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College Application Process

It feels like ages since I was going through the application process for college. In reality, it was just two short years ago that I was filling out applications, writing essays upon essays for different schools, and trying to narrow down where I wanted to apply. I have an awesome friend who is going through the process of applying now and my brother will be going through this process next year, so I've got college applications on the mind. I try to help my chummy with as much of the process as I can, so I figured I would compile all of my advice to her in one post in the off chance that it could help somebody else too.

**A little background about my own application process and a disclaimer that this might not be effective or relevant for everybody. I had known since eighth grade that I had wanted to away for school and that local schools were not even an option. That definitely saved me a lot of time, but I know that it might not be normal for people to know something that big so early on in their lives. Throughout the course of my junior and senior year, I toured three schools, walked around the campus of my dream school, and had 2 other safety schools on my radar. I narrowed it down to six schools in the early fall of my senior year. To prepare myself for my midwest school, I took both the ACT and SAT, as different geographic areas do have preferences (but are generally understanding). I had a combination of Common Applications and specific applications from the schools directly. All of my applications were turned in before Thanksgiving. I got my first acceptance before Christmas, three during January, my fifth sometime in March (after I'd already did my intent to enroll at Cleveland State), and I don't remember when I got my wait-list-turned-rejection letter as I try to block that out.**

Now that I've got my rambling out of the way, I'm going to try to detail the application process in the most chronological order as I possibly can. Results may very and you do not have to follow it to a T. You don't even need to follow it at all! It's just what I remember about applying to colleges combined with what my lovely friend is going through at the moment.

1. SATs/ACTs

A big component of your application process is to take these standardized tests. Some people will tell you that you don't need both, but I prefer looking at it as a "you're better safe than sorry" situation. However, since the tests do cost money, if you're in a financial situation in which you can only afford one, definitely look at the requirements from your school or the preferred test for your geographical area. The Northeast, for example, favor the SATs while the Midwest seems to favor the ACTs.

You can look up test dates and locations on their websites. The difference between the two exams, to put it simply, is that the SAT is an aptitude test that tests your reasoning and verbal abilities and the ACT is an achievement test that tests what you have learned in school. The SAT penalizes you for wrong answers, while the ACT does not. Also, the ACT features science while the SAT does not.

Preparing for these exams is up to you. Courses are offered to help study for each and there are tons of practice and instructional books out there for your perusing. What did I do? If I'm being honest, I had both an SAT and ACT booklet...and I didn't use them, ever and I thought I did fine. While I don't totally recommend not preparing yourself at all, it's totally a judgement call. I've known people who have taken multiple rounds of classes and did great and I've also known people who studied their butts off and didn't do very well. It depends on the test, the person, how you're feeling that day, and hundreds of other unpredictable factors. You need to prepare the way that you think is fit, but these tests are very important and I wouldn't take them lightly.

2. Visit your schools

In order to figure out where you're applying, you need to narrow down schools. More specifically, you need to visit the schools you want to apply to. It's very hard to get the feel for a school if you've never walked around their campus or soaked up the atmosphere. I know that there are cases in which you might not be able to visit the campus, whether it's financial or geographical problems getting in the way, but if you are able to visit a school, do it. Do it twice if you need to. Visiting the school and taking tours is probably the best way to get a feel for it and decide whether or not you could see yourself there. A school can look great on paper and turn out to be an extreme disappoint and totally not right for you, but you wouldn't know that until you went to visit.

Tip from a high school senior: Tour the schools. They can look really awesome on paper, but it's very possible that they can be the wrong choice for you. The disconnect between what you read and what's really at the university can make or break your success there. The information and photos online are what they want you to see!

3. Common Application vs. specific school application

Basically, either a school will have their own separate application that you can print out and fill out (or, in some cases, they will send you them directly) then mail back in. However, for other colleges, they'll have you apply with the Common Application. You sign up for the website, search for your schools, and apply for them separately through this website. Not every single application will be identical, and most will have different essays, but they have the same general information category.

Tip from a high school senior: Check your e-mails for schools that you're interested in because they might contain priority preference applications or application fee waivers.

4. College essays

You should have a main personal essay to send to colleges. This is something in which you tell them a little bit about yourself, maybe including a lesson that you've learned or a hardship that you've had to overcome. My personal essay is most certainly not the best example, but I'm going to post it below to give you a feel as to what your personal essay should include.

*I wouldn't normally be so verbose, but I turned this in for an assignment for my English class my senior year and my teacher liked a lot of "$10 words", hence the wordiness*
Different colleges might ask for additional essays. My favorite essay prompt from the application process was for Emmanuel College and it asked me what I would title the story of my life. I thought that was a really interesting question!

Tips from a high school senior: Always check the school's website for scholarship opportunities as well as separate applications for things like the honors program. These may include additional essays! And when it comes to the personal essays, try to focus on when there was a turning point or big change in your life. Pinpoint a specific spot where you felt that change.

4b. Personal resumé

I'm not sure if it was just my school that required these, but I figured that a personal resumé was worth a mention. It's sort of  like a job resumé, just simplified with less explanation and more focus on what you were apart of in high school. It should include the following:

+ Your contact information (name, address, telephone number, and e-mail)
+ Education (your high school)
+ Achievements/honors
+ Volunteer Experience
+ Activities
+ Work experience

I wrote mine in the format of a list under those main titles and sent it along with my personal essay and transcripts. Again, your school might not require you to send one, so I'd definitely talk to your guidance counselors about it beforehand.

5. Letters of recommendation

Ideally, these should be from your teachers in high school. For my school, we had to fill out sheets listing our grades, achievements, etc. and hand them to the teachers that we wanted recommendation letters from. I asked for letters from four teachers, but I planned on only sending out two letters. I figured that one teacher would forget to do it (they did) and one was going to be generic and not all that special (it was). That left me with my two solid recommendation letters to send out to both of my schools!

Tips from a high school senior: Ask for them in the very first weeks of school. Try to ask for a letter from a teacher that not many people have but you still have a connection with. If you pick a more popular teacher, make sure you have a strong connection with them so the letter doesn't end up generic.

6. Transcripts

These are something that your guidance counselors have to send out, so definitely talk to them earlier rather than later about them. Your transcripts will be incomplete when you send them to your colleges initially and when you decide on your college, then your complete transcripts will be finished when you're done with high school.

7. Early action vs. early decision

Know the difference between these two! Unless your school is a done deal, you have no desire to go anywhere else, your acceptance is guaranteed and you can afford it, then maybe early decision is for you. However, if you are even slightly unsure of where you want to go, early action or just plain old admissions is for you.

8. Support from family and friends

Look, you don't need support for your college. You should go where you want to go to school, though I realize that there are other factors that go into a college decision. However, trying to garner support from friends, family, and loved ones can make the application process seem less lonely and stressful.

9. The 3 A's

Anticipation, apprehension, and a heck of a lot of time are the 3 A's of the college application process. You've got the anticipation of getting them done, sending them in, and wondering which schools are going to love you. Then you've got apprehension, the normal feeling that maybe your applications could have been better and what if the colleges don't love you? It's going to seem like a heck of a lot of time between submitting your applications and actually receiving your (hopefully!) acceptance letters. It very well might be a long time if you applied early, but eventually your schoolwork will take precedence once again and you'll be able to focus...until you get your letters back. Then all hell breaks loose (kidding, kidding!)

Another tip is to make yourself a college checklist. We had to do a lot of our application process through our guidance counselors at school, so I made my counselor a checklist for myself to give her a visual list of everything that I needed her to send to my schools.

If you're unsure of how to go on and pick your university, I did a post on that last year that I will link here.


  1. Thank you for sharing with this important for all students information! Especially for me the most difficult part is to write an essay. In this case I have to use writing services like this one

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