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Preparing for and Applying to College

Preparing for and Applying to College

Like finding a great high school, finding a great college is all about fit. A college or university doesn’t need to have a famous name to be a great school for a particular student there are excellent schools of every size, type, and level of affordability all over the country.

Applying to college is a multiyear process that involves the student, parents or guardians, school counselors, and frequently outside mentors and assistants. The sheer number of forms to fill out and rules to follow can seem overwhelming, so do not be afraid of asking for help whenever it is needed. Starting with school counselors, there is an entire network of professionals whose mission it is to help students navigate the system successfully.


When and How to Start Thinking About College

Some students have from a young age a strong idea of what kind of career they would like to pursue, while others need to explore the many possibilities. By the time students enter 10th grade, they should have at least a few ideas and begin to research the college major(s) that can help them achieve those careers.

School counselors are the best first resource for this information, but students in 10th and 11th grades should also explore their options through online research, college fairs, information sessions sponsored by professional groups, and organized campus visits.

There are two types of colleges: two-year schools and four-year schools. Two-year colleges, such as the Community College of Philadelphia, offer associate’s degree programs that can lead directly to a career or that may be used as a less expensive way of completing the first two years of college.

Four-year colleges and universities offer bachelor’s degree programs. Many professional careers today require applicants to have a bachelor’s degree to be considered for employment.


Questions Students Should Consider When Thinking About College
  • Size of institution: Do I thrive in a busy, crowded environment, or would I do better at a school where the student body is small and close-knit?
  • Location: Do I want to remain in a large city like Philadelphia, or would a smaller city or even a rural area be a welcome change of pace? Will it be easy to commute from my home, or easy to visit home during breaks?
  • Course offerings: Do the colleges have well-regarded programs for my prospective major(s)?
  • Extracurricular activities and social life: Do I want a college that offers a lot of organizations, clubs, and social activities? Am I interested in joining a fraternity or sorority?
  • Internship and study abroad opportunities: Do I want a college that offers me the chance to begin work in my intended field during the school year or over breaks? Do I want a chance to study overseas for part of my education?
  • Financial aid: How generous are the colleges typical aid packages? Does a school have any special programs for low-income students? Is an athletic scholarship a possibility?


What Students Need to Do Before They Apply


The SAT and ACT are standardized tests that measure a student’s verbal, math, and writing skills. Many colleges and universities use scores from one or the other of these tests as part of their admissions process. Some schools also ask for additional tests called SAT Subject Tests, or SAT IIs, which include literature, math, science, history, and languages.

The PSAT is a Preliminary SAT that most students take in the fall of 11th grade, though students can take it earlier for practice. Regardless of how many times a student takes the PSAT, the 11th-grade score will be used to determine whether the student qualifies for a National Merit Scholarship.

Students generally take their first SAT or ACT after the PSAT in the fall of 11th grade. Students can take the SAT multiple times to try for the best score. Some schools will mix and match individual test results to come up with the highest total score, while others take only the highest score from one testing session.

Students should check with their school counselors to find out about school-based SAT prep courses and practice sessions.


Verify Their Transcript

The transcript is a school’s record of the courses a student has taken and the grades he or she earned. While the school will release an official copy directly to colleges as part of the admissions process, it’s a good idea to ask for a copy ahead of time to check it for any errors or omissions.


Assemble a Portfolio

Students applying to visual or performing arts programs will most likely need to submit samples of their work or an audition tape. Check each college’s requirements carefully.


Ask for Recommendations

Most colleges require written recommendations from one to three people who know a student well often one or two teachers and sometimes a coach or other extracurricular leader. Students are generally not allowed to see the specific contents of a recommendation; check and follow each college’s procedures carefully.


The Application Process

Once students have narrowed down a list of colleges they would like to attend, it is time to start applying. While every college has a few unique requirements, the overall process is broadly the same at all schools.


Early Decision/Early Action vs. Regular Decision

The first choice to make is whether to apply to a college that offers an early decision on applications. Certain colleges have early decision programs that obligate students to attend if they are accepted. This is often an excellent way for highly qualified students to gain admittance to highly selective colleges, but students must be sure of their choice and be ready to apply on an earlier deadline.

Early action programs promise to evaluate a student for admission on an accelerated schedule but do not obligate them to attend if they are accepted.

Regular decision applicants have the latest application deadlines and are usually informed of the colleges admissions decision in early spring of 12th grade.


Parts of the Application
  • The form: Much of the college application process today is conducted online, but many schools still accept paper applications. Hundreds of colleges around the country accept the Common Application, which allows students to fill out and submit one application for many schools. Check each school’s admissions website carefully for specific requirements.
  • The essay: Most schools require applicants to write at least one essay to help them understand students individual talents and situations. Parents and school counselors can help students evaluate their essay drafts, but the work must be the student’s own.
  • The recommendations: Check each school’s admissions website to determine the proper procedure for submitting letters of recommendation.
  • The interview: Colleges may ask for an on-campus interview or arrange for local alumni to interview applicants.
  • The fee: Many schools charge an application fee at the time of submission, but most will waive the fee for low-income families or those experiencing financial hardship.


Getting In

Students who have applied to a school with an early decision or early action program may know as early as December of their 12th-grade year whether they have been accepted, rejected, or wait-listed. Though some schools admit regular-decision applicants on a rolling basis, most students who have applied regular decision will be informed in early spring.

If a student is wait-listed, it simply means that the school has deferred its decision on whether to accept or reject. The student can decide whether to stay on the wait list or withdraw from consideration.

It is possible to be accepted by a number of schools at the same time; this is the time to weigh offers of financial aid to select the best option for the student and family. After a decision is made about which school to attend, students must inform all schools of their choice.

Once a student picks his or her college, it’s time to celebrate but that doesn’t mean the work is over. Students who do not keep up their grades in their last semester of high school may lose their offer of acceptance.


Financial Aid

There are many ways to pay for college, including merit or athletic scholarships, government and private grants and loans, and personal funds. Many schools offer students from low-income households extensive aid, sometimes even up to the full cost of attending.

The first step in figuring out financial options is filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. This form, which asks for in-depth information about students and families financial situation, is required of all U.S. citizens and legal immigrants attending college in the United States.

School counselors can lead students to free help with understanding and filling out the FAFSA and with other kinds of scholarship research. Beware of individuals or companies that charge for these services they may be worth what they charge, but it makes sense to take advantage of all free help first.

Quick Scholarship Application Links


For More Information

  • The Office of College & Career Readiness coordinates counseling and college awareness services for the school district; operates Student Success Centers at a number of schools around the city; and offers information on scholarships, high school/college dual-enrollment programs, AP and International Baccalaureate programs, and more.
  • The Center for Student Opportunity offers resources for students from families with no history of attending college.
  • The College Board operates the PSAT, SAT, and AP programs and offers extensive information about the college admissions process, including financial aid.
  • The government’s Federal Student Aid site explains financial aid options and leads families through the FAFSA process.
  • U.S. News produces a yearly ranking of top colleges and universities and offers informative profiles of more than 1,800 schools.


More information

Looking for more information on finding a great school? See all articles here.

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