10 Steps to Acing the College Application
By Robin Roenker from February 2014 Issue
Expert advice for high school students as you plan to choose and apply to colleges—including financial aid and college test strategies
If there's one thing that strikes fear into the heart of most typical high school students, it's the looming deadline of a pile of college applications—with all the essays, standardized tests, GPA reports, and questions that come with them.
But with a little careful planning, you can take some of the stress out of the college application process. Here's how:
1. Don't apply to too many schools.
You'll just wear yourself out, and the quality of your responses to application essays and questions will show that.
"Realistically, students should have visited all the schools they are interested in by the start of their senior year," says Billy Sarge, former director of Admissions at Thomas More College, and current director of Enrollment and College Counseling at Bishop Brossart High School in Alexandria. "Then they can narrow their list down to, at most, five to seven schools. They should aim to narrow their choices to two to four schools by January or February of their senior year." That gives students a very manageable number to work with at the height of admissions application and scholarship deadlines. (Want another reason to narrow your list? If you don't, the $50 to $100 application fees many colleges charge can add up quickly.)
2. Choose the colleges you plan to apply to carefully—and for good reasons.
(Not because you like the mascot or football team there.)
"If a student has as many as 10 or 15 schools on their application list, generally they can't even tell you why it is that they have chosen them all," says Traci Pooler, dean of Admissions at Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia. "We always encourage students to investigate a school before applying, and really know why it is that they are applying there."
To get a sense of the school's personality and if it matches your own, Pooler advises exploring the college's Web site and social media sites and scheduling a campus visit, where you can sit in on a class, meet with a professor in your area of interest, and even join in on an intermural sport or club activity you may be interested in.
Talking with your guidance counselor also helps. Nelson County High School guidance counselor Robin McCoy works with her students to help them identify where their best college "fit" may be—based on potential majors offered there or the setting (urban city university, large state school, small private college) they're after.
"I have a lot of students who come to me, and they really don't have any idea that only certain schools offer certain very specialized majors, like marine biology. So, I'll have to ask them, 'Do you want to stay in Kentucky and study biology, or do you want to go to a school in Florida that has a marine biology program?'" McCoy says.
Sarge also recommends that students take advantage of the opportunity to talk with college admissions reps who visit their schools or an arranged visit through the guidance office. "They are students' best source of specific information about a particular college or university. Building a relationship with a college admission officer at the college they're interested in applying to is one of the most important things students can do in the application process," Sarge says. "They are often the ones who personally review admission applications and serve on scholarship committees, and they can point a student in the right direction to get their questions answered prior to enrolling."
Know what forms are required to apply for admissions and scholarships.
3. Don't procrastinate. Be aware of deadlines—and don't miss them.
Once you've narrowed your list to the five or so schools you plan to apply to, go online to the schools' Admissions Office Web sites to investigate deadlines and application requirements. Make a detailed chart or Excel spreadsheet that lists all the due dates for admission applications, scholarship applications, housing applications, ACT or SAT reports, transcripts, financial aid forms, and any other required pieces of the application. Don't let missing a deadline keep you from getting into the college of your choice.
Centre College freshman Omolola "Lola" Fakunle of Louisville, a 2013 Sacred Heart Academy graduate, credits her "antiprocrastination approach of doing things ahead of time" with allowing her to put her best effort into her application. As a result, she not only gained admission to Centre, but also was awarded one of its prestigious Brown Fellowships.
Procedures and forms vary from college to college. Research each school so you know what they require. Several schools, like Western Kentucky University, for example, have made the move to merge their undergraduate admissions and scholarship applications into one comprehensive form.
"The move to one combined form allows us to ensure that all of our students who are eligible for scholarships are being considered," says Scott Gordon, WKU's director of Admissions.
Similarly, the housing application process differs from place to place. At some schools, like WKU, you can apply for housing before being admitted. At others, you must be admitted first. In either case, get your housing application in as soon as possible, because the sooner you apply, the better chance you'll have of being assigned your first choice of residence halls.
4. Strive to maintain a solid GPA from 9th grade on. And don't slack senior year.
While college may feel far off when you're a high school freshman or sophomore, the fact is, the grades you receive as a 9th- and 10th-grader do matter, since they will be figured into your final high school GPA that is reported to colleges on your transcripts. Work to keep your grades up, from the moment you step foot into high school.
And don't fall into the temptation of taking an easy course load senior year. College admission officers like to see a schedule of classes showing academic rigor beyond the minimum graduation requirements. What's more, says Pooler, if you slack senior year, once you get to college, you'll "have to learn how to study all over again."
5. Understand why extracurricular activities matter on your applications.
For highly competitive colleges that have a selective admissions process, having even a near-perfect GPA and standardized test score may not guarantee acceptance. Carefully detailing your out-of-class experiences on your application—whether in clubs, church groups, volunteer efforts, even part-time jobs, as well as honors or awards—can help set your application apart from others.
Pooler and Gordon say that while extracurricular activities aren't figured into a student's admission decision at either Lindsey Wilson or WKU, they can play a role in determining a student's potential scholarship eligibility at both schools. So take the time to answer questions about your extracurricular experiences carefully.
And have a teacher proof it before you submit.
6. Let your personality shine in your personal essay.
Centre student Lola Fakunle wrote her admission essay about how she makes her bed every morning. It was a unique metaphor for her attention to detail and dedication to a routine, which helped set her application apart and made her a memorable candidate for admission.
At Nelson County High, students write admission essays as part of their senior English class assignments, and teachers are available to read over them before students submit them. It's a process that helps lessen students' stress—and potential embarrassing grammar or spelling mistakes, McCoy says.
7. Fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) as early as you can.
You don't have to wait until your parents file their taxes to submit the FAFSA. Kate Ware, director of Student Financial Planning at Midway College, encourages students and parents to fill out their FAFSA form online (www.fafsa.ed.gov) as close to January 1—the date the form is available for the following fall semester—as possible. Forms are date-stamped for priority allocation, and getting your FAFSA in early will help ensure you don't miss out on potential federal and state funds through the Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority (KHEAA), which are often fully allocated to eligible students by the end of January or early February.
8. Take practice tests to prepare for the ACT or SAT. And take the test(s) more than once.
Don't waste time studying long lists of vocabulary words or trig problems in the back of your math book. The best, most efficient way to prepare for the ACT or SAT is to take full-length practice exams, says Colin Gruenwald, director of ACT and SAT programs at Kaplan Test Prep. (See below for many more of our Web exclusive "College test prep" strategies from Gruenwald).
Now that Kentucky students are required to take the ACT in March of their junior year, Pooler is seeing many students opt not to repeat the test. But she encourages everyone to take the ACT at least a second time. "Typically we're seeing those initial March ACT scores to be lower than scores on their subsequent tests," she says. Bonus: most colleges and universities in the admissions process will primarily consider your highest cumulative scores on either the SAT or ACT, so there's no harm in taking the test more than once.
9. Seek out letters of recommendation from teachers who know you well.
And provide them with a résumé or list of your accomplishments.
At Nelson County High, students are encouraged to fill out "brag sheets" to give to their recommenders, McCoy says, so that their letters can specifically reference the students' academic and extracurricular honors and awards.
10. Don't let the application process intimidate you.
You can find a college that's right for you.
If the stress of deadlines, personal essays, and extracurricular questionnaires—not to mention the fear of the dreaded "No Admission" letter in your mailbox—feels like too much for you to handle, don't despair. You don't have to let college slip you by.
Look for schools like Morehead State University, which has worked to make the application process as easy and unintimidating as possible. At Morehead, if you apply and meet their published minimum ACT and GPA requirements (available on their Web site), admission is guaranteed. Further, at Morehead, there are no admission deadlines, although they recommend that prospective students apply for admission as early as possible.
Just goes to show, with a little effort, every student can find a college that's a great fit.
Financial aid 101
Every student who is considering applying for college should plan to submit a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) online at www.fafsa.ed.gov. The form evaluates a student's financial need based on their family's income level. Submitting the FAFSA is how you become eligible for both federal forms of student aid (grants, work study, and loans) as well as certain state-administered aid programs.
Be sure the Web site you're on is the appropriate one (look for those that addresses end in .gov). Beware of look-alike sites that ask for fees to apply. Remember: filling out the FAFSA is free.
When a student submits the FAFSA initially, it will ask for the family's tax return information. Don't wait until tax time to submit the form. Just submit the figures using last year's returns or your best estimate of your annual income from recent paystubs, advises Kate Ware, director of Student Financial Planning at Midway College. Then, after your taxes have been filed with the IRS, you can go back into your FAFSA application online and update the form using the current tax figures. (But your date-stamp on the FAFSA will retain your initial submission date.)
Getting your FAFSA in as close to January 1 of your senior year is key because several federal- and state-administered financial aid programs are often completely allocated to eligible applicants by the end of January or early February each year. Don't miss out; apply early.
Popular state-administered aid programs, allocated by the Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority (KHEAA), include:
Kentucky College Access Program (CAP) Grant: up to $1,900 per year (2013–2014)* for Kentucky residents attending a public, private, or technical college.
Kentucky Tuition Grant (KTG): up to $2,930 per year (2013–2014)* for Kentucky residents attending a Kentucky private college or university. (*amount may change for 2014-2015 school year)
Both grants require application via FAFSA and are awarded to students who meet need-based eligibility requirements. (Go to www.kheaa.com for more information.)
Once students submit their FAFSA, they will be alerted to their full financial aid award via a letter, e-mail, or other form of communication from the college financial aid office where they have applied, usually by early spring. In that letter, the college will outline the complete financial aid package the student is eligible for—made up of a combination of federal grants, federal student loans, work study, CAP and KTG grants, scholarships from the college, and any KEES (Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship) money that the student may have earned, says Ware.
For more information on the KEES program, go to www.kheaa.com.
For more information about federal financial aid types and student eligibility, go to www.studentaid.ed.gov/types.
College test prep
First, realize that the ACT and SAT aren't like any other test you may be used to in school, advises Colin Gruenwald, director of SAT and ACT programs for Kaplan Test Prep.
"A standard high school test, or tests that students have been used to taking since childhood, involves sitting in class for a couple of weeks and listening and doing work, and then taking a test to evaluate whether or not you absorbed certain information. The ACT or SAT is very different from that. It's a predictive test. It primarily tests how you approach new information," Gruenwald says.
Second, think of the test as a step to meeting your own personal goals. "Think, 'This will allow me to move to campus, go to the college I want to attend, get the scholarships I need to attend college," Gruenwald says. Setting your ACT- or SAT-test prep in that context will keep you motivated with a goal in mind. "Set a goal for yourself, say, making a 27, and work toward that goal."
Third, don't waste valuable time by poring over long lists of vocabulary words or studying every trigonometry problem in your math book. Gruenwald points out that, for example, trigonometry questions account for only perhaps 1 total cumulative point on the ACT and there is no way to adequately cover the 1,000s of potential vocabulary words that could be used on either test.
Instead, study by taking practice exams. "Focus on the tests themselves. To prepare for the ACT or SAT, you should take the ACT or SAT," says Gruenwald. "And make sure you're taking the detailed practice exams, the type that will give you detailed results from each section, rather than simply your final, cumulative score," he says.
Taking a practice exam will give you a base score from which to work with: you can see which areas are your highest scoring sections, and where you're struggling. "You have to look at the results to analyze what they mean," Gruenwald says. "Are you getting a 25 on the ACT because you're getting a 25 on all four sections (English, math, reading, and science), or are you getting a 21 in two sections and a 29 in two sections? Those are radically different stories," he says. And they would affect how—and where—you would focus your studies for the actual test in order to make that goal of getting a 27 (or whatever your own personal goal may be).
Further, at Kaplan test prep courses, instructors work with students to identify even more subtle patterns in their practice test results: are they acing the beginning questions in each section but faltering toward the end? If so, the problem may be pacing.
You can access practice exams through your high school guidance counselor's office, with workbooks purchased at a bookstore, or through test prep courses like Kaplan's.
Another important tip: understand the scoring methods for each test, Gruenwald suggests. For the ACT, no points are deducted for a wrong answer, so you should never leave a question blank on the ACT. When in doubt, try to narrow the choices to a seemingly appropriate answer, or even guess if you must.
But on the SAT, wrong responses do count off: there is a 1/4 point reduction for each incorrect response. So, on the SAT, if you truly have no way of narrowing the possible answers to a likely correct response, it may be best to leave that question blank.
Finally, approach every ACT or SAT official test date like it's the only time you'll take the exam—even if you know you probably will take it again, Gruenwald advises. It's all about the mindset, and staying focused on your goal. "Everyone should go into the test thinking, this is the day I get the score I need," he says.
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