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Taking the Stress Out of College Apps: Q&A with a Former Admissions Counselor

Applying to college has always been seen as a daunting process. Between the requirements, standing out, and each school having its own process, many students spend months stressed out before even getting to the anxiety-inducing time of waiting for decisions. Here at Summer Discovery, we believe in easing the minds of students and families at every stage when it comes to applying to college and we have the perfect way to do it: we have our own in-house former admissions counselor!

We took some time to address the most frequently asked questions during the college admissions process just for you.

Check out a summary of the Q&A below!

What are the best ways to search for colleges and make my list?

It’s a combination of things. First, TOUR the campuses, either in-person or virtually, or both. Ask questions, take in your surroundings, and visit multiple times (early in the process and as an accepted student). Go on weekends to see what campus life is like. Next, really dive into their website (ie. Program pages, advising, mission statement). Make an initial list from this information and have your top choices and secondary choices ready to go.

How early should I start looking at colleges?

The earlier the better! With early decision deadlines being in October for most colleges, the sooner you can begin to make your list, tour, and gather your materials the better. Conversations should really start happening in middle school so that you can prepare for courses/extracurriculars in high school and there are items you can work on every year of high school to capture in your college application. 

I’m applying to a lot of schools, what are some tips to stay organized?

First, make a new email address that you can use just for your college applications. Second, make a spreadsheet or a list. Have your colleges listed by first and second choice, deadlines for each, materials needed, essay prompts, who you asked for a recommendation from, etc. If spreadsheets aren’t your thing, make email folders or use post-its or a notebook. Centralization of the information is key.

Also, let's talk about email for a second. If you have a family account you're using to email colleges, that's okay, but be the captain of your own ship! Showcasing independence is important in the transition to college, and that starts with the application process. Family and support from friends is encouraged, but make sure they're not doing everything for you.

A big question: Does major matter when it comes to choosing colleges?

It depends. First, if you apply to college as an undeclared major, that is O-KAY! There’s a good chance you may change your major once or ten times in college and that’s okay so you want to have some variety in the colleges you’re looking at. However, the biggest piece of advice I can give is to RESEARCH your major and the general field of interest. Maybe you want to go into engineering? Okay, what kind and are there other names for it? Sometimes, each college calls it something different. Physical Therapy is a perfect example. Sometimes it’s called that, sometimes it’s called Kinesthesiology, etc. Also, no one in that field is getting a job now without going to grad school, so what does the undergrad program look like? Will it prepare you appropriately? Can you just be a biology major and have that be enough? Do the research about what you want to do, be open to multiple paths of getting there, and don’t count a college out just because they don’t name your major specifically. Go to that program’s page and see what students in that major are doing or what backgrounds the faculty have.

Should I always apply early?

Starting your search early is crucial, but sometimes applying early isn’t always the best option. You need to be honest about your portfolio and see how it aligns with the colleges you’re looking at. Maybe you need more time for your personal statement, or you need another semester’s worth of courses to get your GPA up. Keep track of deadlines for each college so you don’t miss them completely, but don’t feel pressured into early decision as it never guarantees that you will be admitted within that early decision window.

A hot topic these past few years: What about standardized tests, and what if the school went test optional?

If the schools you are applying to require the SAT or ACT, first be clear about which sections they need, etc., and the minimum scores needed for admission. Then, use ALL the free resources available to you for test prep. These tests are mostly about seeing HOW you test, not what you know. Also, take both! You’d be amazed how differently students test on them. If the college has gone test-optional, keep in mind that scores may still be required for scholarships. Check the school's website always for those requirements!

Take the PSAT if you can, too! Even just getting exposure to standardized tests can help with test anxiety, something a lot of students, and even adults, struggle with. The more you test, the more comfortable you feel when it's time to take it for real.

How long should I wait to follow-up about my application?

It depends. You should have an account where you can see the status of your application, documents, etc. so be sure to check that often. Official transcripts can take 5-7 business days from the day they are received by admissions to then be attached to your account. SAT or ACT scores can take a MONTH if you don’t put the school down ahead of time to receive them. Remember, a lot of times there are humans behind this part of the process and it’s not always automated. If you’re seeing a delay on items being received, give the office 10-14 business days from the time you request an item, and can confirm with your counselor that it was sent, before you send an email or call. And again, make sure YOU are following up, not a parent/family member/guidance counselor. 

Is there anything I should be doing after I apply?

Definitely! First, apply for scholarships, and not just through the college. Scholarships.com is a great resource. Be sure to fill out your FAFSA as soon as possible, too! It opens each year in October and you can use prior year tax information. This process takes much longer than your admissions decision. Note: keep an eye out for if the school asks you for verification! If you haven’t received your financial aid package, this is most likely the reason why.  Keep your grades up, too. Colleges collect final transcripts and the last thing you want is to have your admission revoked because your grades slipped. Finally, enjoy your senior year. It’s a time to make memories and there are a lot of milestones so don’t forget about that!

The ultimate question: What’s the most important part of the admissions application?

Your true, authentic self. Colleges want to see WHY you want to be there – how you’re going to find your fit, your plans, what makes you tick, your growth, and your journeys. A lot of that shines through in your personal statement so be authentic and unique; don’t tell the story you think we want to hear, just tell YOURS. Also, have someone read over it and proofread it! Reading over your own work can be hard, but it’s essential because you can see the difference between when someone does check their work and when someone doesn’t. Yes, your essays really do get read, and they are a college's best insight into who you are and why you are applying!

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