How To Tackle the College Application Process
By Casey Loalbo
The college admissions process can feel overwhelming—and for good reason. Most students have never been through anything quite like it and, naturally, that can cause a bit of anxiety and trepidation. The great news? It does not have to be that way! While lots and lots of individualized and specific planning goes into the college admissions process, the actual application process does not have to feel insurmountable. In this article, I’ll break the college application into 5 manageable pieces and explain how you can be sure that you give each piece the diligent attention it needs. If you follow this guide, you can feel confident that your application will be strong and ready to submit.
Let’s start with your transcript. The transcript earns the number one spot on this list for good reason. A transcript is a detailed record of your marks and grades that has been generated by your current and former high school/s. Typically, this will be a document, either on paper or online, with a list or table of the individual modules or courses you have completed with a numerical and/or letter grade associated with each. Your high school transcript is by far the most important part of your college application. There is absolutely no substitute for a strong transcript and a strong GPA. Your transcript shows the types of courses you’ve taken and the grades you’ve earned to all of the colleges and universities that you apply to. In addition to focusing on your GPA, college admissions officers will also evaluate the rigor of the courses you’ve taken, and they will do so using the context of what types of courses were available at your high school. For example, if you show an affinity for psychology but you were not able to take AP Psychology because your school did not offer it, admissions officers will be able to glean that information from the School Profile that your counselor will submit on your behalf. Your transcript is the record of your sustained effort as a high school student over the course of 3-4 years making it the single most accurate prediction of how you will perform at the college level.
When the time comes to submit your high school transcript as part of your college application, you will most likely need to request that your counselor releases your transcript to the colleges and universities to which you are applying. This often involves a transcript request and release form that may be electronic or on paper. There’s a good chance that your high school has a process that must be followed in order to have your transcripts released, so be sure to check with your school counselor for directions.
While we are talking about numbers, let’s dive into test scores. As you are likely already aware, colleges and universities around the world include standardized testing in their application evaluation process. The standardized tests most widely associated with college admissions are the SAT and the ACT. As recently as 10 years ago, almost no one wondered if they should take the SAT or ACT. Instead, in some parts of the country, you took the ACT. In others, you took the SAT. Almost no one gave the issue a second thought. Now that both tests are much more widely available, students all over have access to either test. Still, it’s easy to feel like colleges might have a “favorite.” But I promise, colleges accept either test and they do not prefer one over the other.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, several colleges and universities have employed test optional policies-- meaning that although they still accept test scores as part of the application process, applicants are not required to submit test scores. Students who consider themselves to be weak test takers or whose test scores do not correlate to their capabilities and/or GPA may choose to apply test optional. If you aren’t feeling great about your test scores and would like some guidance, Noodle Pros can help.
The most important thing to remember when it comes to SAT or ACT test scores and the college application process is that YOU are responsible for submitting your scores to the colleges and universities that you are applying to. While your school counselor will be responsible for sending some of your other application documents, they are not able to send your test scores. You must pay to have your test scores sent on the applicable website- www.collegeboard.org for SAT and ww.act.org for ACT.
Letters of Recommendation
As part of your college application, colleges and universities will ask that you submit letters of recommendation-typically one from your counselor and two from teachers. Letters of recommendation help round out your application. They provide insight into what you are like as a student and person from the perspective of someone who has worked closely with you. The experiences that high school counselors and teachers have had with you can help to paint a better overall picture of your accomplishments, potential, and character. The cool part about teacher letters of recommendation is that it is totally up to you to choose which of your teachers you will ask to write a letter on your behalf. The choice is yours, entirely! This is super exciting but for some, presents a major dilemma. WHO SHOULD I CHOOSE? WHO WILL WRITE THE BEST LETTER? WHAT DO COLLEGES WANT TO SEE WHEN IT COMES TO LORS? The answers to these questions are rather straight forward. You should choose a teacher who is very familiar with the type of student you are and what you are capable of. The point of a teacher letters of recommendation is to give the reader an idea of what type of student you are in the context of the classroom. Along with choosing a teacher who knows you well, it is important to choose a teacher you’ve had for a core academic subject.
Your high school counselor likely has a specific process that they’d like you to follow when it comes to requesting letters of recommendation. It is always best to ask the teachers you choose in person--perhaps after class or after school. If your teacher agrees, it’s a great idea to follow up with a “Thank You” email. Then, you’ll want to be sure that you follow whatever process the school counseling office has laid out for requesting letters of recommendation. PRO TIP - I like to encourage students to ask their teachers for letters of recommendation either right before spring break or right after. While this may seem early, it is never too early. As you can probably guess, some teachers are super popular among the student body and are typically the ones that get asked for letters most often. Get on their list EARLY!
Common Application, Coalition Application or School Specific Applications
When we talk about the college application process, we think about test scores and essays but sometimes it’s easy to forget about the actual application that applicants must complete. Depending on the schools you’re applying to, you will likely use the Common Application, the Coalition, and/or a school specific application as you complete your applications. The Common Application and the Coalition are undergraduate college admissions applications that applicants may use to apply to several colleges. School specific applications are created by a specific college or university and, as such, the application is specific to that school only. All types of applications collect demographical data about applicants as well as information about the high school/s they’ve attended. These applications also gather information about the applicant’s family. Both the Common Application and the Coalition Application ask applicants to detail their extracurricular involvements and to compose a personal statement/essay—more on that later.
Each year, the new versions of the Common Application and the Coalition Application open on August 1st. You can, however, create an account prior to August 1st and all of the information you enter will roll over into the new edition of the applications.
Last but certainly not least: THE ESSAY! The truth is you will likely write several essays (some shorter than others) over the course of the college application process. But the “college essay” that you constantly hear others talking about is typically referring to the personal statement required by the Common Application and the Coalition Application. Each of these application platforms have an “Essay” section along with specific essay prompts that they ask the applicant to choose from. The purpose of the personal statement is to give the admissions committee a peak into who you are as a person. Your personal statement should tell a story about you that reveals details of your character and interests that are not present in any other part of your application. Think of your essay as the part of your application where you get to use your voice. Unlike test scores and transcripts, the essay is your chance to add some personality to your application. In a way, the essay is an opportunity for the applicant to speak directly to the college admissions officers who are reviewing the application. The best time to begin working on your college essay is the summer after your junior year when you aren’t overwhelmed with schoolwork and extracurriculars. Starting in late June will give students plenty of time to work through drafts of their essay and get it into perfect shape prior to deadlines—some of which are as early as mid-October.
In addition to the main essay, some colleges ask applicants to submit one or more additional writing supplements. These writing samples may ask the student to detail the reasons why they are interested in attending a particular college or university or to share how they chose their intended major. In most cases, these supplemental writing pieces are required to be 250 words or less compared to the main essay which is usually 650 words or less.
If you’re still with me, thanks for reading! As you can see, the college admissions process is multi-faceted, but it feels more manageable when broken into pieces. If you take the time to carefully complete each task associated with the parts of the process you are sure to have a smooth experience and a pleasant college application journey!
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