College Applications 101: 5 Things Every Student Needs to Know
By Janna M. Hall | CEO, Leap Innovative Group
As a high school student, changing your classification to “upperclassman” is a significant milestone, regardless of what school you attend. You’ve risen to the top of the proverbial totem pole, and the finish line in clear view makes the final years both exciting and bittersweet. Yes, you’re one step closer to freedom from grade school, but that newfound freedom also means you’ll soon bid adieu to friends who’ve become family.
For students who have their sights set on higher education, the real work begins. You’re tasked with making up for grades negatively impacting your GPA, and you’ve got to answer the biggest question of your entire high school career: Which college am I going to?
The selection and application process have proven to add additional layers of stress, but with proper education and preparation, you can get through it and emerge a victorious college-bound student.
Kree Small is a dual-enrolled Senior at Open High School and Associate’s degree candidate at J. Sargent Reynolds Community College. In addition to the stress of pursuing a diploma and degree simultaneously, she’s also completed the college application process and has been accepted into six colleges across Virginia and North Carolina. Through it all, she’s learned five key lessons that are sure to help rising seniors everywhere make their journey a breeze.
College Essays: Work smarter, not harder.
College essays are an integral part of the application process; they’re your chance to shine and show admissions advisors what you’d bring to the university outside of your academic abilities. Most essays are centered on your storytelling abilities and encourage you to share moments of personal development and provide in depth looks into your personality. Essays are your prime opportunity to sell yourself as not only a stellar student, but a well-rounded individual who will undoubtedly make the campus a better place for all students.
Many students get intimidated by the essay portion of college applications, stressing about creating different ones for each application. Kree says this is a common mistake that many can avoid with one simple word: Tweak!
“I learned that most colleges use similar prompts for their essay portion, so take the time out to create a strong essay or personal statement and tweak where necessary,” she advises. “I looked for differences in each prompt, and then removed or added paragraphs to support my main points. You’ll spend so many hours writing essays if you think you need a brand new one each time.”
She also encourages students to devote time to perfect their submissions. “Get a second or even third pair of eyes to edit your essay,” she says. “You want to make sure you’re submitting something strong, so cover all your bases to make sure you’re on point with grammar and most importantly, impact. Advisors, mentors, and even parents can be a huge help. Whenever you tweak your essay, call on someone to make sure it’s still good quality.”
Nearly all colleges require transcripts, letters of recommendation, personal essays, test scores, FAFSA documents, and application fees. Create a college application checklist and get to work early on securing everything you’ll need. Stay up-to-date on deadlines, and revisit your checklist and calendar every day to make sure you’re on track. If there’s something you’re depending on someone other than yourself to provide—such as school transcripts or letters of recommendation—start that process early and give yourself a nice cushion should schedules get busy or transcripts are hard to obtain.
“You know ahead of time when you’ve got to submit your requirements, so proper planning is key to make the application process a smooth one,” says Kree. “Decide early on who you’ll get to write your letters of recommendation, and then take time to cultivate a genuine relationship with them. Putting someone on the spot to do a last-minute review won’t work in your favor.”
Apply, Apply, Apply.
When deciding which schools you’ll apply to, allow yourself space to change your mind. Sure, you’ve got your list, and the schools your best friend plans on attending, but the path you want at the beginning of the year may very well change towards the end.
“There’s so much that happens in a year,” Kree warns. “You grow and mature, friendships end, new friendships begin, and your career aspirations change. Your dream school may not offer you any money, while #6 on your list may give you a lot. There’s so many factors you should consider when applying, and if you box yourself in and only apply to a few schools, you don’t give yourself room to change your mind.”
Kree’s advice? Pick your top three schools, then add at least four more in-state and out of state options.
Most colleges offer what’s called Early Action, meaning you submit your application and all materials before the regular deadline. Kree says Early Action is the best method; you not only hear back earlier from schools, but you’re also able to reroute your college plan should a school send a rejection letter.
“I love Early Action because you submit around November, and you can hear back from the school sooner because they don’t have a huge pile of applications to go through,” she says. “And a bonus benefit is that even if you’re denied early acceptance, you’re thrown into the pool with regular admission students, so it’s almost like you get two opportunities to apply to a school.”
Unlike Early Decision, Early Action is non-binding.
Follow your own path.
In high school, it’s normal to want to continue on your life path with the friends you’ve made over the past four or more years. With so much college talk filling classrooms, cafeterias, and locker rooms, it’s tempting to base your decision on where the crew is headed. Even still, it’s critical that you make your decision for you and your desired career path, not your friends.
“To be honest, I hear so many adults saying that most people you meet in high school will remain just that—high school friends,” says Kree. “I asked my mentor and teachers how many friends they still have from high school, and they all said either a handful or none. I realized then that I shouldn’t follow the crowd. The friends I’ve made in school will remain my friends regardless of which college I attend, so I need to make my decision based on the career I want.”
That remains her advice to anyone embarking on the college application process: Chase your career, not your friends. You’ll make new friends wherever you go, friends with whom you’ll develop a real bond because of shared interests, views, and passions. Decide which areas interest you, then choose your school accordingly. Lastly, Kree also offers some final advice for Juniors and Seniors embarking on this exciting journey:
“Don’t forget that you’re still a high school student. Classes don’t stop, and teachers don’t ease up on you just because you’re applying for schools. You still have tests, you still have finals, and colleges do expect to see your final grades. Keep pushing until you walk across that stage.”