The Top College Application Do's and Don'ts

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There’s a lot to keep track of when you’re applying to colleges. But these are the top, super-important, get-them-tattooed-on-your-arm-so-you-don’t-forget do’s and don’ts of the college application process. (Okay…maybe don’t get a tattoo.)

Do…

  • Get organized. When it comes to filling out your college apps, use checklists, spreadsheets, and calendars to keep track of all those moving parts. Make sure to include all of the various application elements required of each school, from recommendations to essays to application supplements. And perhaps most importantly, keep track of your deadlines!  
  • Stay on top of financial aid applications too. With all the hullabaloo about applying to college, it’s easy to forget that you need to file the FAFSA (ASAP after October 1!), apply for scholarships, and send in other financial aid forms…basically at the same time. Yet another reason why staying organized is clutch.
  • Read and follow the directions carefully. From sticking to given word counts to answering questions completely, you need to follow those application instructions to the letter. If not, you run the risk of looking careless at best and missing important academic or even financial aid opportunities at worst.
  • Take your time. Start your college applications well in advance of when they are due (look at your deadlines and work backwards). You need to submit your best work, and you can’t do that if you’re rushing to complete your apps the night before they’re due! Spreading the work out over time also makes the process much more manageable. Set aside a few hours each week to work on your college research and applications.
  • Answer all the “optional” application questions. They might be related to scholarships, placements, or special academic opportunities. Don’t miss out!
  • Review your application for errors. We’re talking everything from grammar and spelling mistakes to misunderstanding the directions. Carve out some time specifically for editing and carefully reviewing each page of your college apps—even the “easy” stuff like your name and address! It helps to give yourself some time (at least a few hours) before doing so too, so you have a fresh perspective.
  • Ask someone you know and trust to review your applications as well. Whether it’s an older sibling, friend who’s in college, mentor, parent, or favorite teacher, it helps to get another set of eyes on your applications before you send them in.
  • Check to make sure all application materials were received after you’ve sent them in. One missing piece can hold up your whole application. Many colleges and universities have online portals where you can track your application progress and ensure everything was received on time. If not, all you need to do is e-mail or call your admission counselor.
  • Get help if you need it. Your high school guidance counselor, admission reps, friends, family, teachers, and more are there to support you and answer your questions throughout the application process. And if you’re feeling especially overwhelmed, you can always call or text anonymous helplines like teenlineonline.org.
  • Apply for application fee waivers if you think you’ll qualify. The cost of sending in an application should never hold you back from your college ambitions. If you have questions or need help, talk to your guidance counselor, admission counselor, or perhaps even a college-related nonprofit like Bottom Line, College Possible, or QuestBridge (check your local area for similar programs).
  • Be courteous to admission reps. As noted above (multiple times), they are there to help you and happy to do so. But they’re also trying to support many students at once. Be mindful of their time, respectful, and patient.

Don’t…

  • Miss the deadlines. Seriously. Don’t do it. Those deadlines aren’t suggestions—they’re critical. And missing them can make the difference in getting into the college of your dreams, not to mention qualifying for scholarships or getting into certain academic programs. So send your college applications in ahead of the deadline by a couple weeks, which gives you time to fix any snafus if they arise.
  • Send copies—or originals!—of awards, plaques, or other tokens of participation or achievement. The list you inevitably include in your college application is sufficient.
  • Let your parents do it for you. College is your first step into responsible adulthood. That starts with the application process. Yet, admission counselors hear from plenty of concerned parents every year…which typically makes them wonder why the students aren’t getting in touch themselves. (And parents, if you’re reading this, we know you mean well. Try to remember that you’re helping your student in the long run by letting them do the hard work themselves while supporting them from the sidelines!)
  • Worry about applying to the “right” number of colleges. There is no magic number of schools you should apply to. Sure, five to seven is a pretty reasonable range, but the most important factor is whether or not every school on your final list meets your needs, has most of your “wants,” and is a good academic fit for you, ideally with a nice spread of safety, reach, and match schools. That all comes down to doing lots of college research and being honest about which schools really, truly fit you. That being said, if you’re thinking about applying to a very small or large number of schools, you may want to revisit your research. Ask yourself: Have I investigated my college options fully? Would I really be happy at every school on this list if they accepted me? Is this school actually a good fit for me?
  • Ask people who don’t know you well to write your college recommendations. Even if they’re VIPs like your state senator or the principal of your high school. Colleges want to see recommendations from people who can speak to your character, strengths, and interests—not an “impressive” name. Stick to the teachers, coaches, mentors, employers, club counselors, clergy, and others who can get the job done. Speaking of which…
  • Rush your recommendation writers. Give them at least a month or two to prepare, and even more time if you think they’ll get a lot of recommendation requests (like coaches). Try asking potential writers the spring of your junior year; then follow up with them over the summer or in early fall. Give them the names of the colleges you’re applying to, plus a copy of your résumé so they have an easy reference of all the amazing stuff you’ve been up to!
  • Stretch the truth. Ahem. Whether it’s exaggerating your involvement in an extracurricular activity or full-on fabrication, lying on your college applications is never acceptable. Admission reps know what to look for, and if you’re caught, you can kiss your scholarships, reputation, and, oh yes, chances of admission goodbye.
  • Forget to thank the people who helped you, from your high school guidance counselor to your recommendation writers and even admission representatives at the schools you turned down. A thank-you card or e-mail at the end of the application process is a meaningful gesture.
  • Lose sight of the big picture. Applying to colleges can be stressful, but it’s also an amazing opportunity and privilege. Furthermore, it’s only the first step down a long road of self-discovery, learning, and growth. Remember, where you end up going to college does not decide who you are or your self-worth. Only you can do that. And it starts right now.

Related: Don’t know where you’re going to apply? Find schools on CollegeXpress!

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