College applications can seem daunting. For many high school seniors, the process happens in a rush during their senior year as they apply to schools that they think they’d like, but haven’t taken the time to research.
By creating a college application strategy before senior year, students can more easily target the schools that best meet their educational plans. More importantly, it can help them move through the college application process more smoothly, avoiding the chaos thanks to the research and planning they’ve done ahead of time.
Incoming seniors looking to be college application ninjas (and those juniors… and even sophomores… who want to be even greater ninjas when their time comes) know that the work they put in now will put them that much farther ahead when it comes time to start the application process. Here are three tips to start students on the ninja path this summer:
School Fit is a Two-Way Street
Finding a school that best “fits” with a student’s needs is important. Aspects such as a school’s location, average class size and available programs of study can strongly influence whether or not a student will succeed in their future plans at that school. Taking the time to look deeper at a school’s programs will help students understand where they have the best chance to get the most out of their education.
But college isn’t just about what the student wants. It might seem like a basic idea, but often students apply to schools without having a strong understanding of the type of student that the school is seeking. It’s important to know if a student’s current grades, test scores and extra-curricular activities make them a good match for the schools where they are planning to apply. Conduct research to determine if students meet all the admissions requirements before starting the application process.
Have a List and Learn as Much as You Can
Once students have a list of target schools, getting to know more about a school can give the extra information that will help students decide whether or not to commit the time to apply. Campus tours are the best way to experience life on campus and summer offers the flexibility to turn travel into college research. For those campuses that might be farther away, virtual tours on college websites give a taste of what to expect.
To really hit the ground running in the fall, students should do a little prep work before starting applications. From creating application accounts with usernames and passwords and creating a timeline for campus visits, to researching any available college application fee waivers and making a master calendar of key financial aid and scholarship deadlines, having a game plan ahead of time will make the application process less chaotic.
As larger numbers of students apply to college and colleges compete for quality students who are dedicated to their school, colleges and universities have expanded the application options available to students in order to not only manage applicant pools but also increase the number of candidates that they consider “high-quality.” When considering the college application process, it’s important for families to understand each type of admission program and what those programs require.
Colleges that offer “early action” application do so to give families a quick response to those who submit on or before their early deadline (typically early November). Early Action admission decisions are non-binding, which means that students do not have to promise to attend if accepted. They just hear back sooner. Some universities offer “Restricted Early Action,” which works much like Early Action, but limits the number of EA applications a student can submit to other schools. Colleges do this because they are looking for students who are committed to them instead of just applying early to find out sooner. While families can benefit from the quick response of applying “early action” they face an smaller applicant pool that will usually have strong candidates and a possibly more selective admissions process.
Where many early action applications require little commitment, early decision applications are more serious. Student should only apply early decision to a college if they are certain that it is the college they wish to attend. Students accepted on early decision are required to attend the college at which they were applied and accepted, as well as withdraw all other applications.
Some colleges also offer an “ED II,” which allows students extra time to apply, allowing for more research, and application preparation. ED II applications often have deadlines that are the same the regular application deadline, but receive an earlier decision, usually in early February.
For a student with a clear vision of where they want to go to school, early decision applications offer a great advantage. Not only will they be informed of a decision earlier, but they also show the admissions office that they are a student dedicated to attending their school. If they are accepted, the student has the rest of their senior year to enjoy (early decision applicants usually hear back in December). If they are deferred or rejected, there is still plenty of time to regroup and apply to other colleges.
However, students that want to compare financial aid packages may want to hold off from early decision applications and the locked-in commitment that comes with them. Being able to look at different schools and compare costs can often show a student that their dream school might not be the best long-term decision, financially.
Regular application deadlines are later than early action or early decision applications and is the time when the majority of students will submit their applications.
Having a set timeline for applications helps students take more time to reflect on their goals, visit colleges, research and narrow down a list of schools that are the best fit for their needs. Students are not limited to the number of schools to which they apply, though each school will require an application processing fee when submitting an application. Applying by regular deadlines, allows students the luxury of comparing financial aid awards and admission offers without any restrictions that might come with early applications before choosing the college that is a perfect fit and meets his financial need.
Colleges with rolling admissions offer important options and opportunities that regular deadlines do not. Rolling admissions colleges will accept and examine applications as they are sent in, instead of waiting to judge all applications at the same time. This admissions option can be great for late admissions, or for finding out early whether or not a student is accepted.
The new starting date for filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is just about here. Completing the FAFSA, though, isn’t the end of the road for college preparation. Throughout the school year, students have opportunities to visit with colleges and find out more about what each school offers and how that school does (or doesn’t) relate to a student’s plan for their future.
Making that match is called “college fit” and it can mean the difference between getting the most of education after high school and frustrations that could lead to transferring schools or, worse, not completing a degree.
The good news: Colleges offer tours that allow students to see the campus, talk to professors and students and get answers to questions about their education. Even better: Students can get much of that information without even leaving their own high school thanks to college fairs held throughout the year. These events, often held at the local high school, include representatives from schools both near and far looking to put their best foot forward for prospective students.
College fairs are the first step toward finding college fit and students who attend college fairs will get a head-start on making a smart choice on where to go to school. As with anything, approaching the event with a game plan will help students get even more out of college fairs.
Start with these five tips:
- Is a college strong in a student’s major? Not all high school students are going to have an idea of what their major will be, but it helps to have some idea of what they might be interested in as a career. If students have an idea, they can ask schools about programs in those areas. Some colleges specialize in certain majors or are known for having strong programs in particular fields.
- Does a school’s size matter? Larger schools often mean more students in classes (sometimes over 100 students), but a bustling community. Smaller colleges might have fewer students, but that might mean more direct interaction with teachers and smaller class sizes. A student can talk to representatives at a college fair to get an idea of the school’s size and start to consider which appeals to them.
- What’s college life like? While a visit to the actual campus will give students the best idea of what life is like at a given school, college fairs frequently include representatives from schools who are either current students or recent graduates. Of course, these representatives will always look to emphasize what makes their school better than the rest, but talking to college students is a great way for high school students to get an early idea of what life is like in college.
- Take all the materials available. Schools visiting college fairs will have lots of giveaways: stickers, squeezeballs, pens, and more. But the most important materials to take away from college fairs are the informational brochures that talk more about the school. These materials might not answer every question a student might have about a school, but they will frequently include websites or links to other resources to learn more if interested.
- Make notes, take it all in, but don’t rush to any decisions. College fairs are the introduction to schools for many students and representatives are chosen by schools to present their school in the most attractive way possible. It’s great if students are inspired to learn more about schools after a college fair. But rather than eliminate schools from their list, students would be better off ranking a list of schools that grabbed their attention and listing the reasons why that school might be a good fit. From there, it’s easy to start researching further into which schools should really make the cut.
For more tips and advice for preparing and planning for college, as well as financial aid and college information, check out Iowa College Aid’s “Your Course to College.” You can read, download or order your own copy on our website.
In celebration of National GEAR UP Week, we’re celebrating the students, facilitators and families that make GEAR UP Iowa successful in building college-going cultures in schools, homes and communities. Lessly Ortega is ninth-grade student from Storm Lake, IA.
Earlier this summer, Ortega was chosen to participate in the GEAR UP Iowa Student Summit, which brought together students from all of GEAR UP Iowa’s 12 school districts throughout the state to Grand View University in Des Moines. Students learned interpersonal and leadership skills to not only help them on the road to educational success after high school, but build and grow those skills in their schools. Ortega shares the immediate impact the event had on her:
I wasn’t born into a family where people grew up to go to college. All we have going for us is a simple high school education with work following after that. But ever since I was little I knew I wanted to break that cycle. I’m not a person who likes being average or going with the flow, I aspire to be someone who people will remember for generations to come. I’ve shared this dream with my friends and every one of them told me that was impossible and I should give up before I waste my time. You wouldn’t believe how close I was to giving up. That was until I went to the GEAR UP Iowa Summit, an event that completely changed my life.
When I first heard about GEAR UP Iowa, all I knew was that it meant free money for college, which I was grateful for considering the expensive cost of tuition. But I never would have thought of the lasting impact it would have in my life. The GEAR UP Iowa Summit has been one of the best experiences of my life. It showed me how GEAR UP Iowa is much more than free money. I was able to learn how to better myself and how to become a better leader both in school and in life. The Summit gave me lifelong information which I put to work the day I got home from it. I went to all the places I could think of for volunteer opportunities. I was able to work at a retirement home, a kids club, and, the best experience of all, a girls camp as a counselor. I’m beyond grateful to GEAR UP Iowa for giving me the confidence and tools I need to be able to go out into my community and to be able to make a difference in myself and my community.
GEAR UP Iowa means hope in the future. I will continue on my path of greatness where ever that shall be. Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity.
For many students, getting to college is only half the battle. Adjusting to a new world with new freedoms and responsibilities can be just as stressful as the effort it took to get to college in the first place.
The number one cause for dropping out of college during freshman year is mental health and stress-related issues. What makes dealing with these problems that students face when adjusting to college is that many students suffering through stress feel like they have to do it alone. While most colleges offer some type of mental health services clinic and numerous opportunities to talk with other students to find ways through these trying first days, many students feel that theirs is a battle to be fought privately, or else show their struggles as a sign of weakness or unpreparedness.
But the truth is that the best way to deal with the adjustment to college is to have a good game plan and be willing to lean on others who are there to support you. Reaching out and making connections with other students and taking full advantage of student service resources can make a tremendous difference in adjusting to college life.
Here are a few easy tips to help establish a strong groundwork in your freshman year that will support you all the way through graduation.
Create a Routine
Having a focused calendar is just one step in creating a positive routine. Take the time when starting college to establish good habits that balance studying and classwork with extracurricular activities and a social life. There are so many things possible for students to do on a college campus that it can seem overwhelming. But by creating a routine early on, you’ll be able to get the most out of what college life has to offer.
Don’t Get Behind On Deadlines
Perhaps the most difficult adjustment when starting college is having to take personal responsibility for not only your actions, but your studies. Start off on the right foot by making sure that you are aware of the variety of deadline dates that you’ll encounter. From class papers to financial aid filings to scholarship or grant renewals, having a calendar that lays out all of your deadlines will help you stay ahead of the game. Make sure to keep that calendar in a place where you will frequently see it, a constant reminder to stay focused.
Go to Class!
Sure. It seems obvious, but when freshmen are faced with the reality that mom and dad aren’t there to get them out of bed and to school on time, the promise of a cozy bed sounds a lot more promising than walking through the snow from your dorm to class. Remember why you are in college: to get an education and prepare yourself for a career. Your instructors will likely hold your absence against you when it comes time for grades, and they won’t be following up to make sure you received the materials covered in class.
Get to Know Your Professors
College is a new place, but just like in high school your instructors aren’t there to intimidate you, but to help you. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to your professors and take a moment to get to know them. This way, you’ll feel more comfortable asking them questions when there are problems in coursework or other aspects of the class. The best time to do this is during an instructor’s office hours, where they are focused on having one-to-one or small group interactions focused on student needs.
Just as your mom and dad aren’t there to get you out of bed each day, they aren’t there to tell you when to stay in bed, either. The pace of a college student’s life can get hectic. And even with the best-planned routines, pushing too hard can have a negative effect on your health. Know when to lay low and recover. You don’t get bonus points for showing up to class sick and you’re likely not going to pay close attention anyway. Most schools (and even many dorms) will offer some form student health services to provide you with medical care. Make sure to take advantage of them instead of trying to tough out health problems on your own.
All that hard work is about to pay off! Senior year is the last, and most important, year of high school. Those students and families who have followed our “Your Course to College” tips on preparing for college during their freshman, sophomore and junior years will be ready to roll right into senior year preparations.
For those who haven’t… Fear not! There’s still time to put together a senior year checklist that will help students and families plan for education after high school without getting overwhelmed. Here are some tips to help stay on the path to college in this crucial year:
- Review coursework with your school counselor to be sure you have taken (or are scheduled to take) all the courses you will need for admission to your preferred colleges.
- If you plan to take the ACT or SAT again to improve your score, make sure to register for a date that is at least two months ahead of the application deadlines for all of the colleges and scholarships you are considering.
- Prepare a final list of colleges and submit admission applications. Most early decision and early action college applications are due in October 1.
- Complete and submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) online at
www.fafsa.gov as soon after October 1 as possible. The FAFSA is the first step in the financial aid process. Check with your school of interest for its priority financial aid deadline.
- Ask your high school to send your official transcripts to the colleges where you are applying for admission.
- Compare acceptance letters and financial aid awards. Upon admittance, each college or university listed on your FAFSA will send you an award letter that will include the financial aid that you are eligible to receive.
- Take AP exams for any AP subjects you studied in high school. Some colleges may
award college credit for the course work based on your exam score. Go to www.collegeboard.org for AP exam information.
- Decision time! Choose your college and notify them by mailing your commitment deposit check.
- Talk to those who have been there! Iowa College Aid’s “Education Empowers” video series provides testimonials of students who faced (and overcame) challenges in getting to college.
For more tips and advice to help prepare, plan and succeed in college, check out Iowa College Aid’s “Your Course to College.” This free guide offers advice on everything from finding the right college and narrowing down a major to showing families the steps to finding financial aid and even loan repayment programs for after graduation. “Planning for Our Futures” is a publication produced by Iowa College Aid, Treasurer of State and the Iowa Department of Insurance that takes a closer look at the financial options for families looking to prepare for education after high school.
Planning can make all the difference between calm and panic. That certainly holds true for putting together a plan for getting to college. We’ve already discussed the easy ways that freshmen and sophomores can be set on the path for college.
Come junior year, it’s time for the rubber to hit the road. With only two years before high school graduation, students and families can put their college plan into action early enough to not find themselves scrambling come senior year. Iowa College Aid’s “Your Course to College” offers tips that will help families in their junior and senior years of high school execute their college plans to perfection.
Here are a few things to get on the calendar for junior year to help with college planning:
- Now is the time to really focus on your career and college research. Determine which colleges offer programs that interest you.
- Take the PSAT in the fall of your junior year to be considered for a National Merit Scholarship. Plus, it’s good practice for the SAT!
- Attend college fairs and go on college visits. Call ahead to schedule appointments with financial aid and admissions offices.
- Take the SAT or ACT in the spring and have the official scores sent to the schools that interest you. Download a free ACT preparation booklet from www.act.org. Find free official test prep for the SAT through the College Board and Khan Academy at www.khanacademy.org/sat.
- Ask for letters of recommendation. Identify teachers, counselors, employers or other adults who can attest to your academic achievement and abilities and ask that they write letters of recommendation for scholarship applications or admissions applications, if needed.
For more tips and advice on planning for, applying to and succeeding in your education after high school, check out “Your Course to College.” Iowa College Aid also publishes a guide for families looking for more information on financially planning for their student’s education. “Planning for Our Futures” is produced in conjunction with Iowa Insurance Division, Treasurer of State and the Iowa Department of Education. Both publications are free to families.