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College Admission 101

Help is here, no matter where you are in the college application process.

Oct 25, 2019

If you're planning to apply to college or university after high school, the best thing you can do is start preparing early. College counselors advise you start thinking ahead to college as soon as you enter high school, or even before. Your classes and electives, volunteering efforts, sports participation, and clubs you join are all tracked starting in 9th grade. That doesn't mean, though, that if you haven't checked off a ton of boxes by the time you’re an upperclassman, you're automatically out of the running for your top choice school.

No matter the grade you’re in (be you a frantic upperclassman or a proactive eighth-grader), it’s important to remember that depth of involvement tends to be prioritized over breadth. Besides, if you’re applying through the Common App, you only get ten lines to represent that with which you’ve been involved throughout high school. So, rather than putting “club member” ten times, get super involved with organizations so that the admissions counselor can read “club leader” and “MVP” as they go down the list.

Congratulations! (Now what?)Congratulations! (Now what?)Courtesy of Juan Ramos via Unsplash

Finding the Right Match

A big part of the college search process is about finding the school that's right for you. There are more than 7,000 colleges and universities in the United States, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

With so many schools from which to choose, it may feel like an almost impossible task to determine which one best suits you. How, for example, can you rule out options you’ve never heard of?

To get started, make a list of things you absolutely do and don’t want in a college. Ask yourself the basic questions, like: big or small school? Greek life and sports or minimal-to-none? Liberal arts or major-specific curriculum? City or suburban-to-rural? Close to or far from home? Domestic or abroad? Supportive and collaborative or competitive?

If you fall somewhere in the middle of these black-and-white questions, that’s okay, too! Once you have the list of preferences, consult websites such as Parchment, Niche and Naviance, where you can input these preferences and the site will curate a list of the colleges which suit them the best.

Pro tip: when you’re looking at schools, don’t worry about the cost! Even the top-tier, expensive liberal arts schools give scholarships, grants, and work-study opportunities. You can also enter community-based, state-wide, or national competitions for significant amounts of money -- even full rides! 

Plug in your GPA and standardized test scores to find out your chances of getting into HarvardPlug in your GPA and standardized test scores to find out your chances of getting into HarvardCourtesy of Parchment

Your Resume

Think resumes are only for adults? Think again. Some middle schools ask students to start their resume in sixth grade. Creating a resume is a good way to keep track of your activities and interests. It's also a good way to help you discover what you're passionate about. Some colleges will even let you upload a resume with your application -- this way, you can get more than ten lines to discuss the amazing things you’ve done throughout high school.

A resume, though, is only as effective as its organization. Consult Naviance or your guidance counselor to determine what’s important and what isn’t. Experts say to keep your resume to one page. For college applications, the rules might be a little different, but start out with a one-page resume so you can see what’s most important. This way, you can keep everything from that page at the top, adding the less important stuff to the bottom, so that the admissions counselor is sure to see your most valued accomplishments first.

Can you picture yourself spending four years here? Can you picture yourself spending four years here? Courtesy of Victoria Heath via Unsplash
 

Prestige Isn’t Everything… 

Especially in recent years, high school students have become extremely academically competitive with one another. This has led to the phenomenon in which there exists a general consensus that some institutions for secondary education are “good,” while others are inherently “bad.” This phenomenon is fed by the US News Best College rankings, which ranks colleges based on an arbitrary set of data -- none of which include student happiness. Unfortunately, in order to determine which college will make you the happiest, you can’t simply click on the latest version of the US News ranking.

Each year, the USNews and World Report compiles a list of the best colleges. Most applicants' searches start hereEach year, the USNews and World Report compiles a list of the best colleges. Most applicants' searches start hereCourtesy of USNews

… But Popularity Has its Merits

While simply choosing a college because it is widely regarded as “prestigious” and among the schools deemed “good” won’t guarantee happiness or success, the colleges that fall into these categories tend to have some merits. Disclaimer: this is not a rule, as colleges not seen as prestigious in casual conversation or rankings can have these same merits.

The schools that are regarded in this way tend to have strong alumni networks, as alumni are proud of their school and wish to employ fellow students/alums. The schools on this list of “50 Most Supportive Alumni Networks for 2019” tend to pop up on the US News and Princeton Review reports.

Considering a Gap Year?

A gap year -- taking a year off between high school and college -- can include a variety of activities, from learning a skill to taking a trip to simply spending one more year at home with one’s family. There are many reasons you should consider a gap year. 

  • You have a late birthday and would be entering college at age 16 or 17
  • You need to save up for a college fund
  • You're looking to explore the world before settling down
  • You're burnt out from studying 
  • You want to get real-world experience to see what you need to focus on
  • You didn't get great grades in high school and want to gain experiences that would make your application stronger
  • You don't feel ready to head off on your own just yet
  • Your family needs you at home

In the U.S., gap years have gotten a bad reputation. Opponents of gap years believe it can cause of a lack of ambition or focus, and get you off-track for a career. However, according to a report published in 2015 by the Gap Year Association, ninety percent of students who took a gap year returned to college directly afterward. Another myth is that applicants lose their scholarship when deferring. While this policy varies from college-to-college, there are many scholarships specifically granted to students who have taken gap years, such as those given out by the Gap Year Association. Some colleges give a grace period after the acceptance window to apply for a deferment. If granted, many schools will also defer the scholarship funds and grants that were offered, and make them available to you on your return. These policies are often very strict, however, and it's important to read the fine print when signing such an agreement first so you know what you're getting into.

According to a 2015 survey conducted by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA, only 3 percent of American students took gap years. On the other hand, taking a year off is extremely common in European nations, where they are seen as a way to recharge. 

Some things to know if you're considering taking a gap yearSome things to know if you're considering taking a gap yearCourtesy of The Gap Year Association

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Have you been through the college application process? Have your siblings? If you’re anticipating it, what are you most nervous about? Let us know in the comments below.