College Application Advice

  • January 20, 2023

From a Someone Who’s Just Finished Applying

Photo courtesy of Anne Scott Hagen, Creative Commons License.

By Elyse Hwang

As a current senior finished with the applying part of the college application process, I wanted to give some unsolicited advice about it.  First and foremost, though, take everything I say with a grain of salt – especially since I haven’t been accepted to any colleges yet. Nevertheless, hopefully, you learn a few new things that I wish I knew when entering the college application process.

  1. Use a physical book to start your college search.  I used The Princeton Review’s The Best 387 Colleges book, but the Fiske Guide to Colleges 2022 is also a popular choice that I have heard good things about.  Actually flipping through a book and exploring rather than scrolling through lists online helps you connect with the colleges more, and it’s often easier to get a more comprehensive and targeted review of the college when you use these guidebooks.  Online articles are either too short or require you to open a new tab with too much information every time you want to investigate a college, so having a one to two-page summary that is easy to bookmark and doesn’t overload your computer can be really helpful. 
  2. If you identify as a minority in any demographic or are low-income, apply for Fly-In programs.  These programs fly you into (or reimburse your gas mileage for) colleges and pay for you to stay in the area and learn more about the college.  The applications are often similar to the college applications you’ll have to fill out, so it helps you prepare for your applications and practice asking for recommendation letters and writing about yourself.  Even if you do not get in, many fly-in programs offer fee waivers for all applicants so you do not have to spend as much on application fees (each college costs anywhere between $50-100, which starts adding up if you apply to more than 10). 
  3. Many large merit scholarships (anywhere from $10,000 to full rides) have application due dates during the first semester.  Some notable scholarships due during this time include Questbridge (specifically for low-income students), the Cameron Impact Scholarship, the Coca Cola Scholars Program Scholarship, the Elks Most Valuable Student Scholarship, and the Equitable Excellence Scholarship. 
  4. Some schools offer merit scholarships with early deadlines.  These scholarships are often full-ride scholarships, so it’s a pretty good tradeoff to apply a month early for the chance at not having to pay anywhere up to a quarter million dollars for college.  While these scholarships are quite competitive, it helps to get some colleges out of the way so in case you procrastinate all your work until winter break (which, unfortunately, you probably will no matter how many times people tell you to start early – speaking from experience), you would have at least applied to a few solid schools. Some schools with early scholarship deadlines include Vanderbilt (December 1), Emory (November 15), and Boston University (December 1). 
  5. Use a spreadsheet to organize your dates, deadlines, and requirements.  Some schools require official SAT reports, some have interviews, some allow you to submit art or research supplements, some have “optional” video portfolios (more on what “optional” means later)…It’s a lot to keep track of, on top of writing supplementals, requesting letters of recommendation, keeping up with school work, and researching colleges.  Spreadsheets are a must to make sure everything you need is submitted on time (or is submitted in the first place).
  6. First-semester grades matter (for most schools).  You’ve made it – you’re finally a senior!  But that doesn’t mean you get to slack off if you have competitive colleges in mind.  The UCs and Cal States do not evaluate your first-semester senior year grades, but most private schools will ask for mid-year reports.  These reports contain your first-semester senior year grades, which can be your most important grades given they are most representative of your current academic performance.
  7. Optional does not mean optional, unless it’s really, actually optional.  That was a bit of a tongue twister.  If something is optional, do it – whether it’s an optional essay, an optional video profile, or an optional interview.  Doing these “optional” application components will show the college that you genuinely care about them and want to get in.  If you don’t have the time to complete these “optional” components, you’re signaling to college admissions officers reading your application that this college was an afterthought.  The only exception to this rule is when it does not apply to you.  This includes, but is not limited to, optional arts supplements; optional essays on educational hardships, race, or identifying as LGBTQ+; and optional research abstracts.
  8. It really doesn’t matter (that much) in the end.  College applications may seem to be dominating your whole world at the moment, especially when everybody is talking about it and every time you have time to rest you start thinking about all the supplementals you have to write…But seriously, in the long run, it’s only four years of your life and a small line on your resume.  Some people make the college they went to a big part of their personality as adults (“I went to a college just outside of Boston”), and some people don’t talk at all about their college years.  What really determines your success and your place on this earth is you.  Your hard work, your ambitions, your dreams, your relationships, you.

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