The Essential Guide to Acing the College Application Process

Thursday, April 13, 2023

Happy student celebrating that he got into collegeWhile the application process may seem intimidating at first, every student’s college admissions journey is an opportunity to discover more about themselves and their academic goals. With the right strategy, all students will be able to identify their own best-fit schools and showcase why they deserve a spot on campus.  

Where Do I Start if I Want to Go to College?

If you’re interested in attending college, your first step will be to give your high school courses your all. Grades are one of the factors that college admissions officers weigh most heavily when deciding which applicants will gain a spot in the upcoming class.

Additionally, students will need to research schools carefully and compile a list of both first-choice schools and safety schools that align with their goals, academic profiles, and personal and financial needs. Once this list is ready, students will need to create an application for each school individually, generally through an application system like the Common App or Coalition App. Processes vary depending on the schools, but generally students will need to include supplemental essays, a personal statement, letters of recommendation, a resume, and a copy of their high school transcript.

Compiling all these materials — and ensuring they showcase you in the best light possible — can feel like a challenging process. Rather than waiting until senior year, students should begin building the foundation for their college applications as soon as they start high school.

To help manage the workload associated with applications and provide personalized guidance throughout the admissions process, students may wish to consider college counseling. Unlike a school counselor, students can meet with admissions counselors one-to-one on a regular basis to compile a list of potential schools and learn how to fine-tune their applications to ensure they stand out for the right reasons.

Preparing for College 

Preparing for college is a multifaceted process. Students must maintain their grades, research colleges to identify their dream school, and ensure they have all the materials needed to compile a stellar college application. This includes participating in a handful of extracurricular activities they are passionate about, as well as giving back to their community through volunteer work.

Writing College Essays 

Since the essays students submit as part of their application will be reviewed by the admissions office, it’s important to write thoughtful pieces that showcase who the applicant is and the impact they will make on campus. Most students will submit one personal statement essay in response to a selection of prompts about the applicant’s identity and development, as well as supplemental essays required by the schools they’re applying to. Topics for college essays can vary from explaining why a student wants to attend a specific school to describing a favorite book they’ve read recently.

Course Planning 

In addition to getting good grades, students need to be thoughtful about the classes they’re taking. Course planning is important because admissions officers are looking for applicants who have challenged themselves by taking a rigorous course load, including Advanced Placement classes if their school offers them. Students should strive to take a challenging array of courses in a variety of subjects, including math, history and social sciences, English, foreign language, science, and the arts.

College Application Tips 

Unfortunately, there’s no secret trick students can use to guarantee admission at their first-choice college. However, there are a handful of tips that can improve an applicant’s odds of admission, including demonstrating their interest in the college they’re hoping to attend by visiting campus, participating in information sessions, and/or applying early.

Another smart practice is to begin compiling a resume during freshman or sophomore year of high school, so students can keep building on it instead of having to remember all their accomplishments when they get to senior year. During every moment of high school, there are steps students can take to set themselves up for future success, so it’s important to check out college application tips for each step of your development.

College Admission Trends & Statistics 

From test optional admissions to supplemental video responses, new college admissions trends add their own spin to the application process each year. Similarly, the percentage of students who gain admission to a given college and the number of accepted applicants who choose to enroll can vary considerably from year to year. Students should stay on top of these college admissions updates so they can ensure they’re adapting their application strategy accordingly.

Extracurricular Activities 

Grades aren’t the only factor that’s weighed during college admissions decisions. Admissions officers will also review a student’s extracurricular activities to learn about the hobbies they’re passionate about and the clubs and teams they may wish to join upon admittance. If you’re getting ready to apply to college and extracurricular activities are a big part of your life outside of school, make sure to play up your involvement throughout your essays, supplements, and resume.

Financial Aid 

When it comes to identifying best-fit schools, it’s not just academics that students should consider — there’s also a financial aspect of college life. Students should sit down with their families to have an honest discussion about savings, college readiness, and the steps the family will take together to cover the costs of college. After this discussion, students should fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and consult college net price calculators to get an idea of how much they might be expected to pay for college.

Summer Planning

While it might be tempting, students can’t go on autopilot during school breaks. During the winter, high school students should begin summer planning by making a list of different ways to spend their vacation that they believe would be valuable. Some examples might include interning at a local newspaper, picking up a summer job, attending college-level courses at a nearby university or community college, or pursuing an independent project. Whatever a student chooses to do, it’s important that summers are an impactful time that will give future applicants plenty of ideas to write essays and supplements about.

College Visits 

As students are compiling their lists of best-fit schools to apply to, they should make sure they’re including time for college tours. Visiting different campuses gives prospective students an opportunity to learn more about the school, speak with current college students, and demonstrate their interest in attending the institution. If students can’t make it for an in-person visit, many schools also provide virtual touring options so that applicants around the world can get a feel for their campus.

Reading Resources & Online Courses 

Even before college officially begins, students can begin taking online courses in the subjects that interest them. These classes are something that applicants can add to a resume and/or write about in their college applications. Additionally, students should make sure they’re keeping up with outside reading—choosing books outside of what’s assigned to them in school—to prepare for college. The more students read, the more confident and comfortable they will be with their own writing when it comes time to work on essays.

Understanding the Common App 

If you’re thinking “What is the Common App?” you’re not alone. Most students are unfamiliar with it until the second half of their high school career, but it’s important to learn about this application system since over 1,000 schools use it. Applicants can use the Common App to apply to an array of different colleges and keep the same personal statement while writing additional supplemental essays to align with each school’s requirements.

Coalition Application 

While it’s less popular than the Common App, the Coalition Application is an alternative college application system that counts over 150 schools as members. Some of the key differences between the Coalition App and the Common App are that the essay prompts vary slightly and that schools must meet criteria like affordable tuition and need-based aid to become a Coalition App member.

STEM 

Students who love math and science may wish to consider colleges that specialize in STEM coursework. This might include schools that are known for their research opportunities, as well as institutions with excellent data and analytics programs. If students think they’re interested in pursuing a STEM degree, they should strive to participate in extracurricular activities and high school courses that reflect these interests.

Test Prep & Tutoring 

Since grades are one of the factors that admissions officers weigh most heavily during the admissions process, students should take every step they can to improve their GPAs, including looking into tutoring resources. Similarly, if students are struggling to meet their expectations for standardized test scores, there are plenty of test prep resources and tutors who can work with them to prepare for the specific exam they’re studying for.

Academic Advising 

While many people associate advising with college admissions, academic advising can benefit students throughout their high school careers. Working one-on-one with an academic advisor gives students the opportunity to carefully select courses that align with their interests and ambitions, address challenges at school before they turn into bigger problems, and identify opportunities to further advance their studies.

Admissions Counseling

If you are planning on applying to colleges, there is a lot to consider. You may decide that you want someone knowledgable on your team to guide you through the stressful admissions process. If you seek out an independent counselor to work with along with your school-based counselor, make sure they are reputable and certified through a professional organization such as the National Association of College Admissions Counselors and/or the Independent Educational Consultant Association.

At IvyWise, all our counselors are former admissions officers at top U.S. colleges and universities. They have inside knowledge of how admissions decisions are made and they use that knowledge to help students present themselves in the best light to admissions committees. If you would like to see how the IvyWise Team can help you achieve your college admissions goals, contact us today!

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