8 Strategies for Starting Your College Application Process

Some things to do now: work on a short list of schools, look at financial aid, and visit colleges.

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Getting started in the college application process can be a daunting task. While the paperwork itself will require careful management, the creative energy that must be given to developing key messages and application themes—and crafting them into compelling personal statements—can be all-consuming.

Over the course of the summer, I will devote this space to providing guidance regarding application preparations. The following are strategies for starting the process. In the coming weeks, I will focus on tips and strategies for refining your presentation.

1. Be purposeful in your searching: It's June and you are early enough in the selection process that your list of colleges may still be growing. This is not a problem as long as you are purposeful in your deliberations. Make sure the add-ons make sense and fit your needs well. Adding colleges—especially "reach" schools—on a whim ("I'll never know if I don't try…") is not a good idea. You don't increase your odds of admission simply by increasing the volume of "tries." Moreover, the addition of such schools will detract you from giving the quality attention to the applications that, in the final analysis, make the most sense for you.

2. Work toward a short list: While your college list might be in flux at the moment, you need to establish September 1 as the point at which you will have narrowed it down to the schools about which you care the most. And how many colleges would that be? Try eight or fewer. Keep in mind your ability to gain admission rests, in part, on your ability to demonstrate to the institution that you "get it"—that you see the synergy that exists between your talents and needs and its culture and offerings. With each application beyond eight, your ability to do a good job in making the case with each school diminishes greatly.

3. Visit college campuses: One of the biggest mistakes highly qualified students make as they apply for admission is the decision to put off the campus visit until after the admission decision has been made. The best way for you to know what you are getting into—and for the college to have confidence in your level of interest—is to visit the college's campus.

[Learn more about college tours.]

4. Research application requirements for colleges of interest: As your short list begins to materialize, develop a spreadsheet on which you can track the test requirements, essay topics, and submission deadlines. If you anticipate using the Common Application, go to www.commonapp.org to become familiar with the submission requirements. You won't be able to download the 2012 application components until August, but you can at least familiarize yourself with essay prompts and supplemental forms that might be required at some colleges.

5. Develop a résumé: Résumé writing is a good reflective exercise. While you don't need to worry about creating a professional résumé, compiling the activities, experiences, and accomplishments of your recent past will give you a better sense of what you have to offer a college. You can then draw from this in presenting your application and share it with the people who will write letters of recommendation for you.

6. Identify key messages you want to convey in your application: As you apply to colleges, you want to make sure they know who you are and what they will get if they admit you. Selective colleges are very deliberate as they choose students with an eye toward assembling communities that include talents, interests, and perspectives that range the spectrum. What do you have to offer? Leadership? Cultural sensitivity? Inventive curiosity? Compassion for the less fortunate? Begin thinking now about how you will convey key messages regarding your potential "gifts" as you apply for admission.

7. Talk with teachers now about letters of recommendations: Your teachers and your college adviser are positioned well to help you tell your story when you apply for admission. First, however, they must know it! Give them the courtesy of time to develop a letter for you and make sure they have the information they need to augment the presentation you will be making with your application.

[Read more about letters of recommendation.]

8. Investigate financial aid options: If you know that you will need financial assistance in order to attend college, now is the time to begin exploring your options. Investigate sources of independent scholarships and make arrangements to speak with financial aid officers at colleges to which you will apply. Ask the latter if they can give you an estimate of your Expected Family Contribution. The more you know about actual costs at the front end of the process, the easier it will be to identify and target schools that are likely to admit you and give you the assistance you will need.

[Know your Expected Family Contribution.]

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