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.
GEAR UP Iowa serves over 7,000 Iowa students in 12 partner school districts around the state, offering tools and resources to schools looking to build a “college-going” culture in their classrooms.
But those efforts don’t stop at the school. GEAR UP Iowa engages with students and families directly, through parent and student nights, college campus tours and events like the GEAR UP Iowa Student Summit that took place at Grand View University in Des Moines earlier this summer.
Through the combined work of GEAR UP Iowa and partner schools, the seeds of culture change can be seen growing, as students and families become increasingly aware of the possibilities that education after high school brings. Many students in GEAR UP Iowa are the first generation in their family to attend college. GEAR UP Iowa programs not only support these families in preparing for college, but also provide motivation to overcome challenges that parents didn’t face when they were in high school.
Rylie Maliszewski is a freshman at North High School in Sioux City. Her parents, Jennifer and Bill, finished their education with a high school degree. As Rylie participates in GEAR UP Iowa with an eye toward college after high school, the support provided to her is impacting both her efforts and her family’s vision of her future. To honor the last day of #NationalGEARUPWeek, they share their thoughts on GEAR UP Iowa:
GEAR UP Iowa is helping me prepare for my future. Not only do we get free money for college but they also provide SAT/ACT prep, college visits, and even tutoring and mentoring. All of these features are free to us with having this program! I am so absolutely grateful to be a part of this program! I’m a first-generation college student, with my parent’s highest level of education being a high school diploma. This experience is very new to me and my family. Not having much family to talk to about college experiences, GEAR UP Iowa gives me the opportunity to talk with college students and alumni, and explore colleges.
This summer I was chosen to go the GEAR UP Iowa Student Summit in Des Moines. I was so excited when I got accepted because I really enjoy learning how to be a better leader. The Student Summit gave me more than just information on how to be a better leader. My roommates from the Ottumwa and Davenport schools in this program are now some of my very best friends. Every night we would sit in the common area in our suite and talk the whole night. All of us were so sad to leave on the last day but we all still talk today. My favorite activity from the summit was Alan Feirer’s Leadership Workshop; it was very eye-opening to me. Not only did he teach us how to be a leader but he made it enjoyable, too! We did many small group activities and large group discussion about numerous topics. I will truly cherish this workshop and everything I learned at the Summit! I will never forget the people or the great experiences I had!
Jennifer and Bill Maliszewski:
GEAR UP Iowa has had a huge impact on our household. My husband and I only have our high school diplomas, so everything to do with college and preparing our freshman daughter for life after high school has been a bit overwhelming. GEAR UP Iowa is there for us whenever we need help going in the right direction.
Knowing that the people of GEAR UP Iowa are always there to help out gives us some peace of mind. They offer so much to help the students reach their goals, like prep classes for ACT and SAT tests, college visits, guidance on applying for financial aid and scholarships and college visits just to name a few. My family will be ever grateful for and everything they do for the students and their families to make the transition from high school to college a smooth one. They have helped take away a lot of the stress of getting ready for life after high school!
Earlier this year, GEAR UP Iowa held the first GEAR UP Iowa Student Summit at Grand View University in Des Moines, IA. The four-day event gave students from GEAR UP Iowa’s 12 partner school districts a chance to meet other students, discuss leadership skills and build the tools that will make them crucial partners in change bringing a college-going culture to their high schools (plus, it was fun!).
Alan Feirer, a leadership trainer and organizational development consultant, spent a day working with students, helping them realize leadership opportunities and arming them with the tools to apply those skills on a day-to-day basis. As we continue our recognition of #NationalGEARUPWeek, Feirer reflects on the importance of GEAR UP and the way that the program allows schools to help students take advantage of their chances to become leaders during high school and beyond in their education and life.
My mother was a teen mom, and back in 1968, that circumstance forced her into an early marriage to my father, who was a substance abuser. They graduated high school, but college had to wait.
Eventually, both of them got college degrees, and my mom has pursued two (and completed one) advanced degrees! She just retired from her third profession. All three professions involved giving back; she was a substance abuse prevention coordinator, a non-profit director (for Head Start), and a Lutheran pastor.
The biggest lesson for me? Second chances are there for everyone, and they’re important to take. It’s true that my mom could have stayed married to my dad and spent her life working at a grocery store. There’s no shame in that; we need grocery store clerks. But her gifts, combined with her college degrees, opened doors for her to live a fulfilling life that changed (and saved) the lives of others.
GEAR UP Iowa didn’t help my mom; it wasn’t on option for her. But you – you’ve got a headstart, a bonus, a leg up — if you want to make a difference in your life, and in the lives of others, there’s a whole team of people ready to work with you for that.
GEAR UP Iowa couldn’t succeed in helping schools build a college-going culture without the vital role played by GEAR UP Iowa Coordinators at each of the high schools in the 12 partner districts throughout Iowa. As part of #NationalGEARUPWeek, we highlight the work being done to connect students and families with the opportunities possible with continuing education after high school.
Sarah Bernhard brings a long career of educational experience to her role as GEAR UP Iowa Coordinator at Jefferson High School in Cedar Rapids, IA. Key to her passion for the program, she says, is how important it is to help students and families how higher education can help students position themselves for future success in both their career and life. She shares her thoughts on working with GEAR UP Iowa:
Having spent 20 years as a classroom teacher in Alternative Education, I know first hand the obstacles many students face when it comes to college readiness and preparation. So when the occasion came about to become a GEAR UP Iowa Coordinator, I knew this would be the perfect role for me to continue to support students but more importantly, to help break down those barriers and obstacles by creating numerous academic supports and opportunities. GEAR UP Iowa truly represents the ideal that ALL students deserve the chance to continue their education after graduation. GEAR UP Iowa creates a support system, develops a path of career exploration, bridges the gap between teacher, student, and family communication, but most importantly it creates a culture of success beyond the classroom. I hope that over the next four years I am able to open the doors of opportunities for my 400 students and motivate them to see their dreams and aspirations come into fruition.
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.