Applying to College & What You Need to Know
It's that time of the year where high schoolers are beginning to think about college. Juniors are starting to do research for where they might want to apply and high school seniors are beginning to fill out those applications. I have received so many questions on applying to college and where to start -- this honestly is one of my most requested posts. I totally understand why! I was lucky enough that I had two older sisters to go to to ask for help when it came to applications but, if you have nobody to turn to for guidance, college applications can be so confusing. This post isn't going to answer every single question about applying to college and if it doesn't address a specific question you may have, go to my contact page and shoot me an email. I would love to talk all about applications with you!
The first thing that you should know as a senior applying to college is that if you don't feel prepared or don't know where to start, you're not alone. There are so many kids still deciding on where to even apply to and some are still in the process in deciding if college is the right path for them. If you do choose that higher education is the road you want to go down, here's some information for you.
Start Researching -- If you don't know where you want to go, start researching early. Google and college and university websites have all the answers to your questions regarding majors offered, housing, tuition costs, college size, location, and extracurriculars. It will also give you all of their statistics when it comes to the average GPA they want, SAT scores, and classes required.
Don't Overlook In-State Schools -- I know the idea of going super far from home and branching out sounds so appealing (it did for me) but the truth of the matter is, homesickness is real for almost every college kid. If you live 12 hours away, sometimes it's tough to come home on a whim. I challenge you to look into your in-state universities. Virginia for example has some incredible in-state schools that offer almost every major. We have UVa, JMU, Virginia Tech, Christopher Newport, Longwood, Redford, Old Dominion, William and Mary and so many more! Not only is it cheaper, but it's closer to home.
Be Organized -- Once you figure out where you want to apply, I suggest making a spreadsheet in Excel with all of that schools information. This way you can go to your parents or guidance counselor with everything you need to help you make the decision. I did this when I applied and it came in handy more than a handful of times. Below is an example of what I put on my college spreadsheet to help me narrow down decisions. I also found this great college checklist that covers everything from the application, to fees, transcripts, essays, and recommendations and the final decision.
Take Tours -- Taking a tour of the college campus can completely change the way you look at the campus. It could change it for the better or could convince you to go elsewhere. Either way, you don't want to miss out on an amazing school or you don't want to get there as a freshman and realize you don't enjoy it. You can start taking a tour of the school as early as a freshman or sophomore in high school too, you don't have to wait until you're a senior. ALSO, if you are ever touring JMU, message me or email me and I would love to answer your questions about the school. I met a ton of you this past school year and I loved answering your questions about the university.
ALL ABOUT APPLYING
Start August First -- The Common App opens up on August 1st and I would suggest filling out the application as early as possible. Other schools that aren't on the Common App also open up on August first but it's a lot to tedious questions you have to answer so the earlier you start, the better. You can save the application as you go, to even if you fill out a few pages a day starting early will still be super helpful.
What is the Common App -- The Common Application is an online website that makes applying to multiple colleges easy. It's one big application that is submitted to multiple colleges at once. It asks you all of the basic information like your address and family information and you write your essays on here too. The Common App will have one generic essay that all colleges will receive and depending on what colleges you decide to submit your Common App to, you might have additional essays as well. This site is super organized and it keeps your due dates, extra information you need, and collects your teacher recommendations for you as well. It keeps all of your paperwork together which is extremely nice too. You can find the common application here.
Non Common App Applications -- Not every school will be on the Common App. Three of my seven had their own application through their website. When I applied to JMU, Virginia Tech, and Florida State I had to go to their website, make an account and fill out their application. If this happens to you, make sure to save all of your passwords first. Write them down in one spot along with all of your other important college information. These applications are very similar to the Common App and I'm not entirely sure why colleges choose to not be on the Common App, but nevertheless, they aren't and you just need to fill out their personal app. These schools will also have personal essays tailored to the university. Remember that when it comes to decision time, you will be asked to log into this same account in April to reveal your decision so make sure you write it down!
Teacher Recommendations -- When it comes to asking for recommendations I would ask two people in addition to your guidance counselor. I asked my favorite teacher, one that I had for two different classes with and sponsored a club I was in as well. I then asked my tennis coach because he knew me throughout all of high school and knew me as a team leader and athlete really well. It was a different "out off classroom" dynamic to add to my application. If you choose a teacher, make sure it is one that you're close with and one that has helped you throughout your high school career. These letters of recommendations are so the admissions offices can get to know about you as a person rather than as a grade or SAT scores. Make sure to send a thank you letter to those who write you a recommendation as well!
The Essays -- Colleges read thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of admissions of essays a year. This is another branch of your application that will help you stand out from the rest and will give the admissions offices a better concept of who you are off of paper. My main advice is to write something memorable. If you are a strong writer you can sometimes make your essay satirical or dramatic but either way, it needs to be something that will stand out. I remember in one I wrote about my blog and how it completely changed my life. In another, I wrote how a Lilly Pulitzer dress can be compared to humanity as a whole. Make sure to get a few sets of eyes to read over and edit your essays. Ask them to be brutally honest with you and put their criticism towards your essay -- you'll be better off if you do. My english teacher edited both of mine as well as my sister (who was an english major). Be creative, be you, and be memorable.
Sending Transcripts -- The way transcripts are sent changes from high school to high school but the way most schools do it, is the high school you attend will mail them out for you. My high school charged $5 for each individual college that needed transcripts. So, if I applied to 5 schools it would cost $25 to send out my transcripts. I would talk to your counselor early and tell her when you need them sent out and where. Bring your counselor an already addressed and stamped envelope so all they have to do is print and insert the transcript and put the envelopes in the mail.
Save Everything -- There are so many steps to applying to college and a lot of them you have to rely on other people so it's important to save your application confirmation emails, your passwords, copies of your transcripts, essays, and teacher recommendations just in case anything gets lost in the mail or for some strange reason doesn't get sent to the college. Another reason to start early because if something does get lost you'll still have time to submit another around of applications or mail off more transcripts before the due date.
Talk to Your Guidance Counselor Often -- Getting on good terms with your guidance counselor is important in general, but it's especially important when it comes to applying to college. When your counselor gets to know you, she can better prepare you for application season, she can write you a more detailed recommendation letter, and will be more willing to help you in a time crunch.
Extra Documents -- Sometimes colleges will ask for supplemental documents that you have the option to submit. Meaning, you can choose whether or not you want to send certain documents. Some might be additional essays, and some colleges might even make SAT scores option as well. My advice would be to send as much as you can to colleges unless you know it will hurt your application.
You're a Number -- I hate to say this but, colleges look at you as a number. They will see you as a GPA, an SAT Score, and a class ranking. They don't see you as the class president, three sport athlete, or 90+ hours of community service teenager that you are. They are going to look at numbers before anything else. It is the extra stuff (essays and extra curricular activities) that they will look at to help decide whether to take you or another applicant with similar grades. Although yes, essays and out of school activities are important to an application, admissions offices will see you as a number and not as a human -- and it sucks. Just know that although the entire application is important, the first things that admissions will look at are your GPA, SAT score, ACT score, and sometimes class rank.
Early Action, Early Decision, or Regular Decision -- Before applying to college I had no clue what these terms meant and it's super important that you know the difference (especially between the first two). For both early action and early decision you apply to a college earlier in the year. You will submit the application, transcript, and recommendations around the end of October or November and you will hear a decision usually by January 3oth. Early decision application are binding meaning that if you get in you will be attending that school in the fall. If you choose not to attend, you have to usually pay a fee to turn down the offer from the college. Do not apply early decision to a school unless you know for sure if you get in that you will go there for college. Early action is when you apply to a college in November but the decision you receive in January is non-binding. You don't have to accept the offer from the school until typically May 1st. I applied to my safety school early action which took a huge weight off my shoulders because I knew I would at least end up going somewhere. It made waiting for my regular decision in April much less stressful. Regular Decision applications are usually due by February 28th and you don't hear if your accepted or denied (or waitlisted) until the end of April.
Financial Aid -- If you are like most Americans, when you apply to college you might need some financial help along the way. Private or public school, college is expensive especially your first year when you add dorm living and a meal plan on top of tuition it. Once you submit your application make sure to go to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid -- also known as FAFSA -- and start your app to quality for financial aid. You have to put in a lot of information based off of your families income, tax information, social security information, and the like and it can be super tedious. It's about 10 pages of monetary based questions so they can assess how much money to give you so I would suggest sitting down with your parents one day with all of your tax documents and fill it out in one sitting. I hate filling out financial aid information but it's something that pays off in the long run so make sure to do that early. Last year, my financial aid was screwed up and I didn't get mine straightened out until three days before leaving for school #crazystuffman. So make sure to start that as soon as you send your application off! You can find the financial aid website here.
The Waiting Game -- Enjoy this time. This is the time of your senior year when you don't have to worry about anything. You haven't heard back from schools yet and you can sit back and enjoy the last few months with your friends. I understand how stressful it can be when you are on edge about applications and decisions but just remember that God knows exactly what he's doing. This was a lesson that I didn't understand until second semester at JMU but He does know what He's doing. Trust in Him and everything will be alright.
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