The college application process is accompanied by so many feelings: stress, worry, excitement, anticipation, you name it. After all, you’re picking a new home away from home. Looking back on my college application process, I could describe it in so many ways. It involved extensive research, imagining myself in a new environment, and thinking about what it would be like to leave my family behind.
There’s no doubt that students can be overwhelmed during this time. The idea of leaving high school and actually going to college soon can be striking! If you’re the first person in your family to go to college or don’t have any older siblings in college, you might have less knowledge of the process as well. So here’s some key advice related to the earlier steps in the college search and application process, plus what you need to remember after getting accepted. Hopefully this will help you become more comfortable and aware of all the different factors that are involved.
1. It’s all about you
One of the first things to point out is that college is about you, at least for now. It sounds selfish and possibly surprising, but you need to think about yourself and your future right now. Keep in mind that you are going to college to become a more educated individual, learn about life, meet new people that could end up being your best friends, and receive a degree that will ultimately help you provide for you and your family.
If you’re worried about leaving your family and going far from home, remember they will still be there. You’ll still be able to visit them, so don’t worry. By being away from your family, you’ll become a more independent individual. For quite some time, I thought I would go to a college relatively close to home, but I realized that it’s okay to be away from home. This is just another reason why Facetime exists.
2. Think about financial aid
Financial aid is a major factor to consider when applying to colleges and after getting accepted. Your goal throughout the application process is to reduce the cost of attendance as much as you can. This can be primarily done through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and scholarship applications available through the school(s) you are applying to.
It is very important to file the FAFSA online as early as possible (it opens on October 1) to secure the most aid possible, as grant money will decrease over time. Many high schools hold FAFSA sessions in which you can file the FAFSA with your parents and have the opportunity to get help during this process. When filing the FAFSA, you can select multiple universities, and your potential aid will be incorporated into all of them. Even if you’re unsure about whether or not you want to attend a certain college, there’s no harm in selecting it in your application.
Related: The Best FAFSA Advice and Resources
It can also be costly for many students to apply to college, as there are application fees (through the Common Application, Coalition Application, score reports, etc.). However, you shouldn’t completely eliminate a college choice because it’s too expensive. If your family is unable to send an application or an ACT/SAT score report to a college, ask if they can waive this fee. Most colleges will, so don’t let money deter you from applying to a college!
3. Take the college essay seriously
College essays can strengthen your overall application. When writing admission essays, take advantage of your school’s writing facilities. My school had college essay workshops in which teachers and staff would read my essays and give feedback. It’s always a good idea to have another person read your essays and give you suggestions. And remember that essays require a significant amount of thinking. It’s important to work a little bit on essays at a time instead of writing them all at once for each college. Colleges also appreciate essays that are creative. Creativity is more memorable and will make your essays stand out. In my opinion, the best way to begin an essay is to brainstorm any idea that comes into your mind and focus on the ideas you think will reflect who you are.
4. Visit your favorite schools
In terms of college visits, you should make sure you visit your top schools with your family. Imagine yourself in different scenarios, whether it be academic or social, and ask yourself if the college harmonizes with you. Try to ask students that go to your top colleges how they feel about it. Specifically, ask students within your major or planned area of study how they feel, how their classes are, and what campus life is like.
When I visited the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I wasn’t completely familiar with what campus life was like. However, after a few visits, I knew this was the college I wanted to attend. During registration day, I was told by a friendly upperclassman about how my professors for each of my classes were and got help in revising my schedule. In addition, the large quad, various buildings, and well-known achievements of the University further captured my interest.
5. Be aware of Early Decision
My last college application tip involves Early Decision deadlines. It’s important to apply Early Decision only if you are 100% confident that you want to attend that college and that it resonates with you. An Early Decision agreement is essentially a binding contract. Once you sign it, you are saying you will go to this university if you get accepted. If you aren’t sure whether or not you will attend a certain college, apply Early Action instead, as it’s non-binding but still shows the school that you’re interested.
Bonus tip: Picking your college classes
While I’ve focused primarily on the college application process, I also want to offer some advice on picking your college classes, which occurs during the summer right before freshman year begins. When determining what classes to choose, you will speak with an advisor in your planned area of study. The advisor will help you pick your classes and determine what credits you already have from AP tests in high school. You will then be able to make your schedule, perhaps with help from an upperclassman in your major.
I highly recommend asking any questions you have about your schedule, because they are there to help you. Don’t feel shy because, as I mentioned previously, this is about you. Your classes matter. Also, many classes can get filled on registration days, so I highly suggest planning what classes you want to take ahead of time and selecting an early registration time so you can simply choose them on registration day. You can check the requirements on your college’s website or in the booklets they provide you.
Related: How to Choose College Electives
These are just some of the important fundamentals of applying to colleges. I highly recommend meeting with your school’s college admission counselors to get more helpful feedback and advice for any questions you may have about college, including whether the school is right for you, your chances of getting accepted, financial aid, scholarships, or anything else that comes to mind. Also remember that communicating with your parents is an important, constant step in the application process. They can help guide you in making the right decision, but don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself.
It’s true that applying for college can get hectic. Yes, you will have homework due and other activities going on, but you must recognize that you are making a decision that is affecting you in the long run. It may seem like college is far away, but it’s really just around the corner. Devoting time early on to the application process will pay off in the end. You’ll be more knowledgeable, less overwhelmed, and on track to continue your journey.
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