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  • Writer's pictureAllison Styffe

College Applications: 5 of our favorite tips

Crunchy leaves on the sidewalks, apple pie in the oven, and the anxious nail-biting of high school seniors...‘tis the season for college applications! We know this can be a stressful time for those of you applying to college. With so much to do — essays and references and transcripts, oh my! — and a lot riding on each step in the application journey, this process can feel like quite the mountain to climb. We’re here to hike along side you and, with these tips, hope to help the journey seem a little less steep:

1. Organization: don’t try to remember everything

Would you ever try to hammer a nail into the wall with your hand? Sure, you could try, but we both know it would be painful and ineffective. Now, would you ever try to remember each college applications’ deadlines and requirements off the top of your head? Same answer: sounds unpleasant and just plain unnecessary! Just as there’s a hammer for those nails, there are tools for keeping track of college app to-do’s.

Whether you create your own chart or use a template, make sure to have deadlines and requirements written down in one place.

Another organization tip: keep copies of everything. Write your essays in a Google doc so they can’t get lost or erased, then copy-paste them into applications. Have your log-ins to each college’s website and the Common App in an easily accessible place. Keep your own copy of things like test scores and unofficial transcripts so that you can reference them when needed. Not only are these things time-savers, they’re sanity-savers!

2. References: help them help you

Most people will tell you who you ask is most important when it comes to references. I’m here to tell you that how you ask is just as crucial, if not more so. Of course, you’ll want to seek out letters of recommendation from those who know you best, who can speak to your character and accomplishments. But also remember that you are asking these teachers, counselors, and coaches for a favor, one that will take up an hour or more of their already busy schedules. So, help them help you!

First, make sure to give them plenty of time — we’re talking two weeks, minimum. Second, use plenty of please’s and thank you’s. The more politely and professionally you ask, the more positive your letter of recommendation is likely to be. Lastly, make the process as smooth as possible by providing information you want them to remember about you. One way to do so is using a worksheet like this.

3. Essays: write a story only you can tell

Put yourself in an admissions counselor’s shoes for a minute, and think about how many applications they look at. Now, think about what it's like to read the same cliche, over-done essays again and again. Oh look, another bit about how Johnny took a service trip to change the lives of others, but in the end it was Johnny who was truly changed...and here we go again with how the dictionary defines adversity with a list of obstacles Sarah has overcome. Don’t be a Johnny or a Sarah (unless that’s actually your name, of course). This is your chance to excite that admissions counselor, not bore them!

Here’s how: write a story, not an essay. And make it a story only you can tell. If the prompt asks you to talk about your leadership qualities, avoid listing the characteristics you think they want to hear, and instead write descriptively about a specific time you acted as a leader. Show them you’re a leader, don’t tell them. Think less “intro-body-conclusion” and more “beginning-middle-end.” The wonderful thing about story-telling is that it will automatically help your essay stand out. Anyone can make claims about themselves are using cliches and general statements, but only you can share your unique experiences that paint a picture of who you really are. Here’s an example of what I mean:

PROMPT: What is your most significant extracurricular activity and what has it taught you?
DON’T: “My most significant extracurricular activity is my involvement in field hockey, because in field hockey I have learned the importance of teamwork, perseverance, and hard work.”
DO: “The day I stopped a goal with my forehead was the day I learned how important field hockey was to me.”

4. Social media: clean up your online presence

I know, I know, adults are telling you all the time, “be careful what you post.” Before you roll your eyes too far back into your head this time, do this quick exercise: put yourself in those admissions counselor’s shoes one more time and pull up your Instagram profile. When you look at your pictures, what kind of person do you see? Is it the kind of student you’d be eager to accept to your school? If the answer isn’t immediately and resoundingly “Yes!” then erase those photos that don’t represent how you hope to be seen by the schools you’re applying to. Many of them DO look at your social media presence. So clean it up. Keep scrolling until you’ve done a thorough edit, do the same on Facebook (if you have one), and Google your name (you might be surprised what you find).

5. Follow up: confirm your materials have arrived

So the deadline has come, you’ve hit submit, and the sweet relief of completing those college apps sweeps over you. Congratulations! But not so fast… There’s one last step that many students skip: making sure the college has actually received everything they need from you. After all, there’s a lot of different pieces to the application puzzle — applications, essays, references, test scores, transcripts, application fees, and sometimes more. To ensure the school isn’t receiving an incomplete puzzle (it’s the worst when you’re missing that one last piece, right?), give the admissions office a call.

“Hello, my name is _______, and I recently applied to your school,” you’ll say. “I’m following up to make sure you’ve received everything you need to make my application complete.”

It’s as easy as that. Unless they let you know something’s amiss, thanking the admissions counselor for their time is truly the last step you can take before waiting patiently (or not so patiently) for their decision. Here’s to hoping it’s good news!

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If you need help with any part of this process here's a bonus tip: reach out to your college & career counselor. Like I said, we're here to guide you on the this college application journey. Let's climb that mountain together!

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