Helpful hints for college applications


Originally written in the fall of 1999, and then posted on the In My Backpack web site in 2003, the following essay as it appears here has been touched up a bit from those early presentations. As just a few examples, please keep in mind the original date when looking at things like the application fees noted or when it doesn’t heavily discuss e-mail, web sites and social media items.

It is far from perfect in its advice as I review it in 2018. But, I think it does contain a few points worthy of consideration.

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The time of year has arrived when thousands upon thousands of individuals will begin the process of applying to colleges. Over the years, many books and seminars have offered guidance for applicants. However, there are some lesser-known thoughts about the process that are frequently understated, if they are mentioned at all, and have the potential to save you lots of money while making the experience a bit easier. Let’s dive right in…

If at all possible, visit the schools you are applying to. Yes, you are going to be spending a lot of time around campus, which makes a visit a good idea on the most basic of levels. But think about this twist… a person applying to college needs to understand that each school is treating this very much like a business. Just as the applicant is trying to “sell” their candidacy, a school is trying to portray itself in the best view possible. Toward that end, brochures, television advertisements and internet sites only show views the school representatives have approved for you to see. Images have been tirelessly reviewed by campus public relations or admissions departments, and they are all selected to promote a positive representation of the campus. There is nothing wrong with this, and several things to be gained. But keep in mind that they rarely show whether there is a pizza parlor or convenience store nearby. They won’t tell you that traffic and parking are horrendous. There will be few mentions of housing limitations or headaches. They don’t show you the hills and stairs that are monstrous hazards in bad weather.

Continuing with the visit the campus idea: Most schools have programs for organized visits, which often include a campus tour or opportunity to speak with students. These moments will provide countless tips and insight about the school and its environment. Asking current students about meal plans, the bookstore, whether or not to have a car or what the best approach is for living at the school (dorms, apartment nearby, etc.) and more will generate amazing answers and quite likely countless unexpected nuggets of great advice. The experiences gained from these interactions can provide some of the most valuable information in selecting a school.

Learn the deadlines for applications, as most schools have two. The first is known as regular admission, and generally closes in late February or March. The second is referred to as early admission, with deadlines usually ranging from December into January. Do your best to apply to a few schools early. College applications can cost between $50 and $100 for each school. This does not take into account postage, requests for additional records, and any other materials that might need to be obtained by the applicant. First… if six to eight schools are being considered, this might reflect a total of $300 to $800 just for applying. However, the responses to early admission applications are often sent out well before the regular admission deadline. So, if perhaps a person’s top three choices are sent in early, there is a good chance that if accepted to one of these programs the applicant will not need to send out some or all of the remaining three to five applications. In this example that means possible savings of $150 to $500 in fees. Second… you might need some help in completing your applications, such as recommendation letters and school records. If some of that assistance ends up running late, focusing on the early deadlines has a small bonus of meaning that the materials will likely be available so you don’t miss the regular application deadlines.

Applying early also has other advantages. Some schools follow what is called “rolling admission” where applications are evaluated beginning in the late summer or early in the fall semester and are responded to as they arrive. By applying earlier, a candidate stands a better chance of admission. Schools normally only accept a certain number of students each year, anticipating a specific number of accepted students to eventually enroll. Admissions representatives understand that individuals are applying to multiple programs, and as such all those accepted will not ultimately attend. As a result, years of research and records develop a number of guidelines for this process, which essentially means that if a school is looking to have a certain number of incoming students, the admissions officers know approximately how many applicants will need to be accepted. As the school gets closer to that pre-determined number, it can become more difficult to be flexible with the admissions criteria. Also, many schools, such as those with strong art programs, offer things like competition-based scholarships and contests. In many cases there are early deadlines for these, and for an incoming student to be eligible to participate all application materials may need to have been submitted.

Look for alternative resources that are available on all subjects. A topic such as financial aid is often a concern for many students and parents. Most public libraries have information on loans, scholarships and grants in their reference sections. Local bookstores will carry these materials as well. Your school guidance office and town or city hall may be consulted not only for national or institutional programs, but also for programs available specifically to local students. And for people with internet access, a search engine can be used to find countless links to specific sites or general information.

Applying to college can be a costly, stressful, and long process for anyone. In most instances it not only impacts one specific individual, but also parents, brothers and sisters. However, by investing time early and thoughtfully in the process to organize information and resources, there are many ways to make the journey a more satisfying one.


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