How to Take Control of the College Application Process

Applying to college can feel like a full-time job – in addition to your other full-time jobs of school, extracurricular activities, work or family responsibilities, and fitting in some time to have a personal life. What seems manageable during the long, lazy days of summer can suddenly become overwhelming when the school year starts and you are trying to juggle a dozen other responsibilities. Do not worry – you are not alone in this predicament. There are plenty of strategies and ideas you can utilize to take control of your application process. Let’s get started:

Research Your Options

The first step of the college admission process is to do your research. While you may know of schools based on their name recognition or through a friend or family member, it is important to narrow down a list of the schools that provide the things that you are looking for in your college experience. This could be based on location, cost of attendance, a particular academic program, campus culture, post-graduate preparation, or any number of factors that you feel are essential to where you want to go to school. Since it’s often not possible to travel to all of the schools that you want to learn more about, the best place to start is online. Most universities will have a robust website where you can get a good introduction to what their school is like. Try to go beyond the main page, however, and check out the additional links that matter to you, such as academic departments, housing and residential education, financial aid, career services, or recreation and sports. Don’t assume anything about a college –find information about all of the aspects of the school that you find important so that you can determine whether it would be a good fit for you.

Making a Good Impression in Person and Online

Another great way to do research on a college is to see if they visit your high school or a nearby area sometime during the application process. Each fall, USC admission counselors visit high schools in all 50 states and internationally and we hold Discover USC receptions in major cities around the world (you can find the full list here on our Undergraduate Admission website). At these Discover USC events, students can meet a member of the Undergraduate Admission office and talk to representatives from various academic departments and the financial aid office. For these events, it can be helpful to come prepared with questions you have about the school or about the application process that you want your admission counselor’s perspective on. Since these visits can often go quickly or be packed with other students, do not hesitate to ask the admission counselor for their contact information so you can follow up with them later (USC also provides contact information for the admission counselor that works with your high school at this link). It’s easier to give a fuller introduction of yourself or ask a nuanced question when there’s not a line of people behind you!

If you have questions beyond what you’ve found in your research or you want to reach out directly to someone at the school, here are some tips to help you put your best foot forward electronically. You can use this opportunity to give a bit of background about yourself, but make sure you have a clear purpose for why you are reaching out (we will read your application in its entirety so do not feel the need to list all of your accomplishments in an e-mail). Aim to ask questions that you could not find easily with a Google search or try to get feedback on what particular departments are looking for in an application supplement or portfolio. While e-mail can be an easier way to contact a prospective college, you still want to be professional in your wording and presentation. Always check the spelling of the person or place you are referring to, do not commit to gender pronouns that you are not sure of (“good morning” or “good afternoon” are great ways to start an e-mail if it’s unclear who you’re e-mailing) and write in complete sentences. Fully review every e-mail for grammar or spelling errors and check that you have asked all of the questions that you have at that time (one cohesive e-mail is better than three rapid-fire ones because you kept forgetting something you wanted to ask).

Organization is Key

Now that you have done your research and have a good idea of the schools you want to apply to, it is imperative to stay organized and keep track of the myriad deadlines, required materials, supplements, and other application procedures that may vary between applications. A good place to start is to bookmark all of the websites that you will be using often through this process, such as the Common Application, individual school websites, and the FAFSA website. You can also create folders in your e-mail inbox and on your computer to keep track of the information you are receiving from schools or the multiple drafts of your essays that you are working on. Lastly, if you want a quick way to represent all of your pertinent application information in one space, consider making a spreadsheet listing the details you want to keep track of for each school. This might include contact information, deadlines and required components for applications, average test scores or GPA of applicants, cost of attendance and financial aid resources, general notes about what draws you to that school, and so on. Decide what is most important to you and put it in a format that you can continuously check and update. Check out this spreadsheet template or this printable form for ideas for how to design your own.

There’s no worse feeling than knowing that a final deadline is tomorrow or that you blew past it days ago. You can never have too many “friendly” reminders along the way, particularly if you have it in a variety of forms. Start by plugging major deadlines into your phone or favorite electronic device. If you have a school planner or a calendar on your computer, you can record deadlines there too. You may even want to set these reminders for yourself a few days or a week before the actual date so that no amount of procrastination can affect your submission. If it helps, set intermediate deadlines for smaller tasks prior to the big submission date so that you’re keeping yourself accountable along the way.

Be Proactive

Speaking of needing to meet deadlines, remember that the people around you also have ones of their own to meet. During the school year, your counselors and teachers will be asked to write innumerable letters of recommendation for admission or scholarships, so do your best to reach out early and provide them with a complete list of instructions and deadlines for each school or organization. If there are specific accomplishments or honors that you want them to mention in their letter, make a list or write a short blurb for them so they can reference it when writing the letter. Here’s an example of a helpful questionnaire borrowed from a high school in Minnesota. Try to avoid asking for things over Thanksgiving break (would you want to work during that time?) and see if you can find out how much time on average your recommender needs to write a good letter. Do not forget to write a thank you note at the end to this person – it takes a lot of work to fully encapsulate how spectacular of an applicant you are!

Review, Review, Review

At this point, you have probably started filling out numerous parts of the application and you are beginning to tire of your personal essay, short-answer questions, seeing your name in type, etc. Do not let this aversion keep you from double-checking everything you write or asking someone else for their fresh perspective. Turn to the people who know you best and ask them if your writing samples address the prompt you were given (this is very important) and represent who you are as a person. The essays and short answers often stand out the most in an application because they are unique to each applicant and provide a view into the type of student and leader you might be in college. Also, fresh eyes will likely be able to catch the one spelling error you overlooked in the middle of your essay.

At the end of your application process, make time to celebrate yourself! This is a huge accomplishment and the culmination of many years of learning, sacrifice, exploration, and sheer effort. Eat your favorite meal, take a long nap, venture somewhere fun, re-introduce yourself to your family and friends – whatever you need to do, just make sure that you acknowledge what you have done and to reflect on the opportunities you have opened up for yourself through this process.

Hopefully this blog provided some tips and tricks to make you feel that you can take control of your college admission process. Please feel free to leave a comment if you have your own ideas that you want to share with this community!

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