Ever since entering high school, you’ve focused your courses and activities on your college application. You took honors and Advanced Placement classes, you actively participated in several school clubs, you ran track, and you did quite a bit of community service. You have a respectable GPA and while you were disappointed in your SAT scores, they were fairly consistent with your grades.
Now that it’s actually time to apply, however, you realize that all this groundwork hasn’t prepared you for getting through this part of the process. There are so many colleges to consider, and you need some financial aid to defray the costs even if your family won’t qualify for need-based aid. Help!!
Many high school students find themselves in just this quandary at the end of their junior year. I’ve worked with kids like this for at least a dozen years, and here are seven of the most common questions I answer when meeting with families.
1. How Do I Get It All Done?
The college application process may seem overwhelming: You need to select schools to apply to; complete and submit the applications by various deadlines; send test scores, transcripts, and letters of recommendation; and apply for financial aid. And the rest of your life – school, work, extracurricular activities – doesn’t stop.
So, take a deep breath, develop a realistic schedule, and follow it!
An ideal timeline
Before the start of your senior year ...
- Determine the schools you want to apply to (more on this below).
- Complete the Common Application, including the essay.
- Try to complete as many applications to schools that don’t accept the Common Application as possible.
- Have a solid draft of each college’s supplemental essays for schools that require them.
Getting as much done before the start of your senior year is important because your first semester senior grades matter. Whatever you do, don’t let those grades slip!
In all likelihood, your teachers and counselors will ask you to submit requests for recommendation letters and transcripts as early as possible in your senior year. It’s easy to forget, but teachers and counselors are trying to help many students through this process and keep up with their other school responsibilities. So help them — and yourself — by getting your requests in as soon as school resumes in your senior year.
Early fall …
- Provide teachers and counselors with recommendation and transcript forms.
- Meet as many early action deadlines as possible (more on this below).
- Have a parent, counselor, or another adult review your applications for typos, omitted information, and other details you may have overlooked.
By Thanksgiving …
- Have your SAT or ACT scores sent to the colleges you're applying to.
- Submit all of your applications!
After Thanksgiving …
- Give yourself a short break (you’ll deserve it!).
- Complete the FAFSA (after January 1).
- Start looking for other sources of financial aid.
Remember that this schedule is meant to provide general guidelines for getting everything done. Whatever you do, don’t freak out if some aspects of the schedule slip. Take another deep breath and keep moving forward!
2. Should I Take the SAT or ACT, and How Often?
Contrary to what many believe, colleges don’t typically care whether a student sends in SAT or ACT scores. I often suggest that students take one test first, and if they think their score is not an accurate reflection of their ability, take the other. If a student’s scores are in line with her grades, I generally don’t recommend taking the test again unless she can put the time and effort into a test preparation course. There are lots of classes, tutors, and online programs to choose from, as well as free sites like Khan Academy or Number2.com.
And while the research is inconclusive on the results of test prep, I’ve seen students who buckled down to study increase their scores considerably. On the other hand, I’ve also seen students get overly anxious about the test and do worse each time they’ve taken it. Be honest about which camp you fall into — there’s no sense putting yourself through the pressure and expense of multiple test administrations if you’re unlikely to benefit.
It’s also worth noting that SAT and ACT scores are not the best predictors of success in college; in fact, high school grades tend to be more accurate. As more and more schools acknowledge this reality, many are making standardized tests optional for college admission.
For a list of colleges that don’t require the SAT or ACT, visit the FairTest website.
3. How Many Schools Should I Apply to?
I recommend applying to between 8–10 schools, depending on how selective a college you are aiming for and what your need for financial aid is. Of course, application fees often run $50 or more per school, so it’s important to create your list thoughtfully. If this expense will be too burdensome for your family, ask your guidance counselor or visit the college website to learn more about income-based application fee waivers.
4. How Should I Balance My List?
When you’re thinking about where to apply, there are a variety of factors to consider — size, location, majors, sports, acceptance rate, and of course, net price. But there is one very important factor that students tend to overlook: retention and graduation rates.
Unfortunately, many U.S. colleges have fairly abysmal graduation rates. And the truth is that it’s no longer enough just to enroll in college; earning the degree is what matters. You can use the Noodle search to learn continuation and graduation rates for individual schools by selecting the “Alumni and Outcomes” tab on each college’s profile.
Selecting the actual colleges for your list is perhaps the most difficult task. The first rule is not to apply to any institution that you wouldn’t attend even if it were the only college that accepted you. It sounds obvious, but I’m always amazed at students who will put one or two (or more!) of these schools on their list. (Parents, don’t urge your kids to include schools they wouldn’t attend — it’s a waste for all of you.) And while you can’t have 10 first choices, there are surely 10 schools out there you could see yourself attending.
By now, you’ve likely heard about applying to a certain number of “reach, 50/50, and safety” schools to maximize your acceptances. In a piece I wrote earlier, I describe how this approach also helps to maximize aid offers. As I explained in “Cost Saver #4” of 6 Cost-Savers to Make Paying for College Easier, if your SAT and GPA are at the higher end of the college’s median scores, you stand a better chance of receiving aid.
5. Should I Consider Early Decision or Early Action?
Early action, yes; but I’m not a fan of early decision!
Early action is great: Colleges commit to taking you, but you can apply to as many as you want, the acceptance is not binding, and you don’t have to make a decision until May 1. I think it’s a great relief to learn early whether you are accepted into any school on your list.
I’m not a fan of early decision because it is binding, and because you are stuck with whatever financial aid the college offers. Today, nearly everyone wants some tuition support, and by applying to multiple colleges, you can compare aid packages. It’s also obviously easier to play one college’s financial aid offer against another than to negotiate aid with a single college whose decision is binding.
6. Do I Have to Visit All the Colleges I Apply to?
No! This is particularly the case if you are applying to colleges over a wide geographic area. You should, however, visit at least some of those you’re interested in to get a sense of whether the non-academic criteria you’re using to select schools are on target. Some students decide that particular factors are more or less important after they tour a few colleges. And if you are accepted at a college that makes a good financial aid offer, I highly recommend going to check it out before making a final decision.
7. What About Recommendations?
Many colleges require at least one teacher recommendation, and students often ask me who should write these letters. Well, someone who knows and appreciates you!
As I mentioned earlier, teachers need time and your assistance to do a good job on these. But it’s also important to give yourself some wiggle room to ask a different person if your first choice isn’t able to get it done by a given deadline — so don’t wait until the last minute to make your request!
Many colleges also require a recommendation from your guidance counselor, which can be a bit trickier because many high school counselors don’t really know their students very well. (Nationally, the ratio of high school students to counselors is nearly 500 to 1! ) If your guidance counselor doesn’t provide a form for you to fill out with information about yourself (your interests, extracurricular activities, and so on), you should create one. And whatever you do, this is not the time to be modest! Your counselor needs enough information to distinguish you from other students in your school.
Try to Keep the Stress in Check
I know these responses make the college application process seem logical and manageable, while at the same time, I know that the process is stressful and creates tension between kids and their parents. Indeed, it was after experiencing this tension with my daughter 15 years ago that I decided to apply my knowledge of higher education gained through my research and policy work to college counseling. There are lots of good colleges out there, and you should obviously make every effort to find ones that are a good match. But remember that if you end up attending one that you decide isn’t the best match, you can always transfer.
So stay focused and calm, and try to have fun — you’re applying to college!
Hiss, W., & Franks, V. (2014, February 18). Report Finds Virtually No Difference in Graduation Rates for Students Who Submit or Do Not Submit Standardized Test Scores to Colleges and Universities. Retrieved July 1, 2015 from NACAC.