By Kathryn Marquis Azevedo
Director of English, Sullivan Tutoring, Inc.
As most people know, applying to college is not a simple matter of filling out an application, getting accepted and calling it a day. (If only!) In fact, applying to college is one of the last steps of the whole process. In the following Q&A, Renée Serrano of College Quest Advising helps demystify applying to college, and discusses what students need to consider before they even begin the process.
1. When should students begin thinking seriously about the college application process?
Students should seriously start thinking about their college application process in January of their junior year. The sooner you begin the process, the more organized you will be, producing a better application that will represent who you truly are. When you procrastinate with the process, your application will be rushed and potentially less effective.
Preferably, a student should begin thinking about the admissions process during freshmen year. Freshmen need to familiarize themselves with the different types of colleges and what is needed to qualify to apply. From the first day of high school, you make decisions that will determine what choices you have for college. With a global pool of candidates to choose from, colleges and universities are demanding excellence. Students need to develop a course of action that best highlights their strengths, talents and passions through course selection, grades and activities.
2. Many students have no idea how to begin the college search. What do you recommend as a first step?
a. The first thing a student should do is to sign up on www.collegeboard.org. The College Board comprises all you need to know about colleges and admissions. This is also the site that you use to register for the SAT Test.
b. Visit local colleges whenever the opportunity arises. During your junior year, you should sign up for college admissions information sessions/college tours. (Sign up on college websites.) If you cannot attend the information session/tour, visit the campus on your own and be sure to visit the admissions office to let them know that you are visiting, inquire about the college and ask questions!
c. Request information from colleges that you are interested in on the college’s website.
d. Listen carefully to fellow students who are currently experiencing the college application process. Ask them questions about their experience and if they have any advice.
e. Utilize your guidance counselor’s expertise.
f. Attend your high school’s college information seminars and ask questions!
g. Go to college fairs in your area. Meet the admissions counselors and ask questions!
3. What is the biggest misconception students have about the college application process?
Most students and parents don’t realize how much time and effort it takes for the college application process, therefore beginning this endeavor too late and rushing the process, which directly impacts the quality of their applications.
Students don’t recognize that their whole profile is important and considered. Admission isn’t just dependent upon their grades and testing. The student’s “whole picture” is considered and every segment of the application should be strong and concise.
Also, students and parents can sometimes get caught up in the college “name game,” losing sight of the many outstanding colleges and universities in this country. There is excessive dialogue about colleges and universities during the junior year of high school, creating unnecessary competition and undue stress that could be avoided with the understanding that there are over 4000 colleges and universities in the United States that offer incredible opportunities in higher education.
4. Could you please explain the differences between Early Action and Early Decision, and what are reasons one would or would not choose to apply to college these ways?
EARLY DECISION-ED: represents a binding commitment to one college. You are usually allowed to apply as an Early Action candidate to other colleges. If you are admitted as an ED student, you are required to attend that college and immediately upon notification of acceptance, you have to withdraw all of your other college applications.
EARLY ACTION-EA: is non-binding which means that you can apply to other colleges even if you were admitted as an Early Action student. You are not required to attend that college if you are admitted as an Early Action candidate. In most situations, you can apply to more than one college as an Early Action applicant. Most EA schools allow you to apply to an ED college simultaneously, but that is not the case with all colleges, so make sure you read each college’s specific ED/EA program before proceeding with your decisions.
There is a new program initiated at several colleges called, SINGLE CHOICE or RESTRICTIVE EARLY ACTION. Some schools that offer this program include but are not limited to Harvard, Stanford, Yale and Boston College. This means that you are only allowed to apply to one college Early Action even though the college’s decision is not binding and you wouldn’t have to attend if you were admitted to a Restrictive Early Action program. You need to pay close attention to the Early Action program description to make sure that you understand fully the program you intend on using.
It is difficult to determine who should apply Early Decision, Early Action or Regular Decision because it depends upon the individual student along with many factors. If you are absolutely certain that you want to attend a specific college that has been your “dream school” for some time AND your “whole picture” is perfectly matched with that college’s specifications, then ED could be beneficial, considering that it tells that college that it is your absolute first choice and you would attend if given an ED acceptance. If you have any doubt that it is your first choice college and you are not at least perfectly matched to that college, it certainly would be a big risk on your part.
As for Early Action, this can show the colleges an early interest and preparation on the student’s part, which is somewhat beneficial but it is absolutely crucial that you are academically matched to that college with a “whole picture” profile that would add to its college community.
It is vitally important that you read each college’s specific Early Decision or Early Action program requirement so not to limit your college options.
5. Most students have heard of financial aid in the form of government loans, but not everyone knows how government-funded assistance works, and many find it intimidating. What do you tell students about the financial aid process to make it less overwhelming?
Financial aid makes up the difference between what a family can contribute to a college’s tuition and living cost. Financial Aid is intended to help students pay educational expenses – tuition and fees, room and board and books and supplies at a college or university.
There are 3 types of Financial Aid.
a. Loans (must be repaid)
b. Grants and scholarships- including Merit-based Awards which are given to an accepted applicant. They do not require repayment and are strictly based on student high school academic performance.
c. Work Study and other employment programs that allow the student to work and earn money during their college years.
Students and their families are entitled to fill out the free FAFSA form, which will ask many questions about the family’s finances (which involves the family’s and student’s tax return information.) The FAFSA needs to be completed sometime after January 1 of the student’s senior year. You can find more about Financial Aid by reading information provided by the U.S. Department of Education. You must read your college’s website to determine its specific FAFSA deadline: many are February 1.
Some colleges also require that you fill out the CSS/Financial Aid Profile, which is found on collegeboard.org.
The sooner that you complete your FAFSA and/or CSS profile form, the better. Colleges distribute funds early and if you miss the deadlines, it is possible they will not have enough money to award to you, even if you qualify.
If you are not given an amount of financial aid that you feel you need from a college of your choice and have been admitted to that college, it is not unusual for a family to contact the school to ask for more financial aid in order for you to attend. Most colleges have to wait until the May 1 deadline to be able to tell you if there is any money available but it is worth a call. Many schools can accommodate you if they have the finances available.
Here are some websites that may help you:
6. Besides financial aid, what other forms of financial assistance are available to students?
There are thousands of scholarships available to students who are entering college. Typically these scholarships are based in the student’s home community. Most high school guidance departments list many local and national scholarships, application information and general requirements so be sure to check in with your guidance department. Check with them early and often in the process because many have specific application deadlines.
There are websites that you can join for free which will ask you to fill out a survey. This allows the scholarship site to continuously match you with national scholarships that correspond to your profile. You can sign up for these sites in the beginning of your junior year. NEVER pay any money or give these sites your credit card information-these particular sites are mostly out to scam you. Here are a few sites to visit:
7. What can parents do to make applying to college less daunting for their son/daughter?
Parents are welcome to sign up for collegeboard.org. This site has a wonderful “Parents” tab that will walk you through most of the college application process. I often tell parents to sign up for the SAT Question-of-the-Day on collegeboard.org — along with their student and siblings — to discuss the question and answer at dinnertime. It is a great way to show your children what the SAT is about while having some fun competition between the parents and children. (The children usually win!)
Parents, please remember that junior year of high school is filled with mastering long and arduous tests, visiting college campuses and college fairs, filling out lengthy and involved applications, writing many personal essays and meeting what seems to be a million different deadlines while attending classes, acing midterms and finals, finding a date for prom, and dealing with the finality of graduation and the uncertainty of what the future holds. This is enough to overwhelm most of us. Parents can most certainly help make the college application process much easier and less stressful. Be forewarned, though, that most children will be a tad grumpy during this process and the parents are the first to receive the wrath of the college applicant. Here are some helpful hints on how you can help your child:
- Start the process early.
- During the high school years, visit college campuses whenever you have an opportunity. This will help your child understand the differences between a large and small school as well as a city campus vs. a rural one. Try to visit while college is in session because most schools feel completely different when there are no students hurrying from class to class.
- Try not to add stress to the process by revealing your stress (because you will be stressed through the process as well). Try to take the emotion out of your role in the process…keep them on task without nagging.
- Application management: keep track of what has been completed, what needs to be completed and the very important deadlines. Organize and file necessary papers.
- Help research schools.
- Listen to your child explain what he or she wants from a college experience.
- Discuss any financial or geographic restrictions before they apply or are admitted.
- Review applications and essays for obvious errors and typos before they are submitted.
- Be sure to have your child contact the college admissions department with any questions or to make appointments. Let your child speak for him/herself when it comes to any interaction with the college admissions representatives.
- Do not complete any part of their application for them, especially the essays!
- Be involved but know the boundaries. Your support is crucial in your child’s college application process.
- Be realistic in your child’s abilities and strengths.
- Be informed! There are many books available that will familiarize you with the college application process. Here are a few to review:
- The Gatekeepers-Jacques Steinberg
- The College Guide for Parents-Charles Shield (Published by the College Board)
- The Fiske Guide to Colleges-Fiske
8. In your field, I imagine you work with many college-bound athletes. Whereas athletes seem to be taking their SATs/ACTs much earlier than in the past, when should athletes begin thinking about colleges? Is the application process different for athletes than for non-athletes, and are they dealing with different expectations?
The first step is to register on the NCAA initial Eligibility Clearinghouse website, NCAA.org, in the spring of their junior year. Your guidance and/or athletic office at your high school should have the necessary forms and guidelines for registration.
Also, become familiar with the NCAA rules and regulations related to recruiting. This is also found on the website.
The student athlete should actively pursue those institutions and coaches that are interested. Let college coaches know that you are interested in playing for them if they haven’t pursued you. Send an introductory letter to coaches, expressing your interest and highlighting your athletic and academic achievements. You can find their names on the college website. If a college coach is interested in you, you might have to provide a five or ten minute video highlighting your talent. You should also include a sports résumé. Include your high school coach’s name and phone number (ask your coach first for permission) and tell him/her of your aspirations.
In the end, the college admissions office makes the decision whether to admit you, not the coach. Make your decision based on the college or university and whether you want to attend that university…coaches might leave the college so you want to make sure you are honestly interested in the institution that you commit to.
The college application process is generally the same for the student athlete and he/she should follow the regular guidelines and timelines for the college application process.
9. Many students have heard of the Common Application (Common App), but do not fully understand how it works. Could you please explain the Common App and any benefits it may have?
The Common Application is a not-for-profit organization that provides an admission application that students can complete and send to over 450 colleges. Last year, almost 2.5 million applications were submitted via the Common App online.
The Common App allows students to fill out an application once and submit to the colleges that are on their list and to members of Common App. College members give equal consideration to both the Common Application and their own application, and many college members now use the Common Application as their only application form.
You can create an account on the Common App online and save work on your application as you complete it. It allows you to see what you have completed and submitted. Some colleges that use the Common App have a supplemental form listed as well. You will be able to keep track of teacher recommendations and guidance counselor forms.
There is no cost to the student at all for this wonderful service. You should log onto the Common App as soon as you can (usually sometime in August before your senior year) and make sure you fill it out accurately.
The application was created because of its convenience, so take the opportunity to save some time!
10. How important do you think the college essay is, and what can students do to make theirs stand out?
The college essay is an essential part of the college application process. A poorly written essay can cause an all-star student to get rejected from a college while an outstanding essay can help a borderline student be accepted. You should dedicate a considerable amount of time in developing your ideas and writing essays that reveal a great deal of who you are and what is important to you. College admissions counselors use the essay as a way to get to know you, and to see what is important to you and what makes you tick. This is where you can distinguish yourself from the rest of the applicants. Your essay can make your application shine, or make the difference between you and an academically equal applicant.
- Make sure that you answer the question that the college is asking.
- Do not retell any part of your application and do not list your accomplishments or achievements.
- The best essays tell a story that is interesting, reflect your passions and reveal your personality.
- The essay is where you can show your maturity and depth of character.
- Make sure you have your essays edited by a few different people: your English teacher, your parents, or any adult that you trust. Listen to their suggestions and comments.
- Do not solely rely on spell-check for spelling or grammatical errors.
- Do not copy your essay from any other source. Colleges have access to plagiarizing software that will determine if any of your essay has been copied from another source.
- The essay is also used to evaluate your ability to express yourself effectively in written form. The ability to write well is critical for college success so put your best foot forward.
The college application process can be a complicated, confusing, and lengthy process but when you start early and understand the process, it will be an ultimately rewarding experience for both students and parents. Good luck with your college application journey and your future college adventure!
Renée L. Serrano, M. Ed., is an Independent College Counselor. She and Mary K. Baker, Ed. D., who resides in California, own College Quest Advising. Renée provides private consultations, which consist of personal in-depth counseling to make the college application process structured, simplified and exciting. She works one-on-one with freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors who want viable choices and extensive resources for their COLLEGE QUEST.
Renée has a M. Ed in Higher Education Administration and Counseling, and has extensive work experience in several higher educational institutions in and around New England. She lives with her husband Anthony; daughter Ashleigh, Indiana University 10’; sons AJ, University of Southern California -Cinematic School 12’; and
Bubba, Harvard, 14’.