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How to Prepare for College Admissions

For high school students transitioning to college, the road is paved with exciting yet challenging decisions. Gaining admission to the school of your choice can be confusing and formidable. From maintaining good grades and taking entrance exams to writing essays and gathering letters of recommendation, the entire affair may seem overwhelming. Keep in mind that the whole admissions process is just that—a process. Like any project, it can be broken down into small, manageable activities each step of the way.

In this article, we will take a more in-depth look at the college admissions process and give you some helpful guidance to make your leap from high school to college an easier one.

Start by Knowing What You Want

Selecting a college that is right for you is a very personal decision that starts with self-reflection. You will want to consider not only your reasons for going to college but what is realistic for you as well. Your strengths, weaknesses, and future goals all come into play here. You don’t need to have all the answers right away, but you should sit down with your school counselor and your parents to discuss some of the following questions:

  • What are your reasons for wanting to attend college?
  • Is there a specific career or major you are interested in or are you more inclined to begin with general studies?
  • Do you want to attend a two-year or four-year school?
  • Do you wish to live nearby, or are you prepared to be far from home?
  • Are your grades good enough to get into the school you have in mind?
  • What kind of financial assistance will you need?
  • Do you qualify for any scholarships?
  • Do you want to go to a large or small college?
  • What do you hope to gain the most out of college?

Once you have answered these questions openly and honestly, your school counselor can help you get to work on creating a list of colleges that reflects your goals and desires. You can discuss which of them meets your criteria in relation to your grades, test scores, extracurricular activities, class rank, and other factors. From this information, you can start narrowing down your choices.

Gather Admissions Information

The next logical step is to begin gathering information about each of the colleges on your list. Many colleges have contact forms right on their admissions pages to connect you with a representative who can answer your questions. You can also call, email, or write to the university or college and ask for an admissions packet.

As you start getting information in the mail, create a way to keep it organized and sorted out because you will be getting a lot of paperwork. If you will be applying to more than one school, storing the literature from each college in a separate folder is a wise idea.

Meeting With Representatives

For many students, this is the time when they will meet one-on-one with college representatives during college fairs or visits. If you do plan to sit down with a college official, be sure to put your best foot forward and take the meeting seriously. Treat it as you would a job interview by being well-groomed, rested, and mentally prepared. If you have questions, now is the time to ask them.

Remember that the representative you meet with may also be part of the admissions committee, so treat the time you spend with them as another step on your journey to acceptance. Be yourself, stay confident, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Visiting Colleges and Interviews

The best way to decide if you want to spend several years of your life at a particular school is to go there in person and check it out. You will want to make an appointment with the admissions office. If face-to-face interviews are offered, be sure to set that up as well.

During your visit, you will want to check out the campus itself, touring the dorms and facilities. You should attempt to speak directly to a few students currently attending to see how they like it and get their point of view. If possible, have a meal at the cafeteria and sit in on a class or two. Read the school paper and relax for a while to see how it feels to be there.

If you are afforded an interview, there are a few things to remember to ensure you put forth your best self:

  • Be on time.
  • Dress as appropriately as you would for a job interview.
  • Be prepared by learning as much pertinent information about the college as you can ahead of time.
  • Answer the interviewer’s questions thoughtfully, honestly, and to the best of your ability but don’t try to over impress. Be yourself.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions and drill down to the answers you need.
  • Know your test scores, latest grades, and course load and be prepared to answer questions about your extracurricular activities as well.
  • Remember that the college interview is for both parties to gain as much information as possible, so get as much out of it as you can and come prepared with a list of questions if you are concerned you might forget something.
  • After you get home, write a hand-written thank you note to your interviewer.

Taking the time to visit the college is an important indicator of your level of interest, so do make sure that the admissions department knows you visited even if no interview was conducted.

The Admissions Folder

Now that you have done the preliminary legwork, you should have one or more admissions “folders” in your possession. These may consist of actual paperwork that you will send back in the mail or an online folder. Regardless of whether you will be filling out the admissions forms digitally or sending them snail mail, there are five primary sections to be concerned with.

1. Application

Your application is where you will list necessary information about yourself, such as your phone number, address, and date of birth. Often, it will include in-depth questions about your strengths, weaknesses, and experiences. The application will frequently require you to write an essay that will help the committee understand more about what makes you tick.

2. Academic Record

Your academic record is also called your transcript, and it is the most critical thing admissions officers will assess when looking at your folder. It includes your grades, curriculum, and all the courses you have taken in high school. It will also show class rank (if applicable) and your GPA. Not all colleges use class rank, but some do. If your school does not calculate class rank, there will generally be a provision made so you will not be adversely affected if this information is required as part of the admissions process.

3. Standardized Test Scores

While many colleges have made standardized test scores optional, some do still require them as part of the admissions process. In general, the larger the school, the greater the emphasis will be on test scores and statistics. Most of the time, test scores by themselves will not necessarily exclude you from admission. Conversely, excellent scores won’t always guarantee you entry, either. Nevertheless, they may be a part of your whole profile.

It is important to remember that most colleges will put more emphasis on excellent grades in your most demanding classes more than standardized test scores. Therefore, if you only have time to improve one of these areas, bring up your scores in your coursework rather than trying to improve your SAT or ACT scores.

4. School Recommendation

This is a statement or official recommendation prepared by your high school for you that needs to be included with your folder.

5. Teacher Recommendations

Your teachers can tell officials looking at your application a lot about your performance in the classroom. In this section, your teachers will be talking less about your grades and more about your contribution to the class, the quality of the work you perform, your attendance, and so forth. It also allows them to comment on your potential to take on the demanding coursework college will entail and whether you are up to the task.

A Note About Extracurricular Activities

While your academic credentials will be the main factor for determining admissions, your level of involvement and accomplishments in extracurricular activities can contribute significantly as well. Be sure to find out what types of supplementary materials are permitted and include whatever you can as a supporting credential to your academics.

Keep Accurate Records and Stay on Schedule

Make sure you check the admissions requirements for each school you are applying to as they will all be slightly different. You will want to ensure that your materials are submitted before the deadline. If you are applying early, double-check the timelines for that as well. Make a note of the date you send in each application or request teacher or personal recommendations.

Do not throw anything away. Instead, keep all correspondence, instructions sheets, letters, test scores, and any scraps of paper with hastily scribbled notes in the appropriate file. One of the worst things that happens is failure to stay organized and plan properly. The last thing you want is to have to scramble around at the last minute looking for things. Use a calendar and check it often.

Financial Aid

Applying for financial aid is entirely separate from the admissions process, and one does not influence the other. Generally, an admissions decision will take place first, and once you are admitted, a separate office will review your application for financial aid. Keep in mind that admittance does not guarantee financial assistance. The good news is that it is likely you will qualify for some type of resource to help you handle your educational expenses if it is determined you need assistance. Need is determined by calculating the cost of attendance (COA) and your expected family contribution (EFC). The EFC is the amount of funding you or your family can realistically afford.

To apply, you will need to begin by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA. Some schools even have their own forms for non-federal aid. There are also many opportunities for scholarships, so make sure you apply for whatever is available to you and be aware of any deadlines for each source. In some cases, you may need to look at scholarships over the summer before you even begin your senior year, so don’t cut yourself short. Be prepared.

The College Admissions Decision-Making Process

While you are waiting to find out whether you have been accepted or not, you will probably wonder how the decision is actually made and what influences the decision-makers the most. Again, this depends on each school. For example, at highly selective colleges where there are many applicants, nearly all of the students applying have outstanding credentials. In this case, the personal factor frequently comes into play during admissions decisions. A well-written essay, remarkable leadership skills, or volunteer activities can make or break a favorable decision.

For colleges that are not as selective, one of the primary criteria is whether you have proven to the admissions officers your ability to be successful at the institution. This is where placement tests often come in. Your potential to handle the coursework and complete the academic curriculum is more crucial than your personality in some instances.

Also, bear in mind that there can be other admissions standards you have no control over. Some colleges give preference to students who reside in the state. Some are even mandated to admit qualified residents as long as they apply by a specific deadline.

The office of admissions at each college does have a commonality, though; they are responsible for determining whether your qualifications meet their admission criteria. While it can be a hard pill to swallow if your application is denied, keep this in mind: Admission decisions are not always about what the college can do for you so much as they are based on whether you can satisfy the needs of the college.

Facing Rejection

After all of the hard work, time, and energy you have put into trying to get admitted to the school of your choice, you don’t want to even think about a rejection letter, but it is a possibility you may have to face. If you are confronted with this undesirable outcome, don’t despair. There are many paths that you can still take to reach your objectives and goals. If you are denied, you mustn’t internalize it personally by feeling like you have failed. Options abound and you have your whole life ahead of you. Take a breath, regroup, and choose to move forward with your education despite any obstacles you face. How you handle this rejection may just be the thing that catches an admission committee’s attention the next time around.

Final Thoughts

The college admissions process can be a grueling undertaking but breaking it down into manageable tasks can take some of the pressure off. Be thorough and take your time, but make sure you are aware of any deadlines and time frames that must be met too. Being prepared is much like many of the other tasks you have undertaken thus far. With proper planning, you can give yourself the best possible chance of being admitted to the school of your choice.

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How to Prepare for College