12 Things I Wish I’d Known Starting the College Application Process

Every person’s college process is different. An undecided student has a different college process than someone who knows they want to go to medical or law school. A student with an older sibling who applied to college may have a different process than someone with no experience. As a student who went into the college process completely blind, I can share a few things I wish I had known.


  1. Start Early

This tip seems obvious, but it is important to take the process very seriously. Filling out applications and writing quality essays takes a lot of time. The Common Application usually opens around the beginning of August, months before the first deadlines in late October, early November. You don’t have to (and shouldn’t) wait until the night before your deadline to submit your application; this causes a whole lot of unnecessary stress. Starting early also allows you to make time later in the year for applying for outside scholarships.


  1. Ask for Teacher Recommendations Early and Write Thank You Notes to Your Recommenders

Teachers are very busy, hardworking people, especially during college season, when hoards of juniors and seniors begin asking for letters of recommendations. If there is a teacher who you know well and would write you a stellar recommendation, ask them early before they get swamped with other requests for recommendations. Some schools require two or more letters of recommendation and some will only allow one, so make sure you know your school’s requirement before asking for them. Don’t forget to write your teacher a special note to thank them for taking the time to write a recommendation. These letters are just as important to the admissions process as GPA, ACT score, or essays, and teachers put in a lot of effort to make their students shine.


  1. Make a College Spreadsheet and Keep It Updated

All Nerinx seniors are required to make a spreadsheet that contains information about which colleges they are applying to, deadline, and requirements. Keeping this document updated is the key to success. Deadlines and requirements vary from college to college and having all of your information in one place is a huge time-saver.


  1. Choose a Comprehensive List of Colleges

When putting together a list of colleges, it is very important to do your research. There are three types of schools every student should have on their list: a safety school, match schools, and a reach school. A safety school is an affordable school that you know you can get into and that you like. While you do not have to be in love with your safety school, make sure it is a school you would actually be okay with attending. Match schools, the second type, make up the majority of most student’s lists. While there are no guarantees, these are schools to which students will most likely be accepted and be able to afford. The third category, Reach schools, are typically more competitive schools. A Reach school should be  just out of your league, but one at which you still have a chance of getting accepted.


  1. There is a big difference between Early Decision, Early Action, and Regular Decision

Early Decision (ED) is a huge commitment. Applying ED means that, if accepted, you will attend that college or university, no matter what. Students should not apply ED unless they are 100% sure they want to attend that school and know that they will be able to afford the school, no matter what scholarships or financial aid they may receive after being accepted. Early Action (EA) is nonbinding. EA is for students who wish to express early interest in their college, therefore receiving admissions decisions earlier. The only downside to this option is that EA deadline are usually in late October or early November, giving you less time to work on applications. Regular Decision (RD) is just like Early Action, only later. The deadline for most RD applications is January 1. While these are the three main application types, some schools offer others such as Early Decision II (which is binding) and Early Evaluation (which is nonbinding). When deciding when and how to apply, be sure to look at all of your options and decide which are best for you and your family.


  1. Take the ACT in June (or at least study for it!)

High school lore states that taking the ACT in June may lead to a higher score. Whether this is true or not, it is important to put effort into studying for this standardized test. Standardized tests are not your entire application, and you will be not be accepted or denied based solely on your score; but, a high score never hurts. Prepping for the ACT does not need to be expensive. There are plenty of free online sources, including free downloadable study guides and the “Question of the Day” on the ACT website. (Also, check out “Ten Tips for the ACT” on the Hallways site. )


  1. Fill Out an Activities Sheet or Make a Résumé

After filling out the Common App, school-specific applications, honors college applications, and scholarship applications, or any number of other applications, you will thank yourself for this one. A résumé is always good to have, and can be built upon throughout college, but an Activities Sheet (courtesy of the Counseling Office) will also do the trick. Be sure to include clubs, sports, jobs, volunteering or other activities that you have committed to for long periods of time in highschool. You do not need to include every activity or service project you have ever done, though; if you attended one book club meeting in seventh grade, it’s probably best not to include this.


  1. Be Authentic!

It is surprisingly difficult to be yourself in college applications; it is hard not to get wrapped up in trying to be “what the college wants.” If you are a student who loves English and writing, you do not have to have a perfect score on the math section of the ACT. While it doesn’t hurt to appear as a well-rounded student, it is more important to play up your skills and assets. Anybody can do a little of everything if they try, but you should show colleges what is unique and special about YOU.


  1. Edit Your Essays

Everybody has that essay or two that they wrote on a whim and turned in without even reading it over. Do not let any of your college essays be one of those. It is incredibly important that you read over and edit essays that you will be submitting to colleges. Reading essays out loud or printing them out will help you to catch mistakes. Don’t be afraid to ask for the opinions of parents, teachers, or peers. The people around you can give you a lot of insight into aspects of yourself that you are unaware of. However, this can be a slippery slope, as too many outside edits and opinions can cause you to lose your authentic voice.


  1. Look Out for Supplemental Essays

Some colleges require supplemental essays. While these essays are generally shorter than the Common App essay, they required just as much thought and effort. A popular supplemental essays questions is “Why [insert name of college or university]?” For this question it is important to go below the surface and find the unique reasons why you would like to attend that particular college. Talking about your love for the beautiful campus or the esteemed reputation of the school isn’t going to cut it. Be sure to do some research on the school and try to write about the school from a unique perspective.


  1. Read Over Your Common App Before Hitting “Submit”

Before you submit your application, the Common App will show you a PDF version of your application. Be sure to read over the entire PDF. Seeing the application in a new format will help with catching minor grammar, spelling, or formatting errors.


  1. Kick Back and Relax

The college application process is hard work and can be very stressful. After you have submitted your applications, take some time to relax and treat yourself!