As the leaves start to change and the weather cools down, many start to think of the impending winter season arriving. To high school juniors and seniors, late fall also has another connotation: the imminent arrival of college application deadlines. As a recent college graduate (and a tour guide), I’m very familiar with the stresses of the process. Here are some tips that I learned throughout the process of applying, and working on the admissions side, that should help make the journey to college easier.
TOUR, TOUR, TOUR!
“The earlier, the better,” should be your motto from the beginning. The sooner you can start touring—or even driving through—campuses, the more beneficial it will be. I was fortunate enough to do a summer program at my alma mater (Middlebury College) before my junior year, which was a great way to gain exposure to a college campus. That visit, alongside several others, secured Middlebury’s place as my highest ranked school.
Aside from summer programs, school breaks are a perfect time to tour campuses. Most universities have different break schedules than high schools, so it’s a great opportunity to visit when students are on campus. February of my junior year, my dad and I took a road trip all over New England to tour schools. This allowed ample time for me to visit campuses, attend information sessions (and come prepared with questions I had about the school), and sit in on potential classes I was interested in. Bonus points if you can snag tour guide’s email address and send them a follow up thank you note after—the more connections the better!
SAT or ACT, WHICH TEST IS FOR ME?
Junior year is also the beginning of standardized testing season. Similar to touring, the sooner you can get yourself registered for the SAT/ACT the better. Many students end up testing better on one test over the other, so it’s important to try both – and keep in mind which tests your top schools accept. Most will take one or the other, but there are some schools with strict requirements. I took the SAT for the first time my junior fall, and the ACT my junior spring. When I got my scores back, they weren’t as high as what I had anticipated—and this is normal! Many students end up taking the SAT/ACT two to three times before they get a score they are satisfied with, which is why it’s important to start early so you have as many testing opportunities as possible. I ended up getting a better score on the SAT the second time I took it (and after I had used a review book), so I sent that score out to schools.
KNOW YOUR APPLICATION DEADLINES
At the beginning of your senior year, make sure you have a game plan. If possible, get a head start on the common application (accepted by most schools) over the summer when it comes out on August 1st. The more you can frontload, the easier your life will be. Many schools have supplemental application essays that are released in late summer as well, but these can pile on as deadlines grows closer and homework is added into the equation. Aside from college application deadlines, scholarship and financial aid deadlines are also important to keep in mind. The earlier you file your FAFSA (due June 30 for the 2018-2019 year), the better your chances are at receiving federal aid. Many are ahead of the typical January 1st deadline, so it’s best to stay on top of them by creating a calendar with all deadlines (and week before reminders!)
SAFETY, GOAL, REACH
By the end of September you should have a detailed plan outlining a breakdown of schools. I decided to group my schools into three categories: safety schools, goal schools, and reach schools. My parents limited me to three schools per category (a total of 9 prospective schools I would apply to) as every school had about a $100 application fee. I identified my safety schools as ones that I was almost sure I would get into. I looked at the average GPA and SAT/ACT score of students who were accepted, and if mine was significantly higher than that, it went into the safety category. Goal and reach schools are very similar, except the chances of acceptance are flipped the other way.
To give you an example, I’ve attached my breakdown of schools here:
University of Connecticut
University of Vermont
As you can see, I was leaning toward smaller Liberal Arts schools in the New England area, but a similar breakdown can be constructed for any array of schools a student is interested in. It’s important to have schools in each category—and not all in the reach category—to make sure you’re applying to both schools you know can get into and your dream school!
EARLY DECISION? REGULAR DECISION? EARLY ACTION?
After you’ve compiled your list of schools, it’s important to start to consider which are your top ranking schools and which schools offer early application deadlines.
Early application deadlines are broken down into two types:
- Early decision (one and two) and,
- Early action.
Both usually have November 1st deadlines (two months ahead of the typical January 1st deadline), and release decisions before Christmastime. The key difference between the two is the binding factor; with early decision, if you are admitted to that school you are committed to attend (binding application). With early action, you have no obligation to attend if accepted (non-binding application).
Early decision has two rounds: one in November 1st and a second usually in early January. The same principles apply to both deadlines—if you get in, you have to go! As a result, I encourage students to think carefully about which schools they want to apply early decision to. And because it is binding, you can only apply to one school early decision. There’s another chance at redemption, however, if you apply to your dream school early decision 1 and get rejected. With the arrival of early decision 2, students can now apply to their second top choice school if early decision 1 falls through.
Furthermore, I encourage students to apply to as many schools early action as possible. If you can apply sooner and get a decision sooner, why not? With early action, you can apply to as many schools (if they have that as an option) as you want. Treat it like an earlier regular decision! Additionally, I highly recommend applying to at least one of your safety schools early action. That way, you know early on that you’re at least going somewhere for college!
WHAT DID I DO?
To help explain the process a bit more, I’ll give you an outline of my application experience:
Summer before Junior Year: Toured Middlebury (first time).
Fall of Junior Year: Took the SAT for the first time, visited nearby schools on the weekend.
Spring of Junior Year: February Break road trip to visit schools and take the SAT again.
Summer before Senior Year: Complete Common Application and contact teachers as possible recommendation writers.
Fall of Senior Year:
Overnight visit to Middlebury to solidify my decision to apply early decision (doing an overnight at a school is a great way to gain insight into life for students outside of classes, the social atmosphere etc.), apply early decision to Middlebury and early action to University of Vermont.
November of Senior Year:
Accepted into UVM before Thanksgiving
December of Senior Year:
Accepted into Middlebury
As you can see, I only applied to two schools and my college application process was done in December. Granted, it doesn’t happen like this to everyone, but I like to think that even if I hadn’t gotten into Middlebury early decision, I still would have ended up at a school I was happy with.
Best of luck in the upcoming application season, I guarantee you it’s not as stressful as you think!