My niece happens to be a senior and leads her high school class on the pursuit of being valedictorian, her class’s top position. I got into a conversation with her over the holidays about the college application process. Her insight was incredible, and her preparation very thorough. I thought I’d share her process with those of you who are applying as well or helping your kids apply. Here’s an article for you by Grace Wilding of Rockwall High School, Rockwall, Texas.

10 Pieces of Advice for Applying to College

Applying to college seem like a stressful time, but with hard preparation and research, this storm can turn into a sprinkling that waters one’s fertile future. Below are some things I found essential in my endeavors to apply for college.

Be Prepared

Much of the college process involves knowing the deadlines and preparing early so you can have the best shot at scholarships, honors programs, and even admission for those hard-to-reach schools. Be sure to not only check the websites of the colleges to which you are applying to see what is required (letters of recommendation, (i.e., ACT/SAT scores, resumes, transcripts), but also pay close attention to when these deadlines are. I found using a table helpful, setting the deadlines in one column and the specific application name in the other, checking off each when I finished and submitted the item. Many other people use calendars. I found it necessary to send any important materials, that were to be sent by mail, at least three weeks in advance of the deadline. Knowing all deadlines, preferably by the Spring of one’s junior year will give you ample time for preparation.

Take Action Early

Senior year is a whirlwind, an enjoyable time that you’ll want to soak all up, so it’s best to give yourself some margin to enjoy it…and to prepare against the idleness of the senioritis by completing things early. The first step is selecting the schools where you will apply. A standard for students is to apply to safety schools, reach schools, and dream schools. Now, this may seem like a lot but bear with me, I will explain how easy it becomes. Research online with websites like College Raptor and Unigo that match students with colleges based on their desires for college may be helpful if one has no clue where to go. Or, if one has desires to pursue a career Princeton Review articles on ratings of certain majors may be useful. By far most helpful to me, though, was touring a good number of schools. Sometimes students get the feeling of “being at home” in these areas and this is very helpful in the decision process. Once you have chosen a school, it is time for taking action early. To me, I found it useful to begin completing my applications to colleges in the summer. Completing applications early and finishing by summer at least filling out the application by the end and beginning to ask for recommendations saves one a lot of stress later on. Additionally, if you turn in applications early some colleges are on a rolling admissions basis so you will get acceptance decisions earlier and have the first pick at housing and have ample time for completing honors program applications.

Know the Difference Between Early Decision, Regular Decision, and Early Action

First off, college decisions are sometimes tough and they require a lot of self-evaluation. For me, I have applied to six colleges, some of my friends more than ten, and even others only one or two. Regardless of if you are certain where you want to go, knowing the difference between these three can be very important. So, to begin with, we’ll look at the most harmless looking, Regular decision. This is simply a normal non-committal application you will complete. Non-binding, this action is often good if one is unable to complete applications early, or they’re not quite sure where they want to go for sure. The next two vary from school to school if they are even offered. The other extreme from regular decision is Early Decision. This means the student is sure they want to attend the university they’re applying to because if accepted they must attend (barring financial inabilities). For those unsure they can financially commit, those who need additional time to do more SAT/ACT tests, or those simply not ready to make a decision this may not be the best option. This is often best if one is sure they desire to attend and the school is a reach school or an Ivy League. Oftentimes, Early Decision individuals have a higher rate of acceptance and they are notified much earlier than regular decision, making this a good option. Early Action for me, for many schools was the best option. It oftentimes doesn’t have the same competitive edge to getting into schools but is for individuals who are ready to apply and want a quicker reply to their application, but it is non-binding so they do not have to commit until the normal time. It’s best to think about these seriously and see if the competitive edge to applying of Early Decision would really benefit one. Sometimes, it’s best to wait for the better test scores of the ACT/SAT or to spend more time revising essays to be the best they can be, and chances for acceptance are better in Regular Decision simply due to better scores or more quality pieces. Regardless of what you choose, quality is better than swiftness of turning in an app.

Prepare for SAT Subject Tests, ACT/SAT Writings, and the SAT/ACT

SAT what? Subject Tests? Many individuals do not even know what these are. This is a reason why they have become optional even to some Ivy League schools, but SAT subject tests are a way for students to show how they excel in certain subjects (Biology, Chemistry, Math 1, etc.). These can boost one’s application if schools are looking for it, helping one’s academic profile. It may even help with honors programs. In regards to the writing, it’s often optional but as well is a way to show a students academic abilities and may be required by some schools so it’s best to research this. More expensive and tiresome after the other tests preceding it, it’s best to research if it’s even worth it for you to take. Does the school you’re applying to find it useful? Are you applying as an English major? Taking these in general, be sure to prepare, take practice tests (I used a Princeton Review book), and figure out which you are best at, SAT/ACT. Oftentimes, students are much better at one or the other, so if at first you don’t succeed, try again. Prepare and give yourself enough time to send them to colleges knowing the scores. For me, it was best to take some in the spring, study in the summer and take tests (I took the ACT multiple times and SAT once) then so I would not have to worry about this in the fall. Some schools superstore tests, meaning that if one does better in one section of the test in one sitting and another in another the sections will be combined for a superscore.

Know Your Audience (Writing College Essays)

Research the school you are applying to thoroughly before writing essays. What programs do they have that align with your own interests? Beyond simple statistics that anyone could find on the internet, delve deeper into the culture of the university, what is it most known for? What is its mission statement? Is there a specific professor you’d like to work with? Be sure to express yourself in the college essays painting a picture of yourself, but also be sure to paint how you would fit in and contribute to the school. Oftentimes picking a story relevant to yourself can grab the admissions committees attention and really reveal your personality and true nature. Be sure to let yourself and your experiences shine through. Really put your voice into the essays (with proper English, of course). After you’ve written these, have several people look over them and run them through a grammar checker like Grammarly. Be sure to proofread it. If you have excellent test scores or even not so great ones, many schools place a good amount of weight on the essays, looking at you as a whole person so these are important.

Show your interest (make visits, click on emails)

In each application I have completed, I am always asked how I came in contact with the school. It is always good to have a few points of contact. Attend college fairs and request school information, attend tours at the school and even sit in on classes, meet with students, visit the school’s website. These points of contact will show you are committed to the school and make you a better candidate. Additionally, monitoring emails from universities to see if one’s admissions counselor has contacted them, engaging in proactive dialogue, and checking emails for fee waivers to applications is necessary. Click on things, open emails, and stay connected if the school is somewhere you want to go. Your persistence may just pay off!

Optional Never Means Optional

Now…seeing that optional button on the CommonApp or other applications can look tempting. Why do more work when it’s not required? Why write that extra essay? Well, because it shows commitment and makes you a stronger candidate. Taking the time to fill out optional essays or take optional tests can boost your chances at acceptance painting you as a dedicated candidate whose intent on getting into the school. It also allows the committee to see more into who you truly are behind a few words in an extracurricular category or your test scores. Also, scholarship and honors committees can sometimes see your original application so if you slack off this will be shown to them and you may not get the offers you desire.

Reduce, Reuse, Relax!

After a few applications, they get easier, you start to see the same prompts for optional essays repeating, be it in honors applications, scholarship ones, or admissions ones. If you have a good essay introduction of a personal story you can easily tweak it to each school making it easier to apply to more schools. Whether your applying through the Common Application, Coalition Application, Apply Texas, or a school specific application (which I do not recommend because schools often do not place additional weight regardless of the method you choose and the first three save the non-school specific bulk of the application to be reused again), reusing your essays can save time and effort. Be sure to answer prompts of course, but relax. Reduce your energy and realize it’s all in God’s hands. You’re going to end up where you need to.

Research Local Scholarships Early

Sometimes deadlines for scholarships are in their junior year or senior year fall semester so researching early is necessary. First, look to see the school-specific scholarships offered and realize that more may be offered that are not visibly shown. Remember finances are important, but if God means for you to go somewhere, he will help it all work out…you have worked hard yourself though to looking for those scholarships. Apply for everything you think you may remotely relate to. What’s the worst they can say? No. One syllable. And it may seem like a lot of effort to write another essay that takes an hour or two…but you’re being paid $500, $2000, etc. for the scholarship. This highly exceeds the minimum wage of this action. Also, look for private and local scholarships.

YOU SHOULD NEVER PAY TO ENTER A SCHOLARSHIP!  Please watch for scams. Regardless of how small the amount, small scholarships add up. Look for local and private ones. Some essential ones I’ve seen are

      1. Raise me (school-specific, very easy, for the things you have done during your high school career)
      2. Coolidge and Ge Reagan are private scholarships, more expensive but higher in reward.

FAFSA- Deal or No Deal: Should you take every type of loan you are offered?

The answer is probably no. FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) can offer grants, scholarships, loans, and work-study funds. There are two types of loans you can be offered. Subsidized loans have interest accrued, but it is paid for by the Department of Education during one’s schooling and six months after one’s graduation so interest doesn’t accrue for the student. Unsubsidized loans accrue interest throughout school, but one isn’t required to pay until after they finish schooling. Still, this accrued interest may not be great for one financially. However, you must qualify financially for subsidized loans. In addition to FAFSA, some private schools require CSS (College Scholarship Service) to grant students financial packages and scholarships. You should research if your school requires this and when the deadline for it is.

I hope this has been helpful and want you to realize that regardless of acceptance or rejection, God has a masterful plan for your life. Oftentimes, the most beautiful and adored things of our lives arise from paths we would not have taken, but He guided us on by way of closing some doors (acceptances) that need not be opened. He has a special plan for you regardless of where you go. Pray for your decision and remember you don’t have to decide until May. For me, a certain decision was better than any housing selection advantages, but that is just true for me. Remember you can always transfer! Beyond any acceptance or rejection, you are loved because He loves you and He died on a cross to show you that. No admissions counsel can comprehend the value He puts on you. You are one of a kind! He designed you with a purpose! Try to see what that is and listen to Him! Love you, friend! Thanks for reading!

Matthew 6:33  “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” English Standard Version (ESV)