American colleges are growing more competitive and costly every year, and the pressure is rising for students who hope to continue their educations beyond high school.
Getting into college is rarely as easy as turning in an application to one or two schools. Shrewd students begin preparing for college years before it’s time to apply — sometimes as early as middle school. The application process can be intimidating, but with proper preparation and support from family, students will find themselves ripping open acceptance letters in no time. This guide outlines some great online resources that can help you navigate this process.
I. Setting a Firm Foundation
Having a firm foundation of good grades, diverse coursework, volunteer projects, and extracurricular activities will help a student stand out from the crowd. Following are a few things to think about:
- How early is too early to start planning for college? This comprehensive guide from the U.S. Department of Education suggests starting as early as elementary school to instill a love of learning in children — and to start a college fund.
- While early planning is critical, there are options available if you get a late start. This article outlines what you can do even if you haven’t thought about college until your senior year of high school.
- You don’t have to be an insider to know what admissions counselors are looking for in applicants. This CollegeData article shares what matters most to colleges.
- The classes a student takes in high school will be factored into their college application. Choosing advanced and honors classes, accelerated sequences, and challenging electives clearly show that a student is serious about their education and prepared for the challenges of a college course load. For example, here’s what Harvard University expects of its applicants.
- Whether a student plays sports, performs in the marching band, writes for the school newspaper, or all of the above, extracurricular activities show that they’re well-rounded and motivated, with the ability to manage their time — a very attractive quality for potential college students. USA Today illustrates the power of extracurricular activities.
- High schoolers may think social media sites are simply a place to interact with friends, but an increasing number of colleges are factoring students’ social media activity into their decisions. Read this article for a few cautionary tales. Remember, what you post matters — the internet is forever!
II. Standardized Test Prep
Standardized tests are often one of the most dreaded parts of the college application process — trying to keep the PSATs, ACTs, PLANs, SATs and AP exams straight is enough to give anyone a headache. However, with the right preparation, students can pass these hurdles without breaking a sweat. Some useful tools include:
- Understanding if you should take the SAT or ACT is an important step. Different students test better on different tests and virtually all schools accept either. Review this information to decide which is optimal for you.
- Knowing exactly when students will be taking each test — and planning accordingly — is a powerful way to stay calm and have plenty of time to prepare. Here’s a basic outline of when most standardized tests are given. This also allows students the ability to re-test prior to applications being due, if needed.
- Standardized tests require a high level of preparation. Here are some basic tips for being ready.
- Many students experience test anxiety. Here’s an article with some simple ideas for coping.
III. Finding Your Dream School
Many factors come into play when choosing colleges, including location, price, academics, and culture. There’s often a debate over public or private and big versus small schools. It’s important to target a range of safety schools, reach schools, and “good match” schools to increase acceptance chances. Applying to just one “dream school” is never a good idea. Some ways to jumpstart your search include:
- Before you start the school search, peruse this guide to help identify which factors are most important to you. This can help you target your search more effectively.
- Most experts recommend applying to five to seven colleges. This article explains why.
- Wondering where a school ranks? Browse this list of rankings from Forbes.
- Touring colleges is an essential part of the school selection process. This article includes tips for making the most of your campus tour.
- For some students, working closely with a school guidance counselor can help in the college decision process. Here are 10 questions you should ask your high school counselor sooner rather than later.
IV. The Application Process
College applications require a serious time commitment, so it’s a good idea to start early. Following are a few of the steps for you to look into as you begin the application process:
- Application deadlines vary from school to school, but you can use a general timeline to help stay on track throughout high school — and avoid missing deadlines. This article offers a basic timeline for applying to college.
- Don’t get caught at the last minute scrambling for lost documents. Here’s what you need to have on hand for most college applications.
- College application essays are one of the most time-consuming and challenging parts of applying to college. Check out the blog at EssayEdge for advice on writing a winning essay that will make you stand out from the crowd.
- The Common Application is accepted by more than 400 schools. Here’s what you need to know about it. Additionally, here’s what not to do on the common app.
- If you catch a college recruiter’s eye, you may be invited in for an interview. This article outlines the dos and don’ts of college interviews.
- Figuring how to stand out is critical to succeeding in today’s competitive environment. You need something to find your X factor that will make you jump off the page of your application.
V. Financial Aid
College is more expensive than ever before. According to The College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2013–2014 school year was $30,094 for private colleges and between $8,893 and $22,203 for public colleges (depending on residency). And it’s still going up — studies show that college costs are rising at the average rate of 5 to 8 percent each year.
Still, college isn’t just a luxury for the lucky one percent. Scholarships, grants, and financial aid are available to make college a reality for anyone; you just have to understand how to work the system. Links below offer you some useful information on the financial aid and scholarship process:
- Learn the lingo of financial aid options in order to avoid being overwhelmed. This article lays out the basics.
- These tools will help you figure out how much college will cost, how much you need to save, and how much financial aid you may be able to receive.
- In recent years, some aspects of scholarship search have dramatically changed. This article outlines some tips/tricks to finding relevant or less obvious scholarship opportunities.
- The Free Application for Student Aid — a.k.a. FAFSA — is the largest provider of student aid in the country. Here’s where you can find information about applying.
- Many students go through their four years of college without really considering the financial burden they’ll be under once they graduate. Make sure you fully understand student loans before making major financial commitments.
- Want to know how to get scholarships? Here are some helpful tips. Other places to find scholarship information include guidance counselors, community organizations, and individual colleges.
VI. The Acceptance Letter and Beyond
Congratulations! You’ve received your long-awaited college acceptance letter. Now what? Get ready for the next few months — and in fact the next four years — to be a blur. Here’s some information about what to do next:
- How to choose between multiple admissions offers? Weighing options for similar types of schools can seem difficult. Here are some tips on how to pick the right school after acceptance.
- The summer before heading to college is an incredibly exciting time. What should you do with those three months? Here are some dos and don’ts of how to manage the time until the start of college.
- Now that you’re in college, choosing your course load is entirely up to you. Here’s a guide to selecting your first semester of courses.
- What do you really need to bring to college? Use this checklist to help you think of items you may not have remembered — but don’t go overboard. They probably have Target where you’re going to school.
- Your freshman year roommate can end up being your best friend or your worst enemy. Here are some tips for getting along with the stranger you’ll be sharing a room with for the next year.
As stressful as the college application process can be, take heart in knowing that you’re embarking on a new and exciting adventure — and this is just the beginning!