Most people spend their spring break doing spring cleaning, relaxing, going to the movies, or going to Cancun; my family visited four colleges in four different states.
All in all, I’ve visited nine campuses from Grinnell (in a tiny town Grinnell, Iowa with an undergrad population under 2,000) to University of Texas Austin (in Austin, Texas with over 40,000 undergrads). The entire process from deciding where to apply to making a decision as to where I want to go spanned many months and a lot of stress.
Choosing not only whether or not to pursue college (as opposed to not at all, a vocational school, or pretty much anything else) can be a tough decision or an easy one. And it’s often just as much if not more stress on the parents as the students. (Tuition will not pay itself no matter what college admissions tells you.)
While a lot of people say that attending college was a formational time period for them where they had a lot of fun, made lifelong friends and connections, and learned about themselves getting there can be trying.
Take a deep breath.
What to Know About Your College Search
If you decide to go to college visit some campuses, hopefully near you or in your home state, before even applying. For high schoolers this process can start as early as sophomore year or into the junior year.
Diversity is the key factor, decide which you or the prospective student likes better: urban or rural, big to small, religiously affiliated or not, research oriented or not, do you want to go to an undergrad only college?
Look at the dorms so you can get a feel for what is “to be expected” or truly terrible. I thought that I wanted a big city college after seeing University of Michigan and Michigan State’s campuses, but then I saw Wake and decided that a smaller campus and college in a non-urban setting would be a better fit. I didn’t realize how awful the dorms I saw at one college were until I visited Liberty University.
What’s a good fit?
Now that you have an idea what you like, start narrowing down which colleges fit your interests, SAT/ACT scores, GPA, location, and price range. One other factor that you might want to consider is diversity. Are there significantly more males than females on campus? Racial and ethnic diversity as well as representation of the LGBTQIA+ community were all factors that I considered when visiting campus.
College Board, College Raptor, Forbes, US News, Unigo, Find the Right College, and plenty of other websites, colleges themselves, and high schools have quizzes and searches to find colleges that look like the best fit (on paper). Also searching up Top Colleges in “Insert major if you’re decided” can yield interesting results. PrepScholar can be a helpful resource to see if your GPS and SAT/ACT scores are up to snuff or if you need to put in a few late nights.
Supposing that you have a tentative list of colleges we can now get to where I was in the college process (well actually I mixed up a few steps although why that was a mistake I’ll get to later). Visiting!
Schedule a visit, normally the visits themselves are free even if airfare isn’t. Try to work it into another trip (vacation if you can swing it) if possible. For example there’s plenty to do in Chicago if you want to go visit the colleges in that area like UChicago, University of Illinois, Northwestern, DePaul, Loyola, Midwestern, etc.
Visiting the campus will do a few things: you can see whether or not it lives up to your expectations and things like the dorms, cafeteria, and classrooms. Talking to the students there and walking the campus itself will help you get a feel for what type of place it was.
While on paper Grinnell and Carleton were somewhat similar in that they were small, liberal arts, and seemed a little bit out of the way the second I walked onto each campus I could tell that there was a slightly different vibe. It wasn’t to say that one was better than the other, but to show that even though certain aspects of them seemed similar there were differences between them that would never come out on the brochure.
Some questions to ask your tour guides or presenter if they don’t cover them:
- What kind of opportunities are there to study abroad and do research projects?
- How does [X College] help me find internships relevant to my major?
- How long are students required to live on campus if at all, and what kind of student housing options are there?
- What kind of religious services are offered?
- While most of us enter college with some sort of ideas about religion a lot of people really decide to connect with a religious community on their own for the first time in college so having those opportunities and support is important.
After graduating what does the alumni network look like as far as finding jobs or entering into further studies like grad school, med school, law school, etc.?
What are they looking for?
Another thing to keep in mind is that while all colleges are looking for students who have completed their course-work well, each college will be looking for slightly different types of students. For instance, when we visited Northwestern, they emphasized that while prospective students would invariably have many different interests and topics for their college applications and essays, the ability to communicate those effectively was essential to being considered to their college.
Northwestern wasn’t only looking for people who wrote about being on their high school Quizbowl team, but people who could write about being on Track and Field, Model UN, National Honor Society, or their after school job well (among other things).
Often times when visiting a college a person who works in or with the admissions department will be there informing the prospective students the kind of people they’re looking to accept each year. Getting that information ahead of time before you apply can be essential in deciding whether or not the college is a good fit for you and distinguishing yourself as someone who is a good fit for the college in your essay.
I visited after I applied which was a huge mistake, because there were aspects of myself that I just didn’t share with colleges in my application because I wasn’t aware that they wanted to know.
Okay. Breathe. That was a lot.
The application process
Honestly this is a lot of paperwork and terminology you will never use again. There are four different kinds of admissions/decisions you can send in: Early Decision, Early Action, Regular Decision, and Rolling.
Early Decision means that if you are accepted into the college you will go, you can only apply to one college ED and it is binding. Most of the times colleges accept more people from this pool and the deadlines are earlier in the year.
Early Action is not binding but the decisions and applications are submitted earlier and the people from that pool are usually accepted slightly more. You may be ‘deferred’ in either of these pools which means the college will review your application with the regular decisions if you want them to.
Regular Decision means that you are applying with the rest of the pool, and the deadline is usually later in the year and the acceptance rate slightly lower than the other two applications.
Rolling admissions means that the applications will be reviewed whenever they come in so people will hear back in relation to when they apply. This means your chances of admittance usually increase the less you wait to apply.
There are also many different ways that schools take applications. University of Texas requires that you go through Apply Texas, other colleges will accept the Common App or Coalition Application, some colleges are applied through directly through their own system, and other colleges go through completely different programs.
They all require different information and each require their own guides. Most colleges you apply to will accept the Common App or Coalition Application with no preference towards either one. They will require at least one essay, and many will ask you why you have taken the time to apply to their college.
It’s best to re-read your essays several times to ensure that they’re written well and communicate what you want to about yourself. Have friends, teachers, and (if you can) writing coaches look them over.
Recommendation letters are also important. Choose people who know you well and who know you in different contexts. Most colleges want as good a picture as they can get of you since they only want to accept the best people for the programs and community they offer. So, while you might want to highlight certain things about you having the same recommendation letter with different signatures might not be the best path to go on.
The FAFSA or Free Application for Federal Student Aid is a must for anyone looking to apply to college and most colleges also require the CSS profile (through College Board) for any kind of scholarships or aid. It’s best to get these completed as soon as possible because they require a lot of information that is (hopefully) kept under lock and key and can take a lot of time to gather.
I wish I had been able to condense this a lot more, and it was only the highlights. I hope that this has been at least somewhat helpful to you and good luck!