How to Apply for College in 2021 - Best Value Schools

    How to Apply for College in 2021

    February 1, 2021 | Staff Writers

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    Heading off to college is often an exciting and nerve-wracking rite of passage for both students and their families. For many, it represents the first significant steps taken towards adulthood. Like any type of significant life change, there are going to be anxieties associated with it at the best of times. By doing the proper research and preparation beforehand, you can ensure that the transition is as smooth as possible. 

    When and Where to Apply?

    As with so many things, it never hurts to start early. Start with making a list of schools that you think you might like to attend. Do a detailed self-analysis to best match your list of preferred schools to what you know about yourself and what you hope to get out of your college experience. Then, start researching.

    If you are thinking of applying for early admission, then you should begin the process in your junior year of high school. Applications for early admission, also known as Early Decision or Early Action, must be submitted by October of your senior year, whereas the deadline for regular admission is typically in December, although this varies by institution. 

    Requirements for Applying to College

    There are some things you need to ask yourself before filling out a general application, including:

    • What field of study do I want to major in?
    • What type of career would I like to pursue after college?
    • What are my available financial resources? Consider whether you have a college fund or may qualify for any scholarships or if you will have to take out student loans. If money is an issue, you may wish to apply to schools with non-binding deadlines to enable you and your family to evaluate and compare the different financial aid packages that are available from different schools. 
    • What type of environment would I learn best in? 
    • Does campus size matter?
    • Do I have any physical or other medical needs that need to be accommodated?
    • Does location matter? If you will be attending school away from home, what is the campus housing situation like?
    • How important are social and cultural activities for me?

    The above list is by no means exhaustive, but it provides a good starting point for what you should start thinking about in advance of making your decision. 

    Start Researching Colleges

    There are thousands of colleges and universities in the U.S. They range from large public state schools to small private liberal arts colleges. Many are secular while others are founded and run by religious institutions.  There are also community colleges, trade schools, and other similar schools. Some of the questions you asked and answered earlier when you were doing your self-assessment can help you to decide which type of institution and environment will best match your personality and goals.

    All colleges and universities have websites that have the information you need to know before applying. You can also request brochures and other written materials directly from the school, and be sure to check out the social media channels of current students and alumni that can provide additional perspectives. 

    Some examples of other useful sources of information include:

    Getting Started

    If you haven’t already done so, make an appointment to sit down and talk with your school guidance counselor. They can be an effective guide as to what your focus should be as well as a valuable sounding board for presenting the information and ideas that you have gathered thus far. Keep in mind that they are also in contact with colleges around the country throughout the year and can help you discover schools you might not have discovered in your research. 

    Visiting your school guidance counselor is free of charge, but some students who think they need an edge can hire a fee-based consultant to help them in their preparations. Some offer free or reduced rates for helping students from underprivileged backgrounds with the various components of the admissions process, such as filling out applications, taking the required tests, writing essays, and preparing for interviews. As with everything else discussed here, the importance of doing your research in advance of hiring one of these consultants is paramount. Some make big promises that are not backed up by results or charge large fees for services that are available for free elsewhere. 

    Applying

    Narrow down your choice of schools to maybe a dozen or so. Keep in mind that millions of students apply for colleges every year. As mentioned, applications for Early Admission are due in October. Some institutions refer to this as Early Action or Early Decision. Either way, it is a process whereby students must submit their application by mid-October or early November of their senior year, rather than by the end of December. Make sure that you know the admission requirements for the schools you are interested in applying to before moving forward. 

    Another type of admissions process that you should be aware of is what is called rolling admissions. When a college or university has a rolling admissions policy, it means that they evaluate applications as they are received and release their admission decisions on an ongoing basis rather than on a specific day or group of days. Rather than having a hard deadline, these schools continue to accept applications until all spots in an incoming class have been filled. 

    The earlier you apply, the earlier you will receive an answer. Applying early lets you adjust your plans if your first choice school does not have a spot available for you or if you decide that it’s not a good fit for you after all. Some colleges with rolling admissions have a priority application deadline. If you apply on or before that deadline, you are guaranteed to receive an admissions decision by a specific date.

    Not all schools with rolling admissions operate the same way, however. It is important to research the specific admissions processes of the school you wish to attend beforehand. For a complete list of schools with rolling admissions and information about their processes, please go here

    Gathering Your College Application Materials

    Before you apply to any school, do a thorough inventory of all of the documentation and materials that you need to provide. Though requirements from institution to institution may vary, below is a list of the common materials that you are required to provide:

    • Your official high school transcripts
    • Your mid-year grade report
    • Test score results (SAT, ACT, TOEFL, etc.)
    • Your application fees – Most college applications require a fee, which varies from school to school but on average is around $60. The purpose of these fees is to help the schools you are applying to pay for the cost of reviewing your application and deciding your admission.
    • Letters of recommendation
    • Your college admissions essay

    Some of these things may take a while to get together. While you can get your transcripts pretty quickly, it may take your teachers a little longer to write you a letter of recommendation, since they are probably also preparing them for your classmates. 

    Tools and Resources for Applying to College

    If you’re looking for college application tips, there are many resources available to help you. They include:

    Applying to College with Common Application

    More than 900 colleges accept the Common Application. One big advantage is that students need only to fill out the Common App once and then use it to apply to multiple colleges. 

    However, some schools that use the Common App also have their supplemental section, which includes things like additional essay questions, so make sure that you research this in advance to enable you to allow for any extra time needed. Some high-profile schools do not use the Common App at all, such as Georgetown and MIT.

    Applying to College with Coalition Application

    The Coalition Application is a more recently-developed platform that is accepted by more than 150 schools, and some schools have their own application portals. The University of California schools, for example, have their specific application platform, but you can apply to multiple schools within this system with a single application. 

    For more information about a specific college’s application process, it’s best to visit that college’s website. Also, both the Common Application and Coalition Application websites provide a full list of their partner schools. 

    Admissions Tests

    Most universities and colleges require you to take an admissions test as part of your application process. If you’re an American student, you’re probably already familiar with these as part of the college planning process. Your ACT or SAT scores play a significant role in your admissions chances.

    The SAT, originally called the Student Aptitude Test, has been around since 1926. It is wholly owned and published by the non-profit College Board and is administered by the Educational Testing Service. This test is divided into two sections – math and Critical Thinking & Writing, each worth 800 points. The test takes three hours or three hours and 50 minutes if you’re completing the essay section.  

    The ACT (American College Test) began in 1959 and is a competitor of the SAT. It has four sections plus an optional essay writing component. Each of the four sections is graded individually on a scale of one to 36. 

    Traditionally, most universities and colleges required that you take admissions tests as part of the application process with your score playing a significant role in determining your acceptance. However, it’s important to note that ongoing controversies in recent years about the value and fairness of such tests has led more and more colleges, including the Ivy League schools, to shift to a test-optional admissions process, at least in the short term.

    If you are a foreign student applying to a college in the U.S. you may also need to take English language proficiency tests like TOEFL or IELTS

    The Application Essay

    For some students, the college application essay is the most difficult part of the application process. It is also one of its most important components. For most schools, the essay is the most important part of the application for evaluating all the soft and non-qualitative factors that colleges use when considering applicants. Soft factors include things like perseverance, attitude, communication skills, problem-solving, and time management. Hard factors are qualitative things, like test scores, grades, and which courses are taken. 

    As mentioned, a lot of schools, even sought after Ivy League universities and colleges are moving away from standardized testing requirements, which means that other aspects of the admission process are even more important than they were before. If test scores are options, the admission essay matters even more than it once did.

    There are services available to help you along the way with every step of the admission process, and there are numerous professional preparation options out there to assist you with the crafting of your college application essay. There are far more college essay writing services out there of varying degrees of quality and affordability than we can reasonably list here. As a  good starting point, here are just a few of the top-ranked sites that come up when searched on Google: 

    You should think of the college applications essay as an opportunity to put forward your best version of your true self. Keep that in mind at all times, even if – maybe especially if – you are working with an applications consultant. Do not let someone who is advising you on your essay take over your voice. Admissions staff at colleges often have a keen eye for essays that have too much input from outside sources. They are trained to pick up on essays that seem like they are not written by even the most gifted high school students or those that have been plagiarized. 

    Even though your grades, the strength of your high school curriculum, and standardized test scores are parts of the admissions process, the admission essay is the key piece of the soft skills evaluation. It is the only way to tell the admissions board who you are as a person. It’s your chance to show them the person behind the transcripts, and you take it lightly. While a less than impressive college applications essay rarely causes an applicant to be removed from consideration, when all things are equal in terms of academic performance among a group of applicants, it’s often the essay that can help determine who gets the remaining admission slots. Likewise, a powerful, well-written college admissions essay can also tip the balance for an otherwise marginal or borderline applicant and become the sole determinant between acceptance and rejection at the college of their choice. 

    Key Components of the College Applications Essay

    Now that you have an idea of how important a college admissions essay is, here are some tips to ensure you put together one that will get you noticed.

    • Make sure the opening paragraph is strong and grabs the readers’ interest.
    • Demonstrate a grasp of the basic principles of good writing.
    • Use proper spelling and grammar at all times.
    • Answering the essay question directly (i.e. answering the question asked rather than the one you wished was asked).
    • Making your point(s) clear and arguing them effectively.
    • Use plain, simple English that reflects your voice as much as possible and resists the urge to demonstrate your intelligence by overusing ornate prose and descriptions. Never use three words when one will do.
    • Often, less is more. Stick to the recommended length, but don’t go over. Admissions officers will not be impressed with submissions that are overlong.

    Basic Essay Writing Tips

    • Show – don’t tell. Wherever possible, provide concrete examples of the point(s) you are trying to make rather than just a laundry list of opinions and assertions.
    • Be yourself. Don’t worry about what kind of person you think the college that you are applying for is looking for, the point is for you to show them who you are. Use your essay to showcase what is best and most important about you and why you are a good fit for their school.
    • Don’t procrastinate. The earlier you get started the more time you have to polish and perfect your essay.
    • Rewrite! Rewrite! Rewrite! – Ask any successful professional writer – whether a copywriter, newspaper columnist, blogger, or novelist, and they will tell you that the key to producing good writing is rewriting, again and again, if necessary until you are 100% satisfied with the result. 

    Finances

    Attending college in the United States is becoming increasingly expensive. As more and more occupations require applicants to have at least some post-secondary education, the perceived importance of a college education has caused sharp upticks in the fees charged by institutes of higher learning. High tuition and fees are not just happening in the Ivy League schools. On average, the yearly cost of college has increased by 8%, which is more than four times the annual inflation rate meaning that the cost of college effectively doubles every nine years. Other factors involved in this price surge include the increased availability of student loans and a significant increase in hiring administrative and non-academic staff at many institutes of higher learning. 

    As of 2018, just over 44 million student borrowers now owe more than $1.5 trillion in student debt, an average of nearly $33,000 per borrower. This debt means, among other things, that even though more occupations require at least some college than ever before, the perceived value of a college degree’s return on investment has been in decline in recent years. 

    Different colleges have different policies regarding scholarships and other forms of financial assistance, such as loans. If you do need to apply for a loan, it’s important to note the following:

    • Who is providing the loan?
    • What are the terms and conditions of the loan?

    Student loans can come from banks, the federal government, and other private organizations. If you apply for financial aid when applying to a school, loans will be a part of your aid package. Broadly speaking, there are two main types of student loans:

    • Federal/Federal Parent loans – these are funded by the federal government
    • Private Student Loans – these are made by a lender such as a bank or other type of financial institution, a state agency, or the school itself

    In the case of Federal Student loans, there are two types, one for undergrad studies and one for graduate school. The student is responsible for paying these back. 

    In the case of Federal Parent loans, the students’ parents are fully responsible for paying the loan, even though they are taken out to benefit students.

    Key Differences Between Federal and Private Student Loans

    Federal student loans are issued by the government and have terms and conditions that are more favorable to the borrower than those offered by private lenders. These benefits include fixed interest rates and income-driven repayment plans. As a result, federal government loans are less costly and easier to repay than private ones. You also don’t need to undergo a credit check as part of applying for most federal student loans, and the repayment terms tend to be much more flexible. You are also not asked to repay them as long as you are attending school full time.

    Getting a Federal Student Loan

    To get a federal student loan to attend college, you must first complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. Once that’s done, there are a lot of things to consider before taking out a loan.

    How Much Can I Borrow?

    • If you are an undergraduate student, you can borrow between $5,500 to $12,500 annually via direct subsidized or unsubsidized loans. The year you are in school and whether your parents claim you as a dependant contributes to how much money you can borrow. If your parents claim you as a dependent, the loan application accounts for your income information and the income of your parents. If you are an independent student, meaning that your parents do not claim you as a dependent on their taxes, then only your income information needs reporting, and that of your spouse if you are married.
    • If you are a graduate student, you can borrow up to $20,500 each year in direct unsubsidized loans. Direct PLUS Loans can also be used to cover the remainder of your college costs that are not covered by financial aid, as determined by your school.

    What Other Types of Financial Aid are Available?

    In addition to federal government loans and private bank loans, the other types of financial assistance that you may be able to draw on, including the following:

    • Grants – A grant is a form of financial aid that doesn’t you do not have to repay unless you drop out of school. Available federal grants include Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG), Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants, and Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants.
    • Scholarships – Many nonprofit and private organizations offer scholarships to help students pay for college or career school. Some schools are also scholarships themselves. Scholarships are essentially free money because you do not have to pay them back. They are awarded for many reasons, including academic excellence, proficiency in a particular sport, a talent in some field of the arts, or talent in a particular area of study. Inquire at the schools you are applying to as to whether they offer any scholarships you may be eligible for as well as other forms of financial aid they have available. 
    • Work-Study Jobs – The Federal Work-Study Program allows you to work part-time to earn money to attend college.
    • Aid For Military Families – Veterans and their spouses and children are also eligible for many special aid programs and financial assistance.
    • State Government Aid – In addition to federal loans, you may be eligible for assistance from your state government. Check with your applicable state agency for more information. 

    What we have provided here is by no means exhaustive, hopefully, it has provided you with enough general information and resources to get your college application process off to a strong start. 

    Once you have researched the schools you are interested in attending and their admissions processes, do not hesitate to get to work. If you start early, you can take your time and make sure you complete every step of the process thoroughly and to the best of your ability. There are tens of thousands of students like you out there every year. The more preparation you do and the earlier you get started, the better your chances of attending the college of your choice. Then sit back and wait for the replies to roll in. Once you have made your decision, start packing!

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    BestValueSchools.org is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.
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