Tips for the college application process (From someone who’s been there)

The college application process is like a scavenger hunt. There are treasures out there — or so you’ve been told — and you need to find them. You collect SAT scores, notable accomplishments, teacher recommendations and the like, checking them off your list as you go along.

But, wait! That’s not quite right… Let me start again.

The college application process is like a roller coaster. There are ups and downs and terrifying momentum. There are people all around you going through the same thing, and yet your experience is all your own. There are times when you think, “I can’t wait to get off this thing.” And other times when you marvel that you are actually doing it.

No, that’s not it, either. OK, I think I’ve got it this time.

The college application process is like a corn maze — with all sorts of twisty, confusing paths. Some lead to where you want to be; others go nowhere. While you are busy navigating the maze, the sun is setting on your senior year. So there is a sense of urgency to find the right path, or you might find yourself wandering aimlessly in the dark.

But, senior year is fun, right?

It’s true, you are at the apex of your high school career and others look up to you. But, there’s just so much to do. My advice to you — whether you feel like you are on a scavenger hunt, riding a roller coaster or navigating a corn maze — is to pace yourself. If graduation is the finish line and college is the trophy, you need to plan your race so you don’t burn out in the first mile. And there, I’ve done it: I’ve added yet another metaphor to this essay. Senior year makes you think (and write) that way!

Back to the pacing advice. The key is to start early. Go look at colleges any chance you can, beginning in the fall of your junior year, if possible. If you do start early, think: blue sky. Don’t limit your choices right off the bat. Do you want a big school or a small one? Rural or urban? Don’t just ask yourself; go look at one of each.

Near or far? Perhaps you can’t drive across country to look at colleges, but you can figure out how far away from home you want to be. Will the comfort of being able to come home frequently during your freshman year make a difference in how that first year goes? Or are you ready to leave home and never look back? Travel is expensive so you’ll need to factor that into your college costs.

They say that you get a “feeling” when you visit the right college. I scoffed at this until it happened to me. There were some colleges that looked good on paper (or on their website), but felt wrong when I got on campus. Some felt unfriendly, others too competitive. I knew when I saw stressed expressions on students’ faces that I was at a school that wouldn’t work for me. On the other hand, when it seemed that all I saw were party posters on the bulletin boards, I knew I was on a campus that wasn’t right for me either.

Once you’ve seen a few schools, you’ll begin to know what to look for. When you visit them, be sure to take the college tour and listen to the presentation from the admissions office. Most importantly, have a meal in the cafeteria. That’s the only way to tell what the students actually eat, and how they talk and interact. Check out the bulletin boards, see a dorm room, and ask about everything that is important to you. Are the dorms co-ed? Will you be crammed into a triple that should really be a double? Do most students graduate in four years? Does financial aid carry over from year to year?

When you’ve narrowed your choices, see how likely it is that you’ll be accepted. No sense applying to a school you can’t get in to, unless you know it will be a “reach” and can accept the possibility of rejection.

The most useful rule of thumb that I learned was to apply to a minimum of six schools: two that you know you can get into (because your grades and test scores are above those colleges’ averages), two that you can probably get into (because you are right in the middle on test scores), and two that you hope to get into (because your qualifications are on the low end of their acceptance standards).

Choose your six or more schools based on the programs they offer, and don’t be sucked in by the Ivy League (or mini-Ivy) label. After all, even the best school won’t be good for you if you can’t succeed there, or if they don’t teach what you want to learn.

But what if you don’t know what you want to learn? Pick a school with lots of options. That way, if you enter college undecided about your future plans, you won’t have to transfer once you figure it out. Remember, there will be an opportunity to try things at a larger school that a small school might not offer.

And what about those pesky tests? Even schools that say you don’t need them are likely to look at them if you score well. So take your first round of tests in the winter or spring of your junior year. If you do poorly, consider a test-prep program. They can be pricey, but often raise your test scores considerably. Consider that cost as an investment in your future.

Finish up your testing in the fall or early winter of your senior year. You’ll be busy with applications by then, so be sure to have a round or two of scores under your belt before you get too far into your senior year.

This brings us to the application part of this essay. The Common App ( is an online college application that most schools use. It is up and running in August, just before the start of your senior year. You can go online and take a look at the things required by most colleges. Many colleges have a “supplement” they will want you to fill out, along with the Common App. These often contain additional essay questions for you to answer.

And of course there is the most important essay of all: THE college essay.

A good idea is to tackle this in the summer before your senior year. Why? Because no matter how busy your summer seems, it won’t be as full as your senior year. Don’t second-guess yourself; college admissions officers read thousands of these essays each year, so write from experience. It’s more important to share a real piece of yourself than to attempt to portray yourself as something you are not. Don’t forget, this is about you — not your trip to Alaska or your best friend’s dog. The goal is to show who you are and why the college of your dreams should admit you.

Lastly, to find your way through the college corn maze, make yourself a map. It’s easy to be confused by the multitude of deadlines and different requirements for each college. Just make a list — or better, a chart — of who-needs-what-when. The application process then becomes a checklist instead of a crazy mishmash of too much to do.

Finally: breathe! You’ll find your way through the maze, I promise. When you do, you’ll look back and say, “Whew! I did it!”

Good luck!

Raleigh McElvery made it through the maze and successfully applied to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. She graduated in May 2016 with a degree in Neuroscience. She is currently a graduate student at MIT in Cambridge, Mass.

Categories: Getting started