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  • Writer's pictureJenny Deren

5 Tips for Starting Your College Applications

Summer is upon us, and it's time for 11th graders (now rising 12th graders) to begin their college applications. I know what you're thinking: Already? But the earliest deadlines aren't until November!

This is partly true (the earliest deadlines are actually in October, and some schools accept and read applications even earlier, admitting students on a "rolling" basis). But regardless of deadlines, there are a number of reasons why it's a good idea to start sooner rather than later -- first and foremost, because applying to college is a process that takes time to complete well.

If you’ve watched your college-bound friends (or your friends’ college-bound children) agonize over their ACT results, write and rewrite their Common App Personal Essay, scramble to hit “submit” before 11:59 pm, and spend the next three months biting their nails and obsessively checking their application status, you’re probably approaching your own college applications (or your child’s applications) with dread, or fear, or anxiety. This is not a reason to procrastinate!

If you begin your applications expecting to be overwhelmed by them, then they're likely to do so. But if you approach them as an opportunity to learn about yourself and to take ownership of your post-high school plans, you’ll find that your experience is more engaging, more fulfilling, and ultimately more successful. This is a reason to start early.

Here are 5 tips for starting college applications:

1. Put your applications into perspective.

College applications don’t have to be harrowing rites of passage. Rather, they should be purposeful next steps on your journey into your future after high school. Take a moment to consider the "big picture": why you are applying to college, or to any particular college, in the first place?

When you put your applications into perspective, you can work on them less reactively (“the deadline is tomorrow, and I can’t think of anything to write about!”) and more intentionally (“I want to major in Animal Science at this school because the service learning opportunities will enable me to apply my knowledge to benefit others”).

You’ll know exactly what to write because you’ll know what you want from your college experience and how this school that you’re applying to can help you meet your goals. You’ll also recognize and be able to articulate the ways in which you can use your talents to contribute to this school. And you probably won’t procrastinate because the questions won’t seem so hard and the answers will come more easily.

2. Think about your applications as a process (rather than a task).

Instead of perceiving the college application as a giant mountain to scale in one grueling hike (“Mount Application”), think of it as a series of hills to climb slowly, over time.

What does this process look like?

Consider it in three basic steps, two of which you can tackle before you even create your Common App account:

First, Understand Yourself: Assess and reflect on your likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses, experiences, goals, learning style, lifestyle preferences, values, commitments, and anything else that shapes who you are, including what you might want to do in the future to support yourself.

Then, Find the Right Fit Universities/Colleges For You: Identify “right fit” schools based on what you know about yourself, and not what someone else – or the U.S. News and World Report – thinks is right for you. Learn about the kinds of colleges and universities available to you (in terms of size, location, curriculum, religious or social affiliation, academic specialty, tuition, and any other factor that matters to you). Consider the college majors and academic pathways that can help you fulfill your goals, and find out which schools offer them. Choose the schools that will enable you to thrive, as a scholar, as an aspiring professional, and as a person.

Finally, Apply With Purpose: Answer the application questions in a way that conveys who you are, why you’re applying, and why you’re a good fit for the school (and vice versa). Show that you have self-awareness and self-direction that resonate with the unique resources and opportunities at the schools you’re applying to.

This last step is typically the most challenging and time-consuming, and most likely, it will be for you too. But if you think of it as the final phase of your application process, you’ll be prepared for the challenge. You’ll be less stressed and more engaged. And, ultimately, you’ll submit a more compelling application, receiving more offers for admission and financial aid than less prepared and less perceptive applicants.

3. Start early.

You might have noticed that thinking about your applications as a process takes time. Yes! It does! Self-reflection, in particular, as well as a true understanding of what motivates and excites you, are difficult to hurry along when you're up against a deadline. Since self-awareness is the foundation of the process, it helps to begin as early as you can. (This is what 9th, 10th, and in some cases 8th graders are doing in the College & Career Readiness Program!).

This is not to say that you can't begin reflecting and self-assessing late in 11th or even in 12th grade. Jogging through the application process over the course of weeks instead of months (or months instead of years) is always more effective than sprinting up "Mount Application" in the last week of December. But, starting as early as you can definitely makes things easier, not to mention less stressful and more successful.

4. Use your team.

It's your application, but you're not in it alone! Use your support system when and how you need them. Examples:

  • Talk to your school or guidance counselor about your interests, goals, and application plans. Ask them what resources they recommend for you, or which colleges or universities might be a good fit.

  • Talk to your older friends (or siblings or relatives) who just applied to college or are currently in college. What tips can they offer based on their experiences?

  • Talk to your parents or guardians about their hopes and expectations for your college or career. Tell them about your goals and, if you need to, find a middle ground.

  • Talk to a college access adviser or an independent educational consultant for more personalized guidance. (In Northeast Ohio, we have several excellent college access resources, including the Lake-Geauga Educational Assistance Foundation (LEAF) and College NOW Greater Cleveland. If you live somewhere else, ask your school counselor about similar non-profit organizations). Don't know any educational consultants? Ahem. Feel free to email or message me anytime!

  • Ask any of the people above for feedback on your intended career plans or goals, your preliminary list of schools to apply to, and/or your application materials. You don't need to take everybody's suggestions all the time, but feedback is always helpful.

5. Breathe.

Applying to college will be hard and, at times, stressful. But it will also be exciting and rewarding and manageable. Take a moment, whenever you need it, to center yourself. Go for a walk. Play with your dog. Take a mental and physical break.

If you need to, go back to #1 and remind yourself why you are doing this in the first place. Take care of yourself so you can put your best self forward.

If you're still not sure how, exactly, to get started, don't worry! Over the next several weeks, I’ll break down the application process, explaining concretely how to, first, Understand Yourself, then, Find the Right Fit School For You, and finally, Apply With Purpose.

If there are particular topics you’d like me to address, feel free to drop them in the comment box or email them my way. Stay tuned, and stay in touch!

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