You’ve taken the SAT or ACT. You’ve researched universities in the USA. And you’ve decided which ones you want to apply to. Now, at long last, you can start filling out college applications. Where do you begin? What do you say? What do you not say? Filling out a college application can be both tedious and terrifying. This guide will help you break down the process.
The most important thing to remember is that you’re not completing the application all by yourself. You will usually need at least one recommendation letter from a teacher or school counselor, and you need official copies of your grades and test scores sent as well. (If your school’s records are not in English, you will need to get certified translations of your diploma and transcript.) Make sure you give everyone the necessary forms and plenty of time to get them to the colleges of your choice. Your guidance counselor should be familiar with these forms and deadlines, and will be a great asset to you during this process.
Give yourself plenty of time. Filling out a college application at the last minute increases your chances of omitting required information, writing a sloppy essay or both.
The application starts off simple, with basic personal information such as your name, address, email, citizenship/visa status and other material of that kind. You’ll also need to enter family information, such as who you live with (parents, relatives, guardian, etc.) and information about your parents and siblings and their educational background. So far, so good. There’s usually an optional section where you can enter your ethnic identity, marital status and other personal information that can help you if you are an international student and/or ethnic minority. Colleges generally like to have a diverse enrollment.
Next, you’ll fill out your educational data, such as where you go (or went) to school, your counselor’s name and contact information, previous schools you’ve attended and college courses you have taken.
You also must include your SAT and/or ACT test scores and TOEFL or other English proficiency test scores (if English is not your native language). Simply writing down your scores and grades is not enough! You must have official transcripts and scores sent from the institutions that administered them. This is your responsibility, so don’t procrastinate.
Now you can start to distinguish yourself from other applicants. You need to list any academic honors you’ve received since 9th grade – honor roll, National Merit Society, and the like – as well as high school extracurricular activities. Notable achievements from before the 9th grade can be included, but you need to have done something truly extraordinary. “Extracurricular” really means anything that’s not a required part of your school program. Maybe you joined your school’s tennis team or volunteered at a soup kitchen or have a really cool stamp collection. They all count as extracurriculars.
Colleges like to see what kind of person you are apart from your grades and test scores. The more well-rounded you are, the better your application will look to admissions departments. If you have had part-time or summer jobs in high school, colleges want to know about them. It will help show that you are responsible and capable. Don’t be shy about listing your work experience! Something is always better than nothing.
Up to this point in the application, you’ve been listing things you’ve already done. The writing sample, or samples, give you a chance to affect how the people reading your application will regard you.
Many colleges require two essays, or “personal statements,” a short one and a longer one. The Common Application requires one of 150 words or less, which elaborates on one of your extracurricular or work activities, and one of 250-500 words. The longer essay can essentially be about anything, since “topic of your choice” is an option. Other suggestions include writing about a person who has had a significant influence on you; an issue of significance (personal, local, national or global) and its importance to you; and how your personal background will add to the college’s diversity. Some colleges that accept the Common App also ask for an additional, school-specific admissions essay. Be sure to check with the college before submitting your application.
You can explain who you are in the personal statement. However, there are certain topics to stay away from. Political views can be risky – it’s okay to discuss how you interned for a political party in the last election, but not to insinuate that people who don’t vote for that party are wrong or stupid. You never know who will be reading your application. Other topics to shy away from include sex, drugs and alcohol, partying and your boyfriend/girlfriend (no matter how great he/she may be!). If you’re writing about a trip you took, don’t make it sound like a travelogue. Writing about how a painting at the Louvre changed the way you think about art is good (especially if art is one of your main interests). Writing about how amazing your hotel in Paris was — not good (unless you’re planning to become a hotelier).
Whatever you decide to write about, make sure it reflects you and not what you think the colleges want to read. The admissions committee reads hundreds, if not thousands, of application essays, so the best way to make your essay stand out is to simply be yourself.
Take enough time to write it. You should give yourself enough time to put your writing aside for a few days so you can look at it with a fresh eye and have time to polish it up (and check for grammatical and spelling errors) before you send it out.
The Common Application and most school-specific applications have specialized sections for artists and athletes. Artists can include samples of their work, be it a CD of original music, a short story or a piece of visual art, and athletes can list all sports played and honors won.
It’s a plus if you have these achievements on your resume, but don’t fret if you didn’t play sports or create great art in high school. If appropriate, you also can add other types of supplemental materials to your application.
Most of the rest of the application needs to be filled out by your secondary school counselor and the teacher or teachers who are writing your recommendations. The Common Application has a supplement for international students, to be filled out by a counselor, which includes an evaluation and a list of all standardized test scores taken outside the States (O-level, IB diploma, etc.).
The key here is to make sure everyone whose assistance you need, from testing centers to teachers, gets the materials they need in time for you to get your application in by the deadline.
Filling out a college application is an intensive process, not to be taken lightly. It gives you a chance to present yourself in a way that will appeal to the colleges of your choice. A lot of the process may not be fascinating, but you’ll be glad that you took the extra time to make sure your application was as good as it could be.