Top Tips for Applying to Big Colleges

It's easy to fall through the cracks when applying to large public colleges. One high school senior offers his top tips to help students navigate the process and stand out among the tens of thousands of other applicants.

When they start searching for colleges, many high school students follow the phrase “the bigger the better.” A large public university offers state-of-the-art facilities, hundreds of diverse student organizations, and an alumni base that expands throughout the world. Big schools will often dominate entire cities with their school colors, and on game days you get to join in the energy of tens of thousands of fellow students and fans. There are many appealing aspects of large colleges. After all, there is a reason they are so big—a lot of people want to go there!

However, their size also brings considerable downsides. The largest institutions often have trouble accommodating their enormous student bodies, and it can be easy to fall through the cracks. This especially affects the application process.

The college I will be attending in the fall, The University of Texas at Austin, is notorious for having an unaccommodating application process. Clocking in at over 50,000 students with more than 30,000 applications every year, this is understandable. Although their admission department does an exceptional job “making a big school feel small,” as they like to say, it is impossible for them to personally accommodate each of the thousands of applicants from across the country. As a result, applicants can feel left in the dark both before and after they hit the “Submit” button.

These are the things I have learned by applying to one of the largest schools in the country, and I hope they will help you too.

Once you hit “Submit,” the application process might not be over

Pay close attention to the applicant Web page the school will undoubtedly send you a link for after you apply. UT, for example, has their “My Status” page, which they require applicants to log in to after submitting their application through Apply Texas. They do this so applicants can fill out a list of classes they have taken in high school to make sure they have completed the courses required of their students. This step is mandatory for admission, but it is not made clear that you have to do it. I have two friends who were unaware of this step and only found out that they had to do it after UT’s December 1 application deadline. As a result, their applications were rejected.

My friends lost out on one of their top college choices because of a lack of clear communication in the application process. Don’t make the same mistake. After hitting “Submit,” stay on top of your application. Check the Web pages, check for communication from the college every day, and call your admission representative if you have any doubts.

Don’t do the bare minimum

Admission counselors for large schools deal with tens of thousands of applicants every season. The sad truth is, colleges will not spend much time poring over every nuance of your application, and four years of hard work is often boiled down to a number of minutes. Even large schools that boast of a “holistic review process” use an evaluation process designed for efficiency. Because of this, they are not going to remember the vast majority of applicants simply because there are so many—so you need to do everything you possibly can to stand out.

Related: Admission Officers’ Secrets to Standing Out in Your College Essay

If a college says something is “optional,” it isn’t. If something is “recommended,” consider it mandatory. For example, UT requires applicants to turn in two essays, but Apply Texas allows applicants to upload essays for all three prompts offered. When there are extra drop boxes that allow you to bolster your application even more, do not leave any empty—even if they say they are not required. They are opportunities for you to show off more of yourself. I had to go through the incredibly competitive non-automatic admission process for UT, and I am quite sure that going above and beyond by writing all three essays made me stand out as an applicant.

Visit, visit, visit

There are many advantages to visiting schools multiple times, and this is especially true for the biggest schools. Large schools have so many unique facets that it is impossible to get a feel for them in one visit. Visit often, and focus your visits on different aspects of the school. Go to informational sessions, sure, but the real way to find out whether a school is a good fit for you is to actually live it. Go to games to immerse yourself in the student body, spend a day in the city to get a feel for the environment, and sit in on classes if you can. If you have friends attending the university, ask them if they can show you around, take you to classes, and take you through a day as a student. Every student has a different experience at a large university, so the best way to find out what it will be like is to actually act as one. General information sessions only go so far. And that being said…

Focus on your specific college

While the general informational sessions you will undoubtedly be invited to are a good starting point, it is also helpful to attend smaller open houses for the specific college to which you are applying. For example, I applied to the Moody College of Communication and the College of Liberal Arts within the University of Texas, and I found the sessions specifically tailored to those schools to be much more relevant and informative. After all, I am going to be spending the majority of my time within those colleges. Much of the general information UT provides at introductory informational sessions was not nearly as relevant to me.

Additionally, often the people who review your application are from the specific schools to which you are applying, not the university as a whole. Making an effort to get to know the faculty of your specific college is not only much easier than trying to stand out among the whole university’s applicant pool, but it can leave an impression on the actual people who will be reading your application. This is also a reason why you will want to target your essays and résumé to your specific schools. In addition to explaining why you will be a good fit for the university as a whole, explain how you think that college specifically will help you as well. I applied as a Journalism and International Relations dual-major, so I made sure to put my relevant experience in student media, speech and debate, and the Model UN at the top of my résumé, and I highlighted my involvement in these activities in my application essays.

Hopefully my experiences will help you navigate the maze of large school applications so you won’t make the same mistakes that many of my friends did. Good luck and Hook ‘Em!

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About Ryan Chandler

My name is Ryan and I'm a senior at St. Thomas in Houston. At St. Thomas, I serve as the Student Body President, I'm a state-champion speaker on the speech and debate team, and I run cross-country because I can't play any sports that require hand-eye coordination. In my free time (whatever that is), I've been known to play a mean guitar and spend all of my money on concert tickets. Next year, I can't wait to study Journalism at the University of Texas in the greatest city in the country, Austin. Hook 'em.


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