If you’ve clicked on this article, you’re likely a high school student heading into your senior year, and if you’re anything like me during that time of my life, you’re scratching your head wondering how in the world you’re going to approach the monolith that is the college application process. Never fear, here are a few tangible tips and strategies to hopefully give you an idea of where and how to start.
Many of these tips come from what I wish I would’ve done, what I did that worked, and advice I received from others that helped guide me through the process. Before we begin though, I must say that everyone finds that certain strategies work best for them, so feel free to take or leave my advice.
1. Do your research
Conveniently this is the first tip, reinforcing the idea that this is where you should begin. Do your research! This is something that I wished I had done more of. The very first step you should take when beginning the application process is to make a list of all of the colleges you want to apply to (this list can change as you go along, but it’s good to get an idea of what you’re getting yourself into before you start).
Before you add a college to your list, do some digging on its practicality for you—is it actually affordable? No, really, even with the financial aid they offer, will you be able to pay for it? If the answer is no, eliminate it from your list. Also look into whether they have an undergraduate program that fits your chosen career path, because major and program options vary from school to school.
Be stingy with your talents and only share them with the school that can help you get to where you envision yourself in ten years. Don’t just add a college to your list just because you like how its name would sound on your resume (I’m definitely guilty of that).
2. Applications cost money and time
Do yourself a favor and check the application fee for the schools you have on your list—it’s probably going to be higher than the number you’re imagining. Not only do individual schools charge an astronomical amount to merely submit an application, but College Boards CSS Profile; used for financial aid purposes at many institutions, also charges a fee to send your financial aid application to the schools of your choosing. Needless to say, the bill adds up quickly, yet none of it goes towards your tuition.
This is another moment where the phrase “be stingy” comes into play, since you’re paying such a weighty sum to apply to these schools. Be sure you pick places you can actually envision yourself living and learning at. Also, check and see when free application week is for your state as well as if you qualify for an application fee waiver. Use these opportunities to save some cash!
In addition to being financially costly, applications also cost quite a bit of time. Almost all of the more prestigious schools have additional essays required beyond just the standard personal essay. These are called supplemental essays, and they take lots of time to brainstorm ideas for, write, and edit. While some supplemental essay prompts are the same across schools, you still will be spending hours completing each application if you’re putting your best effort in. This is yet another reason why you should put a cap on how many schools you apply to.
I made the mistake of constantly adding schools to my list just because they sounded nice, and I found myself overwhelmed with the endless amount of essays I had heaped on top of the homework and extracurricular work I already had on my plate. Remember, senior year is probably going to be just as academically rigorous as your previous school years, unless you lessen your course load. Be kind to your future self by being smart in how much work you take on.
3. Prioritize college applications, not scholarship applications
This tip should be viewed subjectively based on your financial situation. I would recommend completing your college applications before looking at scholarship applications for a couple reasons. For one, the applicant pool for scholarships during the fall of your senior year is huge. If you wait until after Christmas when you’ve finished all your college applications, the applicant pool will be much smaller and you’ll have a much better chance of being chosen.
Secondly, there are tons of scholarships out there, so once you finish applying to schools, you’ll likely have an arsenal of essays at your disposal. You can choose scholarship applications with prompts that match with what you already have written, thus saving you lots of time.
I would prioritize your college applications during the fall semester unless there are some large scholarships that would make a significant dent in your tuition.
4. Apply early
There are several types of application deadlines that you should familiarize yourself with. I won’t explain them here because there are several complexities to each type, but what I will say is this: if a school that you are applying to has an early action deadline, apply early action! Firstly, you get that application off your plate early on in the process, which helps eliminate stress. Secondly, fewer people apply early action, so the applicant pool is smaller, thus increasing your chances of acceptance. Take advantage of these benefits by applying early!
5. Set aside time to work
As you’re trying to strategize on how you want to approach filling out your applications, I would recommend making a loose schedule for when you want to have certain elements of your applications completed. This is not something I did, but I sorely wish I had. Don’t be too strict on yourself in terms of meeting these deadlines. Instead, use them as a way to gauge your progress so that you stay on track.
I made the horrible, horrible mistake of procrastinating on my applications, and because of this, far too many essays were written the night before they were due. They didn’t turn out horrible, but they could have been better if I had carved out time to edit and revise them. Work in advance and do not procrastinate. I certainly do not recommend it.
I once heard another senior who had also just gone through the application process say that she carved out a couple of hours every Saturday morning to work on her essays, and I thought that was a great idea. You don’t have to put in a ton of time all at once as long as you work on them for short amounts of time consistently.
Preparing to Apply
Hopefully these tips give you some strategies you can use when getting started on your college applications. While the application process may seem scary, how it plays out is entirely up to you and your attitude. By working ahead and not procrastinating, you’ll avoid unnecessary stress, and by maintaining a positive attitude no matter the decision you receive, you’ll be able to maintain a level-headed perspective that will serve you and your mental health well.