By: Kevin Hayes
It’s that time of year again. No, not Christmas – college applications season. Seniors, myself included, are finalizing their college lists, submitting test scores, writing essays, and filling out applications. Many have probably heard back from their early decision or early action schools, and are adjusting their strategies and plans accordingly for next fall. With that said, over the past six months, I have learned more than I ever thought was possible about the college admissions process, including some helpful tips that I will mention here for future applicants.
First, it’s never too early to begin looking at colleges. It’s definitely difficult to put yourself in the mindframe of “I’m going to college” as a sophomore and junior in high school, but getting a feel for what you like and do not like early on can be very helpful. You do not want to be throwing yourself at schools based solely on rankings, prestige, etc. Consequently, there are a plethora of great schools out there that are not the brand-name state flagships or ranked in the U.S. News and World Report top 25.
Second, test scores are important, but probably not that important as most people think. Sure, for some of the extremely large public schools such as Penn State, quantitative data (GPA, class rank, SAT/ACT) is weighed more heavily, but it does not make sense to get completely bent out of shape over your ACT or SAT score. It is a good idea to retake these tests if you think you can do better, but often times spending extra time on essays or even improving your academic transcript can be more useful.
Third, ask teachers for letters of recommendation early. Do not put this off until the last minute – teachers need time (usually it is a good idea to ask them at least a month before as a rule of thumb) and it is a nice courtesy. Make sure to thank them after they have written it!
Fourth, it is NEVER too early to start writing essays. The Common Application essay is the most important one for many college students, and as such it is a good idea to start brainstorming and drafting early on (August and September of senior year). Additionally, revise, revise, revise. Have a friend or family member look over your essays; usually they will see something you did not pick up on regardless of how many times you have read over your own work.
Fifth, if a school you are seriously considering applying to offers early action (apply early, receive a decision early), take advantage of it! Early action is non-binding, so you can apply, be accepted, and not have to make a decision until usually May 1st. The only exception to this general rule is if you believe that by waiting until the regular decision deadline, you can improve your overall application more so than what you would have had if you submitted it early. Early decision (binding) is a whole other animal that is difficult to discuss in brief. All I will say is that make you sure you really love the school you are applying to if you choose to apply early decision, and will not regret missing the opportunity to apply to other schools if accepted.
There are many websites that offer other helpful tips and tricks for applying to college. The internet is full of information, ranging from admissions statistics to personal stories. bigfuture.collegeboard.org is one of my favorite resources for the pure facts. Just remember, though, that it is not always where you end up attending that matters – it is what you end up doing once you get there. Many of us will experience rejection from a top choice, but we need to make the best of it and our other opportunities.