Maybe when I look back on this whole thing years from now, it won’t seem like the single most stressful event of my entire life. But right now, in the midst of it, that’s certainly how things feel.
Applying to college is the bane of high school seniors everywhere, the horrific barrier to be crossed before one reaches the much lusted after experience of college itself. There are a thousand questions to be asked, and sometimes it’s hard to know where one should go to find the answer. Although I cannot say I have been accepted into any colleges yet, I have some advice on the process for both those in the thick of it and those who want to get a head start.
Step 1: Find out which colleges you want to apply to.
It is best to start this step early on, at the very least by the middle of junior year. Some good criteria for choosing the college right for you is the programs they offer, the location (urban, college town, rural as well as things like weather), size of the school, how much they focus on undergraduates versus graduates, and the social scene. The formers can mostly be found online, but for trying to get the “feel” of a school, Princeton Review’s Best 361 Colleges is a highly useful tool which can be checked out from your library. Another thing to consider is unfortunately, how likely you are to get into a school. There’s nothing wrong with having “reach” schools which may have standards a little above what you’ve got to show them, but if a school’s average GPA and SAT scores are way above anything you’ve accomplished (like say, 300 points above), it’s best not to waste your time. If you don’t know what you want to do with your life yet, it’s best to choose a large school with lots of options so you can try things out before settling on a discipline.
Step 2: Take the standardized tests and the challenging classes.
I only know of one college that doesn’t require the SAT or ACT with writing, so you’re going to have to take them sometime. The middle or end of junior year tends to be a good time to take your first one. Test scores are not the be all end all of your application (plenty of 2400 scorers have been rejected from Ivy League schools), but they give colleges an idea of how well you are likely to perform, and therefore whether you seem ready to take on the level of work given at their institution, so it’s good to try your best. Studying from one of the many review books available certainly doesn’t hurt, though I’ll admit some amount of suspicion of those “SAT Prep” courses—the people I know who’ve taken them say they don’t help much. Also, it’s best not to take the SAT more than three times; studies have shown that scores inevitably continue to drop from there. Also check out if the schools you’re thinking about applying to require SAT IIs. These are subject tests on a variety of topics (US History, Biology, Math, Literature, and many more). Choose ones that you think will do well on. If you’re taking an AP class junior year which matches with one of the SAT IIs, I would suggest taking them in June, right after you’ll have already studied for the AP exam.
What colleges most want to see is that you’ve challenged yourself in school. They’ll be given a “school summary” which tells them the highest level courses available for you to take and then look at your transcript to see if you’ve been taking them. You don’t need to take AP everything and kill yourself, but you should take as many as you think you possibly can without totally damaging your grades. Colleges would rather see an AP “B” than a standard level “A.”
Step 3: If possible, visit some colleges.
It’s good to do this the summer after your junior year or the fall of your senior year. Visiting a college can give you a better idea of what the campus and student life is like. A good litmus test is you can “picture yourself” being a student on that campus. All colleges offer tours and information sessions almost daily, and some may even have other opportunities like visiting a class or eating lunch with a student.
Step 4: Start applying.
This really is the hardest part. Start the summer before senior year if at all possible. Many schools use the online Common Application, which lets you use the same basic information for every school you’re applying to. However, most Common App schools also have a supplement. For North Carolina students CFNC.com can be a big help— like Common App it applies your basic information to all your schools and also allows you to send transcripts to North Carolina schools for free. For some schools, like UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State, it is best to use the online application provided on their website.
Some schools may only want information about your academics and activities, but others require five or six 200 word essays. It’s good to pace yourself; fill out all the easy information first, then move on to the harder stuff, one section at a time. With essays, be sure to get another person (like your English teacher, parents tend to be a bad idea) to look over it and give suggestions. Essays are meant to show who you are to the college, beyond your grades and extracurriculars. I’ve been told by various admissions officers to give the essay to my best friend through a third party mediator and if they can tell it was written by me, it’s a good essay.
You are also going to need recommendations, most likely from two teachers and a counselor. The counselor can be tricky if you go to a big public school like me, typically they will set up an interview to help them write their recommendation. For the teachers, try to choose core teachers from your junior or senior year who you think really know you well. Then politely ask them for a recommendation. Try to do this early on in the year or over the summer, because teachers tend to get swamped with requests and eventually have to start denying people.
I hope this helpful to anyone confused about the college application process. Good luck to all of you.