College Application Tips You Need to Know Before Applying to Your Dream School

Student Life

The college application process is daunting, I won’t lie. Knowing that all of your hard work throughout four years will be boiled down to a few sheets of paper seems unfair. There’s so much to you! How could they possibly understand everything within a small application? Admission officers understand that what you give them to read is not an exhaustive list of every time you’ve done something amazing, nor is it a complete representation of who you are as a person. That being said, here are a few tips that helped alleviate application stress for me.

1. Start the Process Early

This doesn’t mean have all of your college essays done sophomore year. You have so much life to experience every day in high school, and your feelings for colleges might change with everything new that you learn between reading this article and applying, so it isn’t worth it to start that early. During my sophomore year, I compiled a list of colleges that interested me and just looked around on their websites. That was it. Doing so helped me to better understand what aspects of colleges appealed to me, if there were any programs I was interested in, and if there were any colleges I wanted to visit.

If you’re reading this article as a junior, however, it can be beneficial to get started early because it will make the whole process easier. During my junior year I planned to visit colleges on my list. Unfortunately, COVID-19 ruined these plans, but online college information sessions were the next best thing and were surprisingly helpful.

2. Research, Research, Research

As I mentioned, I researched schools and looked on their websites. Environmental consciousness is very important to me, so I found schools that care about the environment as much as I do. This is an important tip to consider; if you start trying to find places that align with your morals and interests, it can shorten your college list and make you more excited about applying and going to college!

3. Book a Flight and Visit!

Visiting schools is important to the application process; it’s one thing to see the way an admissions office sells their school online, but a completely different thing to see it candidly. Of course, during COVID-19, this proves difficult. In light of this, I recommend visiting schools nearby, even if they don’t seem too interesting. When you get to the local campuses, ask yourself: do I fit in here? Do I like the campus? The atmosphere? If not, that's still good information; knowing what you don’t like is just as important as knowing what you do. Once you find schools that you like, see if you can visit them online if you can't in person. Schools will appreciate the extra effort to learn information about them when you can’t travel to their campus directly. Online information sessions, alumni and student panels, as well as online campus tours can help you get a feel for the school without even stepping foot on their campus,

4. Narrow your List

It’s likely that you’ll find yourself in a similar position that I was in not too long ago, with 20 schools on my list, and a great need to narrow that list down. I continued my research and contacted students at the colleges. I asked them what they like and what they don’t like about the schools. Within this, I got a greater sense of the community’s morals as well as a true student’s perspective, which is crucial. After this, I narrowed my list down to a few reach schools, a few schools I could likely get into, and a few safety schools, all of which I really liked. This way, no matter the scenario, I’m more than likely to get into at least one of the schools and be happy there. Having a balance on your list is super important, so keep that in mind as you create your college list.

5. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

When you’ve found the schools that you like and get to the writing section of your application, remember to reuse all possible information. There’s no use creating new essays for each college supplemental, if you had a similar question for a different college. You can always take bits and pieces that you liked from other essays. It’s your own writing that you’re proud of that makes sense in that space, so why do extra work? Make sure that you're answering the question that the specific college is asking, but don't feel bad about drawing inspiration from some of your other supplemental essays.

6. Get Specific!

Many colleges will ask in their application, “Why (college name)?” to gauge what you’re interested in about the school. With these supplementals, it’s important to remember that the colleges want to hear why you love them specifically. They shouldn’t be able to replace their college’s name in the essay with another college name and have it still hold true. For example, “I love UTampa because it has nice weather” isn't ideal because you could replace UTampa with Emory and the essay would still hold true. Writing "Why [college name]" is where your extensive research can really shine. They want to hear about your particular fascinations with the College. They want to know what you’ll add to the community and what insight you can bring from your experiences.

7. Don't Downplay your accomplishments

Many of us are guilty of giving other people credit for our own work, but college essays are the perfect place to hype yourself up! You’ve done so much in your life, and this is your opportunity to brag about yourself. Colleges want to hear every single amazing thing that you’ve ever accomplished. Plus, it’ll feel great to recount all of your feats. There's only 10 spaces in the activity section and 5 in the awards or commendations section, so be ready to write quick descriptions of your extra-curricular activities.

8. Think Big

Going along with the last point, remember to apply to colleges that you like regardless of how scary that acceptance rate number is. You deserve to take risks and see what happens. Oftentimes, as well, applying Early Decision to harder colleges will make your chances of admission higher, so if you’re in a position to apply ED to the college of your dreams, go for it! You've made it this far, why stop now?

9. Interview!

Interviews are an important part of the college process (if available) because they give you a chance to showcase your personality. The combination of your grades, standardized test scores, and your essays do not define you. Yes, your essays are a great place to express yourself, but nothing is the same as face-to-face (or face-to-screen-to-face-to-screen) interaction. Interviews are an opportunity to ask questions (always come prepared with questions) about the school one on one with a qualified alumni or member of the admissions staff.

Before I get into some tips, I’ll mention that interviews can be scary! With essays, you can leave the prompt, think about it, and come back. With interviews, I was always afraid that I had to be “on” all the time. I purposefully scheduled my first interview with Haverford, a school that is known for its kindness, which was extremely helpful. In this interview, I realized that the interviewers are only human, and they want to learn more about you, not stress you out. They’ll work with you to fill awkward silences.

The interviewer will likely ask you about what you like about your current school, what classes you’re taking, etc. to get a general gist of who you are. Next, they’ll probably want to know what you like about their college. Researching the school and finding some information that’s specific to the college you're interviewing with is extremely important. For example, majors, clubs, or classes that interest you there. This knowledge will show the interviewer that you are genuinely interested in the school.

Lastly, the interviewers want to know you, not the person you think the school wants. The interviewer probably will not be the person that makes the final admissions decision, so remember that your time with them is valuable, but not life and death.

10. Always Send Emails

After interviews, information sessions, etc... get your name on their minds! If you have specific questions, email the admissions representative. If you don’t know how to find your admissions rep, you can look it up. A quick search for, for example, “UPenn Massachusetts admissions representative,” should bring you a list of that school's admissions representatives for each region. Also, If the school doesn’t offer interviews, email an admissions rep all the questions that you would want to find out in interviews. If you don’t ask questions, they’re not going to know that you’re curious and driven. Remember that these correspondences should be respectful; you always want to lead with your best foot forward.

You will get where you need to be, and the college process is only temporary. Put your hardest work into it, and the rest is the reader’s job. Remember that what you want is more important. Before you know it, your applications will be done. In the meantime, try not to stress too much. Good luck!

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Ava Chase

Ava Chase is a senior in high school who uses writing as a creative outlet. She is an active member of her community and loves to volunteer. Her ideal day would include playing music, reading by the fireplace and cuddling up with her dogs.