Getting Started with College Applications: Making Your List

It’s college application season—an exciting but stressful time of year for high school seniors and their families. For many families, navigating college applications is a bewildering process. There are so many options, so many factors to consider, and so many steps in the process. This is especially true for students who are the first in their family to go to college or whose family members may have attended universities in other countries. Additionally, distance learning may make it more difficult to access your school’s resources, like college counselors. Anyone feeling overwhelmed with the application process this year should use the following guide to start navigating the application process.

The first step in the application is to make a list of colleges and universities to which you are going to apply. Fortunately, most colleges in the United States use the Common App, a universal application that can be completed and submitted online for all of the schools on your list. Students should refer to the First Time Applicant Guide for a list of required materials and a general timeline of the application process. Keep in mind that each school you apply to may have unique requirements, such as additional letters of recommendation, writing samples, or SAT subject tests.

Pro Tip: Keep a running list of all your extracurricular activities, awards, and honors, including the dates and durations. You will need this information to strengthen your application, and it’s easy to forget if you don’t write it down.

Once you are familiar with the requirements of the Common App, you can make your list of schools. The first decision to make is how many schools you will be applying to. Conventional wisdom says that you should apply to around 7-10 schools. It’s unwise to apply to less than seven schools, and students should be careful applying to more than ten. Avoid applying to too many schools and putting too little effort into each one. Another factor to consider is that schools have application fees, up to $75 each. The more schools you apply to, the more it will cost. Students with high financial need can get their application fees waived.

How do you choose which schools to apply to? The answer depends on your specific goals and needs. Do you already know what you want to study? If you are sure of your interests, then begin by searching schools with strong programs in your intended field. For example if you know you want to be an engineer or an actor, check out schools that specialize in engineering or performing arts. The U.S. News and World Report is a great resource for lists and rankings of colleges and universities. If you aren’t sure what you want to study, choose schools based on how you want to spend the next 4+ years of your life. Ask yourself:

Do you want to live in a big city or a small college town?

What kind of campus culture are you looking for?

Is the size of the institution important to you?

Do you prefer an HBCU or women only college?

Do you prefer public or private schools?

Do you want to stay close to home?

Are you interested in Greek life?

Is the reputation or prestige of the institution important to you?

Do you want to go to a liberal arts college or a research university?

Once you’ve narrowed yourself down to schools that suit your preferences, the next thing to consider is your chance of getting into each one. Generally, you want to divide your list into safety, target and reach schools. Safety schools are those that are almost certain to accept you. Target schools are those where your application is similar to that of students generally admitted. Finally, reach schools are those where you have a low chance of acceptance but can do so with a stellar holistic application. The average test scores and GPA of the admitted class may be a bit higher than yours, but your demonstrated capacity for service, leadership, and creativity is exhibited in your extracurriculars, for example. To determine how your profile compares to the average student at a given institution, check out the school’s website for information on average GPA, test scores, and level of accomplishment. The majority of schools you apply to should be target schools, with a few reach schools and a couple of safeties. And by no means should you apply to any school you cannot see yourself attending!

Don’t let this part of the process intimidate you. This is the fun part! This is where you get to fantasize about life in college and the kind of intellectual community you want to be a part of. At this point in the college application process, you get a sense of the philosophy of each institution and whether you can get behind their core values. Look into virtual tours and prospective student events. Try to enjoy the ride and do not underestimate yourself! Strong applications convey a strong belief in your own ability to succeed as well as genuine excitement to embark on the next stage of your scholarly journey. The best preparation is to work hard and cultivate confidence.

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