BY LINDSEY HANNAH
The year is nearly over. As seniors like myself commit to their respective universities, a daunting chalice is passed down to the next class: college applications. After a year of applications, tests, essays, and expos, I have compiled everything I’ve learned here in an effort to ease the process for posterity. Without further ado, here’s (my take on) how to college.
Though this article may seem to benefit only juniors, 11th grade is not the first year you should be thinking about college. Class rigor and grades are considered as early as freshman year, and a few bad grades at the beginning of a high school career can be difficult to recover from when aiming for a goal GPA. The best way to prepare for college applications during high school is to take classes which will challenge you academically and boost your weighted GPA, like honors and AP, but not too rigorous for you as an individual. Advanced classes do not mean much if you get bad grades in them, so it’s best to find a balance between rigor and potential for success.
Extracurriculars are another important component of college applications. The longer you are in a particular organization, the better. Not only is it better to be committed to a few relevant clubs than to join a ton of clubs just in time to put it on college applications, but the most senior members are usually considered for leadership positions, which is extremely valuable to colleges. Involvement outside of class also provides useful anecdotes for college application essays, which will be covered in depth later in the article.
The two main tests the colleges consider in applications are the SAT and the ACT. If you want to read an in-depth comparison and guide, read an article I wrote just on that. Essentially, though, the theme that rings throughout this article is true here as well: start early.
For instance, I practiced for the SAT, took both the PSAT10 and the PSAT, and took the SAT three times. I took the ACT at the latest possible date, with no preparation, and ended up scoring better than my best score on the SAT. However, it was too late to retake the ACT for a better score. If I had taken both tests early on, I would have known that I perform better on the ACT than the SAT and likely would have ended up with a better score overall score. Between tests and retests, studying is the only way to improve your score. There are hundreds of websites online to help, like Khan Academy, and prep books can also help with timing and getting used to the testing format.
Also, don’t ignore the PSAT! It is the only way to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship. Many schools offer hefty scholarships, even full rides, to semi-finalists and finalists. Even if you don’t make the cut for the scholarship, the practice won’t be wasted. The skills you develop can be used for when you take the SAT and even the ACT, due to their similar format. CCHS also offers a number of practice exams you can attend to get used to the testing environment and time limitations.
Essays have the potential to be one of the most time-consuming aspects of applying to college. Although some colleges allow you to consolidate your applications through the Common App, and thus only write a few essays for numerous colleges, many require answers to their own unique prompts. Old essays usually can serve as a good starting point for new prompts, however, as they usually stick with the same basic points: extracurricular experiences, leadership, and career goals, to name a few. So make sure you keep an organized file on your computer with all previous essays so that they’re easily retrievable.
When writing an essay, it is important to write at the appropriate level; don’t turn it into a miniature thesaurus or write as if you are texting a friend. College essays are more like the ones written in science classes than English classes; it is more about context than form. Naturally the essay still needs to be free of typos or grammatical errors, but it is equally important to convey through your form as through your content that you are putting forth your genuine self.
Although procrastination is never good, it can be especially harmful when writing these essays. The best way to ensure that you are putting forward your best work is to write it and then leave it alone for a few days. When you come back to it and read it again, it will be easier to tell how the college will perceive it as well as make it more likely to catch any mistakes. Furthermore, starting early gives you time to get edits from teachers, peers, your parents, or anyone who will offer a fresh perspective.
Picking which schools to apply to
Unfortunately, time and money limits mean you can’t just apply to every university in the United States and go to the one with the best offer; you’re going to need to narrow it down. When thinking about which schools to apply to, there are a few primary factors that should go into it. Location, price, size, the specific programs offered and ranking should all be taken into consideration.
First, do you want to stay in Florida or go out of state? Are you planning on living at home or staying in a dorm? What kind of climate do you prefer? These are all questions you should be asking yourself when thinking about what regions you are considering. Narrowing it down by location first can be a huge help in selecting the final schools you will apply to. If you are depending on a Bright Futures scholarship, for instance, you may only want to apply to Florida schools.
Price is also a major consideration. Out of state tuition is far higher than in state, as is the tuition for private schools versus public. Private schools, however, might be more likely to give generous scholarships, putting it in economic competition with other universities on your list.
Do you want to go to a big university like the University of Florida or a small liberal arts college like New College? The size of a university can help you decide which schools you are interested in.
Size is also connected to the number of programs a college offers. If you aren’t sure what your major will be, a big school with lots of options might be a better fit than a small college, which might not have the program you decide on down the road. The caliber of certain programs also varies from school to school. One university might be ranked lower than another overall, but have a far superior engineering program; if you want to be an engineer, the “lesser” school might pique your interest.
Some schools even have accelerated and dual admit programs which connect undergraduate and graduate school for incoming freshman, bridging the gap and making the stress of graduate applications less of a factor.
Finally, the most popular but not necessarily most important one: ranking. Lists by the Princeton Review and U.S. News and World Report are among the most trusted sources of national rankings. With the Ivy Leagues at the top, these lists definitely correlate with the caliber of universities.
However, different schools are suited to different people, and it is entirely possible to have a phenomenal college experience and be thoroughly prepared for graduate school or your career at a lower ranked school. When applying to universities, it is a good idea to select schools that fall at different levels of the national ranking system. Your top school, or “reach school,” and bottom school, “or safety school,” and many in between make for a balanced group of colleges and give you the best chances of getting into at least one school, getting the best possible scholarship, and getting in somewhere you might not have believed that you could.
Whether you land a full ride or culminate numerous small awards, scholarships make a big difference in the amount of debt you’ll be saddled with after you graduate. You should be applying for non-institutional scholarships throughout junior and senior year, since you don’t need to know which schools you’ve been accepted to or even which you plan on applying to in order to get these awards. Many institutional scholarships are automatically awarded based on your general college application, but beware: these have application deadlines in order to be considered, even for schools with rolling admission.
For other schools, you can apply for institutional scholarships as soon as you are accepted. You should do this right away, regardless of where the college falls on your list. Once admitted, you should also apply for any honors programs the school offers if you are interested in them, as these deadlines are usually not far off.
Which school to go to
Choosing which school to go to might be the hardest decision you’ve ever had to make, and as such, it should be given great consideration. Don’t choose a school because your parents went there or your friends have already committed; don’t choose a school because it has the best name or has a fancy library. These can be contributing factors in your decision, but ultimately you should choose a university that will provide you with the greatest opportunity to grow at the least sacrifice of your happiness. Growth is a painful process, whether you are developing study habits through challenging classes, learning life skills through being on your own, or eliminating procrastination habits by missing a few deadlines. Growth is good, but not to the degree that it makes you miserable.
You don’t want a school where you won’t be challenged, though. Just try to figure out the university that will be the right level of rigor for you as an individual.
Scholarships may offer new factors to consider that were not in the mix when applying to different schools. Colleges you may not have really considered going to may be higher on your list if they are offering a generous award. This shouldn’t be the only reason you go to a school, though. Make sure you will do well there based on other variables and would not just be going there for the money.
Finally, I have found that the best way to decide on a school, once you’ve narrowed it down using your brain, is to see what feels right in your heart. Cliche as it sounds, going to visit the colleges you are considering and seeing the campuses, meeting current and future students, and speaking with professors will let you know if you can picture yourself there. I have found that this has given me the clearest picture of which universities are right for me.
Though college applications represent you as an individual and the school you end up at is a highly personal choice, that doesn’t mean this lengthy process must be tackled alone. CCHS has numerous resources and faculty dedicated to providing opportunities, information, and guidance throughout the entire college application and decision process. You are probably already familiar with your class’ guidance counselor, by junior year you should start to familiarize yourself with Ms. Siwek, CCHS’ BRACE advisor. BRACE stands for Broward Advisors for Continuing Education. Ms. Siwek offers invaluable insights on this process, from the compiled scholarship list she emails to the entire senior class to one-on-one guidance meetings that students can schedule with her.
More than anything else, the best advice that I can offer you is this: take a deep breath. This should be exciting, not stressful. As long as you do your research, apply to multiple schools, avoid procrastination like the plague and don’t be afraid to ask for help, applying to colleges and deciding on which to attend will be a painless process (for the most part). Good luck!