a positive impression! Some colleges will also offer sessions at a local hotel, where students from all the local high schools can learn more about the college. These meetings can draw quite a crowd, but they’re still worthwhile.

4. The Nuts and Bolts of Applying

As you approach the end of your junior year, the time will come for you to put together a list of colleges you’d like to apply to. For most students, this will be a list of about 4–6 colleges, and will include a couple of schools where most students are admitted with the same kind of grades you’ve earned, as well as a couple of colleges where you won’t be relying too heavily on receiving a lot of financial aid. Your list will grow and change, but it’s good to have a strong starter list by February of your junior year.

In getting ready to apply to these colleges in the fall of senior year, there is some information many schools will want you to have ready. Every school will want a copy of your transcript, or a record of the grades you’ve earned in your high school classes. That’s available through your high school records office or counselor, and the school usually sends that directly to the college.

Test Scores

Many colleges will also ask you to take a college entrance examination, and send those scores to them. The two most popular college tests are the ACT and the SAT, and while they both measure what you’ve learned in high school, they do have some important differences. Nearly every college that wants tests scores will let you submit either the ACT or the SAT, so which one you take is up to you–and you can take both.

Most students will take the ACT and SAT early in the second semester of their junior year, leaving room to take the test a second time in May or June, or even in the late summer before senior year starts. Many students prepare for these tests by taking a test preparation class, or using free online resources to study for the ACT or the SAT.

A handful of colleges will also ask you to take SAT subject tests, which measure what you know in specific subjects you’ve studied in high school. If a college asks you to take these, it’s best to take them at the end of junior year.

Letters of Recommendation

Grades and test scores tell a college about what you’ve learned, but they don’t really say all that much about how you’ve learned. That’s why many colleges will ask students to have a teacher write a letter of recommendation for them, describing what it’s like to work with that student in the classroom. This is one way for the college to know what kind of learner you are. Do you ask lots of questions, come to class prepared, take the lead in group activities, and show interest in learning?

Most colleges that ask for letters of recommendation will want one or two from teachers who worked with you in an academic subject in eleventh or twelfth grade. It’s a good idea to ask teachers for a letter of recommendation at the end of eleventh grade, since that gives them the summer to work on them. Make sure you choose a teacher who knows you well. If you’re just another face in the crowd, they probably can’t write a very good letter about you.

Personal Statement, or Essays

Many colleges will also want to hear from you. They’re eager to hear what you care about, what you think about, what experiences you’ve had that mean a great deal to you, and what you hope to do in college. Your grades show what you know, but your college essays show them who you are.

Most students will start working on their essays in the summer between junior and senior year. It’s important to think about what the colleges want to know about you, and to work with an adult who can offer suggestions on your writing. This can take some time, but it’s well worth it.

Other Information

Some colleges will also give you the opportunity to meet with an admissions officer or talk with them over the phone about your college plans. This interview is one of the best ways the college can get to know you, and understand why you’re interested in going there. Since interviews take a lot of time; not many colleges offer them, but if they do, it’s a very good idea to participate in one, and to make the most of the opportunity.

Some colleges will also give you the opportunity to submit a short video or portfolio. A video is a great way to bring the college into your world, and show them the life that you live, and what matters to you, while a portfolio gives you a chance to share examples of the work you’ve done in school and in life.

5. Conclusion

Social media gives us the feeling that applying to college is pretty close to impossible, but this section shows us that it’s really just a number of small activities that are pretty easy to do, with a little bit of planning, and a strong understanding of what you’re looking for in a college.

It’s important to remember to set aside time to where you focus on completing the actual application. For most students, the best way to do this is to complete your applications in August, before school starts. That way, you won’t have to worry about applying to college and keeping up with your homework at the same time.

If that schedule won’t work for you, then set aside an hour or two every weekend where all you do is work on college applications. That way, you can focus on being a student during the week, and still complete your college applications in a timely fashion.

Questions & Activities

Write down your ideal college. What does it look like? Where is it located? Besides studying, what would you like to do with your free time when you’re on campus? What are the other students like? Is it close to home? Which of these things matters the most to you, and why?

Use this information to complete an online college search, and follow that up by looking at the websites of a couple of colleges that came up on your search. What other information would you like to know about these colleges before you decide if they’re for you? Where could you find that information?

Talk to two of your teachers about their college experience. Where did they go? Why did they go there? If they had it to do over again, what might they do differently?

Ask the same questions to a couple of students when you visit a college campus. What do their answers tell you about your college search?

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