Your Guide to College Applications

I know just as well as anyone how stressful the dreaded C-word can be. College applications are the textbook definition of the bane of the existence of high school seniors. As I was going through my own application process, I found a lot of help from friends who were older than me and had gone through the process themselves. Friends are always excellent resources in college applications, I decided to help my readers and friends out by creating a comprehensive guide with everything you need to know for college applications!

Terms to Know

Sometimes, application lingo can be a bit tricky. Here, I’ll break down the essentials.

  • Early Decision: Typically the earliest application deadline. It is a binding decision, and if you get in, you are required to go under this application plan. This plan is for people who know exactly where they want to go, what they want to do, and have no hesitations about their choice. You can only apply to one school under Early Decision.
  • Early Action: Most schools have Early Action and Early Decisions on the same day, however, this admission plan is non-binding. It is a way to get an earlier academic decision and show a school you’re interested. Most schools give better academic and scholarship consideration to Early Action candidates. You can typically apply to as many schools as you want under Early Action.
  • Regular Decision: The decision date that most applicants apply under. It is a deadline sometime around the beginning of the new year, with most decisions being returned in March. This admission plan is also non-binding, so you can apply to as many as schools as you want with this plan, but there are no special considerations with this plan.
  • Rolling Admission: Very similar to Regular Decision, except with a much later deadline. Most schools have deadlines in late spring or early summer, and some have no deadlines. Because of the loose deadlines, decisions are typically returned within 2-3 weeks of submission.
  • SSR: Abbreviation for Student Score Report (the unofficial score report from College Board that students can download as a PDF after their scores are released). It costs around $12 to send your SAT scores to a school (beyond the options given at the time you take your test) officially, but some schools will accept unofficial score reports for your application.
  • Testing Optional: Some schools no longer require you to send your SAT or ACT scores with your application. While they can be sent and be used as an additional resource or for scholarship consideration, they are not necessary at testing-optional schools.
  • FAFSA: The Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Almost every school requires students to apply for  financial aid through the FAFSA, and it is submitted alongside your application. You can get started at https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa to create your profile and send your FAFSA to up to 10 schools at a time. It can even be linked with your/ your parents IRS information, which makes it much easier to fill out.
  • CSS: The CSS Profile is another way to apply for financial aid, and only some schools require or use it. It is run through the College Board (the same people that run the SAT and AP tests). It costs $25 to set up your account (which includes your first school to send it to), and $16 for each additional school you want to send it to. The CSS profile is a lot more detailed and requires more information than the FAFSA. 

Dates To Know

While every school has different deadlines, there are a few important universal ones. The Common Application opens for new students on August 1st. While it may seem like you can get started earlier, the program resets every year at the end of July, so any progress you make before 8/01 will be deleted. The essay questions for the Common App are usually released in the spring, and can be started on a separate document and then copied into the Common App form. FAFSA opens on October 1st. It is typically a long and bothersome process to fill out the FAFSA, but worksheets are usually provided online so you can find everything you need to fill out your FAFSA before you start it. May 1st of your senior year is “decision day,” the day when enrollment deposits are due at most colleges, and seniors celebrate by wearing apparel from the school they choose to attend. 

All About the Common App (and why it’s different from other applications)

The Common Application is the application that most students use in their college process. It is a “one-stop-shop” for colleges, as there are over 750 schools as a part of the program. When you sign up, you fill out the questions on the “common app” tab, which you only need to complete once and is sent to every school. You can add schools from the “college search” tab, and view your overall progress from the “dashboard” tab. Most schools have additional questions to answer (usually about residency, majors, clubs, and other school-specific information). Some schools have additional writing questions, which can be completed on an outside document and then pasted into the box. You do not need to send your common app to every school at once, each school gets sent separately and individually.

The Common App is great for students, as it does save a lot of time and effort. However, not every school is listed on the Common App. Some schools require that you use their own “school” application, or another application like the Coalition Application or the SUNY/CUNY application. These applications all have similar questions and requirements, it is just through a separate program. For students applying to multiple schools in a “system” (like the SUNY system), it would be wise to apply through the system’s application so you are only paying one application fee for multiple schools. While I do strongly recommend using the Common App, you have to use the best option provided from each school. Sometimes, a school will waive your application fee if you use their own application, which is a great deal, but most of the time, those offers apply on the Common App as well. With applications, it’s really whatever makes the most sense to you and gives you the least amount of stress.

All About FAFSA and Filing Financial Aid

Financial aid is a difficult process. There’s a lot of information required, but it’s definitely worth filling it out and submitting it to see what a school might offer you. Many schools tie their merit scholarships to financial aid packages, meaning you must submit financial aid to receive a merit scholarship, even if the merit scholarship has no financial need requirements. Almost every school wants the FAFSA. It’s the federal student aid form, and can be linked to your/your parents’ IRS account to help fill out some of the data. Although most of the data carries over, there is some financial data you need to fill out on FAFSA directly. The form updates every year, and worksheets can be found on their website (linked above). Other than financial information, you have to choose what schools you send the form to. You can pick at most 10 schools per form. If you have more than 10 you are applying to, you have to wait about 2 weeks and can then remove the schools that have already received your form and add the additional schools. The order does not truly matter, but I recommend placing them in your order of most likely to attend to least likely to attend. Some states have additional forms to fill out, like the TAP in New York State, and require a school located in New York to be at the top of the list so it redirects to the TAP site correctly after submission.

Finding Additional Scholarships

College is by no means cheap. And let’s face it, very few schools give out more than 5-10 full scholarships a year. This means you could still be paying a couple thousand dollars a year for your tuition and expenses. Most might turn to loans, but that will easily put you into student debt for a good portion of your life. Luckily, thousands, if not more, of organizations understand how expensive college is and have established scholarships to reward excellent academics and other notable skills. Some are generic, and simply involve a writing piece or a minimum GPA. Others are major or skill specific, and require you to show off your talents. There are even some you can get based on your parents’ jobs, organizational affiliations, or military status! When I saw there’s a scholarship for everything, I mean it. There’s hundreds of websites with scholarship searches, but I’ve found that they are not always accurate or up to date. Now, I just Google what I’m looking for!

The Timeline of Your Application Process

Junior year:

  • January – May: begin researching colleges you’re interested in and putting together a list, try to start visiting some schools, take the SAT or ACT
  • Spring: Common App releases their essay questions on their website, be sure to get started early!
  • Before the school year ends: ask 2-3 teachers for letters of recommendation so they can either start over the summer, or you’ll be at the top of their list in the fall. Ask teachers you have good relationships with, and who represent why you’d be good fit for a college student (especially if they reflect why you’d be good in your selected major)

Over the Summer:

  • August: begin the Common App (and all other applications that have opened) before school starts, begin to work on supplement writing pieces
  • Whole summer: review and begin to narrow down your choices for schools, try to find fee waivers for your applications, decide if you want to retake the SAT or ACT

Senior Year:

  • September-October: Finish getting all of your recommendations, supplements, and paperwork together, meet with your guidance counselor to get your GPA and rank and any final information you need to finish your application
  • October: Begin to complete the FAFSA
  • Thanksgiving: should be your deadline for finishing your applications, go into the holiday season with less work and less stress! (note: some schools may have earlier deadlines, be sure to keep track of all your deadlines)
  • December: begin to hear back from schools
  • January-April: find outside scholarships, revisit schools and attend accepted student days, meet with parents, teachers, and guidance counselors to get ready for graduation and decide on a school
  • May 1: National Decision Day, make sure to have your deposit in and wear apparel from your new school!
  • Rest of Senior Year: finish out strong, get ready to graduate!

Final Notes

College applications definitely seem daunting, but can be easy when you break it all down. My best advice would to be plan ahead and work on time management. Getting work done over the summer is a lot easier than doing it when you get back to school for your senior year. Also remember that it’s ok to not totally know what you want, or to change your mind in the process (my story coming in a later post), and that transferring is always an option if you’re unhappy with the school you pick.

I hope you found this information helpful and useful for your college application process! I will have more blog posts and videos coming in the next few months talking more about high school and college, and in the meantime, do not hesitate to reach out to me with any more questions you have or post ideas you’d like to share!

See ya real soon,

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