After going through a long and involved college process myself, I decided to compile the kind of list I wish I’d had when I began my college search and decision journey. While some of the headers may seem obvious, I would still recommend reading the information below each header to give you some more specific tips and ideas for going in to your own search and decision. Good luck ladies!
Plan your SAT prep
Anyone who tells you that you can’t prepare for the SAT is lying to you. There are many prep books, practice tests, lesson plans, and other opportunities to boost your score; I would recommend looking for resources from College Panda, College Board, and the Princeton Review. Even if you know all the concepts on the SAT (which I think hardly anyone does without some level of preparation), practicing will stop you from making those easy mistakes.
Know if the colleges you’re applying to super score your SAT (take your best math score and best English score and make that total the SAT score they consider in your admissions process). Some schools say that they super score, but ask that you send all scores and tell them how many times you took the test – if this is the case for any of your schools, taking a real SAT for the first time as a practice may not be the best plan.
Try to take your first SAT by March or June of your junior year at the latest. If you feel like you’re ready earlier, take the test as soon as possible, but by June, you should plan to have taken the SAT at least once. This way, there are more opportunities for you to take the test again if it doesn’t go as well as you would like the first time.
See if any of the schools you’re applying to require the essay portion of the SAT and register for the test accordingly. You don’t want to find your dream school in October of your senior year only to find out that they needed the essay portion, so be sure to think through your decision before registering. Also, try to sign up for the SAT at a location you’re familiar with – choose a school you know a bit so that you have a sense of where to go when you get there.
If a college recommends that you take the SAT 2 subject tests, make sure to register for those. They are given on the same day as normal SATs, so you cannot take both at the same time. This means that you lose an opportunity to take the SAT again if needed – so try to schedule tests earlier on if you need to work on getting good scores for both.
Ultimately, schedule the test when your practice tests are consistently scoring at or above where you want your scores to be. If you’re consistently 50 points under the score you think you need, the odds of it improving the day of the test are slim. Work to have consistent scores in the score range you need before testing day.
And don’t forget to purchase the option to have your answer sheet sent back to you with which questions you got wrong – if you take the SAT again, you will know what kinds of problems you got wrong to more specifically target certain areas during your continued preparation. It can cut down on your preparation time and ensure that you’re using your time effectively.
If you think an SAT tutor will help you and you are able to afford it, this can be a good option to keep you working. However, if you’re diligent with practicing in prep books and reading through explanations of concepts, you can improve your score without the help of a tutor.
Prioritize what you want in a school
Do you want a small college or large university? Small liberal arts classes or a massive lecture hall? Two semesters or three quarters? A small college town or a bustling city? After you brainstorm what you want in a school, begin to research some places that fit most or all of your desired criteria.
Start visiting colleges during junior year – and by the summer before senior year at the latest. You don’t want to start your senior year without having stepped foot on a college campus; this can make the application process feel even more stressful, rushed, and daunting. Even if none of the schools you’re looking at are local, I would still recommend visiting a local campus just so you have an idea of what a typical college tour and information session are like.
If you are looking at schools that are far away and can’t make the trip to visit them, spend some time on websites – many schools have virtual tours and other ways of exploring the campus. You want to have a sense of where you plan to apply far in advance of the time you actually need to start working on applications. Part of the reason this is so important is that many schools have a supplemental essay asking you why you’re applying to that school in particular, so visiting the campus and allowing yourself to see where you could fit in to the campus community can be a huge advantage when writing your essay.
Get started on your essays early
Don’t wait until school starts in the fall to start writing essays. At the very least look at the prompts for the Common App (or Coalition or other application), as well as prompts for any supplemental essay, so that you have an idea of what you’ll be expected to write.
If an essay question seems broad or daunting, try coming up with a few ideas and doing some quick writes – take an hour each on three prompts and see where you get. You might even get a new idea out of it!
Whatever an essay deadline is, tell yourself the deadline for your own completion of the essay is at least one week prior. This way, the final week before the application is due, you’re just making some last-minute revisions instead of writing until 11:59 the night it’s due.
Don’t overlook the additional information essay if you’re using Common App
Many people don’t take full advantage of this space, but write and revise the additional information essay as if it’s just like any other important essay you’re working on (which it is!). Your admissions officer will read this section and use it to contextualize the rest of your application, so don’t take this part lightly. This space can be beneficial if there’s anything on your application that you feel doesn’t represent your progress or could just use some clarifying, so be sure to use it effectively!
Don’t reuse essays for different schools
We’ve all heard the horror stories about hitting “submit” on an essay to one school that was originally written for another, only to find out you forgot to delete the name of the other school.
If you have a generic line that fits many schools – something about why you love liberal arts colleges, or why you want to study neuroscience – feel free to apply that line to different essays. But you should go no further than sampling some of your more general statements; schools really can tell when the entire essay was written generally enough to be sent to every school on your list.
Your essay will stand out if you can name specific things you like about this school; say which programs you’re interested in, what clubs you could see yourself joining, or why that school feels like a good fit for you. If you can see yourself there, the best thing you can do is make your admissions officer be able to see you there, too.
“Optional” components of an application really aren’t optional
If there is an optional essay on an application, yes, you are able to hit “send” and submit it to the college without completing the essay, but you wasted a huge opportunity not only to share more about yourself, but to demonstrate some added interest in the school.
While these optional components won’t necessarily make or break your application, if a school is looking at two equally qualified students, they’re going to want to pick the one that seems more invested in actually attending the school – and working hard on an optional component can be that added boost to your application.
While “optional” essays should definitely be completed, don’t worry about the optional interviews and campus visits – if you’re able to, definitely do them and show that interest, but if it’s not an option for you, that is most often understood by the school. However, there isn’t a circumstance keeping you from taking the time to write the extra essay, so be sure to take advantage of that opportunity!
Don’t take choosing your “safety” schools lightly
Many people choose “match” and “reach” schools that they really love, but often throw on a “safety” last-minute as a back-up plan.
Be discerning when choosing your “safety!” “Match” and “reach” schools are getting more and more competitive by the year, and a school you think you should get into might not come through for you. Your “safety” is your best shot, and could end up being the only place you’re accepted (or the only place that has scholarship money if you need it), so take the time to find a “safety” school you really love. The heartbreak of not getting in to a “match” or “reach” school can be eased a bit if you know that you’ll be perfectly happy at your “safety,” even if it wasn’t your top pick.
Think about how many supplemental essays and fees you are able to handle
Some schools don’t offer supplemental essays, so if you don’t think you’ll have the time to do a lot of them, keep in mind which schools don’t ask for them. Also check out the application fees for schools – those can add up quickly! Some schools waive fees if you qualify for financial aid, and some don’t ask for a fee from anyone. If this is something that matters to you, be sure to look into it as you start looking at schools.
Send more applications than you think you need to
Be ambitious, but also be cautious. Dream about some great “reach” schools and work really hard on those applications, but be sure to have enough “matches” and “safeties” that if those “reach” schools don’t work out, you’ll still have some great options.
Try to send out as many applications as you think you are reasonably capable of submitting. The more applications you have, the better the odds are of you having more schools to choose from once you get back your decisions; but you also don’t want to send out 20 applications that are poorly thrown together. Strike the right balance of quantity and quality.
Demonstrate interest in as many ways as you can
If you can, make a college visit! Set up an on-campus interview! Have an alumni interview in the local area! But sometimes, these things just don’t work out for one reason or another. If this is the case, find another way to show interest. This cannot be stressed enough – write those supplemental essays! Write specific things you love about the school itself so that they know they’re special and a real contender for you.
Take another step still – write an email to your admissions officer asking them questions you have about the school. Ask them if they can connect you with a student so you can get an account of what the school is like for them. Try to connect with a professor in a department you’re interested in studying in. Do anything and everything you can to make it clear that you want to be at that school.
Be discerning about your letters of recommendation
Know if you need one or two teacher letters for the schools you’re applying to as soon as possible. You are supposed to ask teachers for letters April of junior year, and you don’t want to find out in October that you really needed a second teacher letter.
Think about whether you have a mentor, coach, or teacher outside of school that knows you a lot differently than your teacher recommender does. If you think someone has something really unique to say about you, consider the extra letter of recommendation – most schools accept one, and it can be helpful to have someone else highlight a different side of you to your application reader.
Ask people you know for help and advice
If you know a recent Mercy grad in college, reach out to them and ask them some questions, particularly if they’re at a school you want to go to or studying in a field you’re interested in. Don’t be afraid to ask friends, teachers, and mentors to read over some of your most important essays and give you feedback.
Research your application reader
Many schools publicize who the regional admissions officers are, and these people are often the ones that read your application. This does not mean that if your reader studied trombone performance you need to pretend to be interested in the same thing – however, it can be nice to put a face to the person that will read your application to get you to think about how you will personally connect and stand out to them in your application.
While some schools accept a resume, many don’t give you a spot to send your full resume. Be sure to have a full resume completed and ready to submit, but start prioritizing some of your best accomplishments.
The Common App limits the number of activities, leadership roles, and awards you are able to present, so be strategic about what you want to show. Try to diversify your accomplishments that you list – you don’t want to put five of your history awards and neglect to say you got a chemistry one. Show off your strongest awards while making sure to display the variety of them if applicable.
Look up blogs, vlogs, and other content from students at schools you’re interested in
It’s surprising how many students decide to blog about the best places in the area to get food, vlog what campus dorm life is like, or share pictures of fun traditions on social media!
Check out YouTube and see if you can find any videos from students at the schools. It’s not only a great way to get to look at different parts of campus you might not find on a campus or virtual tour, but you get to find out what students like to do on campus, how students spend their free time, where to get free food on Saturdays, and what campus traditions are like.
Make a college social media account
Create an Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, and any other social media platform you may like to follow some colleges on. Keeping it professional is key – use a senior portrait or plain headshot as your profile, and keep your bio to a few accomplishments or interests. Use these pages to follow admissions pages for the schools you’re applying to – many schools upload Instagram stories and tweet photos about what’s happening on campus each day. It’s yet another way to start immersing yourself in campus life and imagining where you want to spend the next four years.
College Confidential can be great – but use it carefully
Keeping track of your schools on College Confidential can be a great way to find out about new developments to admissions pages and to keep up with everything that’s happening in the process.
However, remember that this is a general forum – anyone can post anything on the website, so be sure to fact-check anything you find, particularly once it gets closer to decisions (some people like to say that admissions decisions will be posted in the next hour without any actual basis just to see the board erupt with posts from angry parents).
If this isn’t for you, don’t feel the need to use it – it is perfectly possible to get all of your information from admissions websites and other places. However, it can be really helpful when someone made a call to the admissions office and actually has a useful piece of information that isn’t available anywhere else.
Prepare some information for your interview
You obviously can’t script every answer for your interview, but prepare for the basics. You know what some of the questions will be, so be sure to have an idea for what you will say for some of the more general questions, like “Describe yourself,” “What’s your proudest achievement?,” and “What is it that made you want to apply to this school?.” There will of course be a few odd questions – I got caught by surprise with “describe yourself in emojis” – but just know what you want to communicate about yourself and try your best to roll with the punches.
If you have to pause for a moment and think, your interviewer understands. Don’t feel the need to jump on every question the second the last word comes out of your interviewer’s mouth – it’s best to have a put-together answer that represents how you really feel than to stumble through a quick answer because you felt pressured to start talking.
Keep in mind that your interviewer could be an admissions officer, a current student, a graduate from last year, or a graduate from over 20 years ago. You probably don’t want to ask an older alum about what social activities there are today on campus, but asking them about traditions or what they think has changed since they’ve been there would be appropriate questions.
When the interviewer asks if you have any questions, don’t say “no.” Ask at least three questions – these are pretty easy to prepare in advance. Ask about something you’re interested in – a common go-to question for me was “what was the most quirky or interesting class you were able to take?” Ask something that makes the interviewer open up about their experience while still telling you something about the school in general.
If you have any questions about other parts of the college process that you would like advice on, please leave them in the comments below!