Everyone and their mother seems to have advice about college…
...but well-meaning uncles and even teachers sometimes forget how much work it is to apply to college. People talk about how exciting it is and how you’ll be taking the next step towards your future, but they don’t always mention that the process is stressful, too. Not only do you have to research the colleges you want to apply to, study for the SATs, write a personal statement essay and a bunch of supplements, fill out financial aid forms, ask teachers for letters of recommendation, and do some interviews, but you’re somehow also supposed to keep your grades up, study for AP tests, and continue with your extracurricular activities. I’m not going to lie: it’s a lot.
I’m here to tell you: all of that juggling, time management, and careful coordination will absolutely be worth it. This process does take time, but rather than thinking of it as a chore, frame it as an investment. The more you can thoughtfully research different colleges and plan out an application timeline for yourself, the more you’ll be able to catch glimpses of future versions of yourself—a version doing lab research, or writing a novel as a senior thesis, or balancing nature time with class time at a rural college. And you’ll give yourself enough time to turn those possible futures into reality. It’s work, but don’t forget that it’s exciting work!
In this post, we’ll go over some tips for researching colleges, building your college list, and strategizing about how to build your application action plan. In future posts in this series, we’ll take a deep dive into the components of the college application, and cover more about how to write and edit the personal statement and supplements.
The right tools for the search
There’s a ton of information out there about colleges: individual websites for each school, forums, and more rankings and “top 10” lists than you can shake a stick at. But when you start looking at colleges, probably as a sophomore or junior in high school, where do you even begin to search? Here are some useful places to start:
- The College Board’s BigFuture tool allows you to search colleges by different criteria, including test scores, location, and diversity. You can also create an account to save colleges to keep researching later.
- Cappex also allows you to search based on different criteria, and in addition has a “fit meter” that predicts how good of a fit a college will be for you based on your preferences. You shouldn’t let that percentage completely guide your decisions, but it can still provide a good overview.
So now you’re actually searching through colleges, and starting to get excited about what you’re seeing. What kinds of details should you actually be looking for? Here are some criteria to keep in mind:
- Size: Do you strongly feel you’d do best in a small community, with 2,000 undergraduates or less? Or would you feel more at home in a sea of students at a research university with 60,000 students or more? (By the way: in the United States, a college refers to an institute that confers a bachelor’s degree, whereas a university could contain a college as well as graduate schools. For example, Harvard University exists as an institution that contains Harvard College, Harvard Medical School, Harvard Divinity School, and so on.)
- Geography/Setting: Do you want to go to college right in the city? Or miles away from the nearest town? Somewhere in between? Are you looking to stay close to home, or move to a different state?
- Public/Private: Public universities have lower tuition for students that apply from the same state than for out-of-state students and are funded by state and federal government, whereas private colleges are funded by endowments and private donors, and have one tuition that tends to be on the higher side.
- Cost/Financial Aid: What’s the cost of attending this college? (Keep in mind this will be more than just tuition, as fees and housing costs quickly add up.) By the same token, does this school offer good financial aid? Sometimes attending a private school that offers substantial financial aid can be more affordable than choosing a public university.
- Teaching vs Research: Is a low student-to-faculty ratio most important to you, or would you rather attend a university at the forefront of research in a particular field? What kinds of learning preferences do you have?
- Availability of Majors: This is most relevant if you already know what you’d like to study, since certain colleges, for example, have stronger engineering programs than others. Some schools may offer interdisciplinary or specialized majors that are not as common, and may be a strong selling point.
- Average SAT/ACT scores and Entrance GPA: On many college search sites, you’ll be able to find information not only about a particular college, but also about the students that college accepts. Don’t eliminate colleges right away if they seem to only take students above your SAT range or GPA—you should just keep these factors in the back of your mind and make sure your list includes a range of colleges at different levels of competitiveness. Later you can reevaluate your list to make sure it isn’t made up of too many “reach” schools. Eventually, you’ll want to make sure your list is more or less an even balance of “reach,” “target,” and “safety” schools.
Look ahead and map out your plan
If you’re a junior in high school, it might seem like you have tons of time to get the college application process sorted out—aren’t regular decision deadlines in the winter of senior year, after all? But this is really the crucial time to put a plan in place so that you’re doing what you need to do along the way. Your high school guidance counselor likely will have suggestions about what you should be focusing on when, so make sure to seek out their advice.
Sitting down with a calendar and setting some smaller deadlines for yourself before the big submission deadlines will save your future self headaches later on. College visits? Junior year is a great time to take some campus tours and talk to current students about their college. SAT or ACT? Make sure you’re on track to take it your junior spring, so that you’ll have time to study and retake it in the summer or fall if you need to. Summer plans? Don’t wait until the end of June to start making summer plans: many programs and awesome summer opportunities have deadlines as early as January, so be thoughtful about what kind of enriching summer you’d like to have. As far as your college list goes, you should aim to know which 7-12 colleges you plan to apply to by the summer between your junior and senior year, which will allow you to pace yourself accordingly as you start writing your applications.
Once you begin learning about the different colleges you might want to apply to, make sure you stay organized. It’s easy to become frustrated when you have to look up the same information over and over again, or when you know you have that one brochure somewhere but can’t find it in your pile of college stuff. Binders and folders will be your best friend for organizing the physical papers, and don’t underestimate the power of spreadsheets to help keep track of college stats, allow you to easily compare schools, and track all of your deadlines.
All this planning might feel a bit tedious when you start, but trust me that getting organized right when you start out will be something you’ll thank yourself for once you arrive in the frenzy of senior fall. If you’re methodical about this now, you won’t have to get stressed later on or worry that you’re missing something. You’ll know you have a plan, and you’ll get to focus on the fun part: exploring all your different options and getting excited about your possible futures.
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