College Application Tips

Young women's version of this guide
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Busy student using a laptopGood grades and test scores are important, but there are other ways to make your college application competitive.

Here are our top 10 tips to help you get into the colleges you want:

1. Start thinking about college in your junior year (or earlier)

It’s a good idea to begin gathering information, attending college fairs, and meeting with your guidance counselor to talk about schools as early as possible. Starting this process early will give you time to find the colleges that are the best fit for you.

  • The best place to start your research is the internet – you can find information about each school using websites, such as collegeboard.org or http://colleges.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-colleges.
  • When looking for schools, think about location, class size, curriculum, campus, atmosphere, number of students, variety of majors offered, tuition price, minimum GPA and SAT/ACT score accepted, etc.
  • Most colleges/universities use the Common App, an online service that allows you to use the same application for multiple schools.
  • Create an account on commonapp.org the summer before your senior year and start filling out general info, such as your name and address.

2. Prepare for the SAT or ACT

It’s never too early to start preparing for the SAT or ACT test. Begin preparation during your sophomore year summer or the fall of your junior year of high school. Then you will have enough time to prepare for the exam or re-take the exam.

  • Before taking either the SAT or ACT it’s a good idea to become familiar with the format and timing of the test, and the kinds of questions you might expect to see. You could buy a book or take a class that can help prepare you for the SAT/ACT exams. Many high schools or community centers offer these classes at no charge. Other prep classes (such as Kaplan or the Princeton Review) charge a fee. Assess what kind of learner you are. Are you an independent learner who likes to study at your own pace? Or do you prefer the structure of a classroom?
  • Don’t get discouraged if you didn’t do as well as you’d like on the SAT or ACT the first or even the second time around. You can take both of these tests again.
  • Standardized testing isn’t for everyone. Some colleges are starting to accept applications without test scores. Find out more information.
  • Some colleges and programs require that you take SAT Subject Tests, so keep an eye out for what each college requires and plan you’re studying accordingly.

3. Take the time to do the things that you’re passionate about

Colleges want to know what you are passionate about and what gets you excited. You want your passions and interests to shine through in your application.

  • For example, if you really like painting, then take art classes, paint, volunteer to teach younger kids to paint, or make a website displaying your artwork. (You can let colleges know about your interests and hobbies in your application.)
  • Participating in summer programs, volunteering at a summer camp, or working over the summer will show colleges that you spent your vacations doing something productive and that you’re committed.

4. Keep a list of activities

Keep a running list of all the activities that you’ve been involved with since your freshman year in high school so you have something to refer to when you’re filling out college applications.

  • On your list, include the dates, the number of hours, and contact information for each of your extracurricular, volunteer, and work activities.
  • Don’t forget to include both paid and unpaid activities on this list.

5. Plan your recommendation letters

Most schools require at least 2 letters of recommendation from your teachers or supervisors that you have volunteered or interned for.

  • Request letters from teachers who know you best, whose class you’ve received the best grades in, or from teachers whose class you’ve shown the greatest improvement in.
  • Once you have finalized who you would like to ask for a letter of recommendation, be sure to ask them politely and preferably in person – not via email.
  • Find out if the person you selected is willing to write your letter of recommendation and how far in advance they want to receive the paperwork.
  • Provide your teacher(s) and/or supervisor with a stamped envelope with the address of the school you’re sending the letter to. Be sure to double check the address so that the letters get sent to the right place.
  • When you ask for a letter, provide your teachers with a resume, list of your activities, and/or your personal statement for the college. It might also be helpful for you to tell them what you’ve achieved in their class.

6. Write an admissions essay that stands out

College and university admission’s staff get tons of essays – they want to read something that will help them get a sense of who you are.

  • Write about something that you feel strongly about. This will make it easier for you to compose the essay and those that read it will be able to see your passion.
  • Keep your essays concise and to the point (especially because you are given a word limit) and follow the required guidelines set by each school (some schools require the essay to be about a specific topic).
  • If you are having trouble finding a topic, talk with a teacher (it may be your English teacher) or an adult that you are close with. He or she may be able to help guide you and give you a couple of ideas.

7. Use the spell-check tool

Every year colleges and universities receive applications and essays filled with spelling and grammar mistakes. Don’t let this be you. Before mailing your essay or hitting the “send” button on your computer:

  • Use the spell-check tool in your word processor.
  • Have someone (parent, teacher, guidance counselor) proof-read your essay and give you feedback before you send it – the more eyes that read the paper, the better.

8. Know about financial aid options

College is expensive, but there are scholarships, grants, and loans. Set aside time to look for them.

  • Start searching as soon as possible because many scholarship applications are due in the winter of your senior year.
  • Sign up for scholarships by searching them on websites such as: fastweb.com and scholarships.com.
  • Ask your teachers and guidance counselors about available scholarships in your community.
  • Check out whether the schools you’re applying to offer scholarships for incoming freshmen.
  • If you need help paying for college, submit a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) before you start college, and each year thereafter. This form will determine whether you’re eligible for grants, loans, or work-study programs.

If you need financial assistance applying for college:

  • Some schools offer application fee waivers if they see that the applicant can’t afford the fee or if they attend the school’s open house or tour. Call the admissions office and ask for more information.
  • Collegeboard also gives fee waivers to students who receive free or reduced lunch. Ask your guidance counselor about these programs.

9. Stay organized

The college application process can get overwhelming. Colleges may ask for several essays, there’s lots of paperwork to fill out, and the various schools that you’re applying to may have different deadlines and individual essays as well.

  • Create a chart or an excel spreadsheet to organize all the important information for each school, such as deadlines, essay questions, and so forth.
  • Keep a list of the scholarships you’re applying for.
  • Put a reminder of all the deadlines on your calendar, in a planner, or in your cell phone so that you don’t forget them.

10. Stay focused on your goals

  • It’s very easy to become overwhelmed by the application process. Set a timeline and stay focused on your goals.