Master the College Admissions Process: Tips to Maximize Acceptance & Financial Aid

Tuesday, February 18, 2020
Nshss Columbia University New York City 2018 Coastal Click Photography 7652

The college admissions process can be daunting for high school students, but with the proper planning and strategy, it doesn’t have to be.

High school students should start thinking about college admissions as early as freshman year, since admissions representatives usually evaluate applicants’ entire high school career. 

That said, here are some tips to help you through the college admissions process from early prep through the actual application, including how to approach financial aid.

Start Preparing Early

Though you shouldn’t focus all your energy on college preparation as early as your freshman year of high school, you can always give yourself that time to start thinking about college and building the skills and experiences you’ll need for a competitive application.

Take Challenging Courses

For instance, use high school as a time to take challenging courses that interest you most. While you don’t need to take every advanced class possible, start learning where your passions lie, and take more advanced courses (AP, IB, etc.) in those areas of study.

If you know you might want to study engineering in college, for example, consider taking advanced mathematics and science courses to later show colleges and universities your readiness in those areas.

Admissions officers will look for students who apply themselves in high school, so as long as you can keep your grades up, you will do well to challenge yourself as much as possible.

Focus Your Extracurricular Activities

You should also think about your extracurricular activities and the story they will tell about you as a student. As you plan your after-school time, consider which activities interest you most and which align with your future goals, like Debate Club, or DECA. 

Volunteering in your community is always a good idea, but you should also choose your activities based on your personal interests and remain loyal to one or two types of activity if you can.

Admissions officers are not necessarily looking for students who are involved in every possible activity, but they are certainly looking for students who are passionate about their activities and demonstrate determination and excellence.

Rather than tailoring your activities to colleges, make sure your activities reflect the student you are and the student you’d like to continue to be in college.

Prepare for Standardized Testing

Along with impressive grades, standardized test scores from tests like the SAT and ACT are also necessary measures of success when it comes to college applications. It’s best to start prepping as early as you can, especially if you have a hard time with standardized tests. Be sure to check out prep courses offered by our partner, Method Test Prep. They offer special discounts for NSHSS members.

You can purchase test-prep books, take a test-prep course, and/or simply take practice tests online. Once you’ve taken the tests, give yourself time before retaking them, if necessary. You can often get a higher score when you retake the tests, and only the final score will go on your college applications.


Gather Information on Colleges

Once you’ve enjoyed a year or two of high school, you’ll get rid of some early anxiety if you start thinking about which colleges and universities you’d like to explore. Then, find out more information about the application process in general. 

Make a List of Target Schools

Search lists of colleges and universities and start making your own lists of schools that interest you, including schools to which you know you could be easily accepted and schools that might be a loftier reach. 

Online, you can usually search colleges and universities based on which major you might be interested in, but you should also look for schools based on other factors that are important to you, like location, tuition cost, research opportunities, class size, private vs. public, etc. 

If you can, speak with representatives from colleges and universities at college fairs. Or, if you know an alumnus from a school to which you’re hoping to apply, see if you arrange an interview with them. 

Gather statistics about your favorite schools and start thinking about which type of college or university might be the best fit for you. Your college counselor should also be able to help you through the process of finding the right schools that suit your abilities and interests.

Visit Campuses if Possible

One of the best ways to get to know colleges and universities is to physically visit their campuses. That way, you can get a sense of what life would be like as a student there, get a tour of the campus, and even set up a meeting with an admissions representative. 

Even if you can’t visit your dream campuses, visit local campuses and start to get a feel for college life. Speak with students to find out what they recommend you do as you prepare for your application process.

Some colleges will even let guests sit in on classes, so take advantage if you get the chance. The more information you have, the more prepared you will be when you start applying.

Research Admissions Requirements

As you gather information, make sure you list the admissions requirements for each college or university to which you’d like to apply, including application deadlines. 

Understand the deadlines for each type of application, including early action and early decision. Keep in mind that early decision is usually binding, so if you apply early decision, make sure it’s to a school you really want to attend.

While these early application deadlines are usually sometime in the fall, regular deadlines are generally in January or February. However, since each school’s deadline might differ, make sure you research that information and keep a record of it. 

You should also know what you’ll need to prepare for each application, from essays to types of test scores (SAT, SAT IIs, ACT, etc.).


Take Charge of Your Application

Though college applications can be overwhelming, you can tackle them step-by-step to maintain sanity.

First, research the Common App, Coalition Application, and Universal College Application, which all list their partner schools on their individual websites. 

These applications give you the opportunity to apply to multiple schools at one time. If you are applying to schools with individual applications, take note of the different requirements they may have that could take time, like different essay prompts and letters of recommendation. Then, plan when you’ll complete these different parts of the application.

Get Help with Your Personal Statements

The personal statement, or college essay, is a crucial part of the application; admissions officers use it to get a sense of who you are as a student beyond what they can gather from your transcript, activities lists, GPA, and test scores.

Follow tips and advice for writing application essays. Generally, students fall into the trap of trying to make their essays sound more interesting with fancy stories; however, even the most mundane topics can be the most compelling when students are truly reflecting on their learning process and moments in their lives so far that have meant the most to them.

Allow your statements on your college applications to reflect who you are as a student and human being. Ask for help from teachers, guidance counselors, and professionals if you need it. For example, the website Prompt utilizes a network of professional editors to help students refine their personal statements for college applications.

Gather Transcript Information

Of course, you’ll need to gather your transcript information from your high school for your college applications. Don’t wait too long to get all the information you need, as you don’t want to be stressed too close to the deadline.

Ask Politely for Letters of Recommendation

Many colleges and universities will require letters of recommendation for their applications, so make sure you politely ask for these well ahead of time.

To know which adults to ask for these letters, make a list of adults you trust who know you well in a professional or academic setting. You can ask teachers, extracurricular leaders/coaches/mentors, supervisors at work, etc.

Fill out FAFSA and Seek Scholarships

To get the most financial aid possible, make sure to fill out the FAFSA forms, even if you don’t think you’ll qualify for any aid. Seek scholarships wherever you can, either from your school or community or from organizations like NSHSS.

For more specific tips on the financial aid process specifically, check out another NSHSS blog: How to Get the Most Financial Aid? 7 Tips to Maximize College Funding.


Get Advice from Current College Students

As you start to prepare for the college admissions process, current college students who have already been through it are valuable resources. 

Talk to college students that you know, either in your family or in your neighborhood. Or, you can check out books like College Admission—How to Get Into Your Dream School: Real Students, Real Stories by James W. Lewis. In this book, you’ll  read stories from students who recently went through the college admissions process and have advice to share with students just like you.

However you prepare for the college admissions process, take a deep breath, and just start. The process is the most daunting when you procrastinate. So get going, utilize your resources, and good luck!