A Guide to Choosing and Applying to Colleges
By JJ Groner
The purpose of this guide is to help students make the most of post-secondary education opportunities. This guide is meant to be skimmed over. Find the topics you want to learn more about and skip the ones you don’t. Any word highlighted in orange is a link to more information.
Goal- Learn about the different types of post-secondary education and create a college list.
Timeline- I recommend completing this step before you finish junior year of high school. This means you will have time in the summer to narrow down your list of schools.
Different Types of Postsecondary Education:
Community College is a much cheaper option than 4-year universities. Typically, community colleges offer associate degrees. An associate degree takes two years to complete. Many four-year universities accept community college credits should you want to continue your education.
Each layer of schooling builds upon itself. It can be advantageous to earn an associates degree (community college for two years) after high school as a stepping stone to more education later down the road.
Trade schools separate themselves by offering hands-on training for the most in-demand jobs. They concentrate almost entirely on relevant job training, unlike community colleges or universities. Trade school programs are normally two years or less.
Four-year Universities offer the opportunity to learn a lot about something and a little about everything. Many of these universities offer over 100 unique majors. The downsides include the cost of attendance and the time it takes to complete a degree.
Where to start?
With over 4000 colleges in the U.S., beginning the process can be the most ominous step. Websites such as College Board and Niche.com are a great way to start. These websites offer customizable search parameters and show information about individual colleges.
Creating a list of colleges (4 Year University Focus):
Expect your college list to be unique. Your wants, needs, and career aspirations will lead to a personable list.
The financial element will play a role later on, but I encourage students to initially not eliminate schools because of money.
It's good to have a large preliminary list. For students wanting to attend a 4-year university anywhere in America, I recommend starting with a list of at least 20 schools.
For perspective, a list of 50 schools just narrowed down the college search process 80-fold.
The worst thing that can happen is being unaware about a school because your preliminary list was too concise.
For reference, my original college list had 80 schools.
More Information about building a college list:
Researching Each School:
Timeline- I recommend completing this step by the start of your senior year. You don’t want to feel overwhelmed with school, sports/clubs, and the college search process.
Navigating a College Website:
All college web pages (like The University of Washington below) are divided into the most useful categories. These include:
About: General overview of the college, including the schools mission statement.
Academics: This category shows the majors and minors offered by the college. After finding your preferred major, most colleges will show the courses they offer. Colleges also show a timetable of classes from freshman through senior year, including the number of credit hours needed for graduation.
***Helpful hint: Find colleges that offer a Masters or Ph.D in your major. Typically, the more resources invested, the better the program.
Admissions and Aid: Shows how to apply and the deadlines to follow.
Navigating an Academics Page:
To find your individual department/major, click the academic departments tab and select your major.
This will lead to a detailed section about your major, including a brief overview of the department.
The "In This Section" list shows all relevant information relating to your major.
Admissions and Aid:
Every college website has an "Admissions" or "Apply" section. Here you will find: how to apply, what information is required, and application deadline dates.
Financial aid information can also be found on all college websites.
In-person and virtual tours:
College virtual tours are a great way to understand a campus. These tours allow students to view any college in the country without the financial commitment of traveling to school. Virtual tours can be categorized into three types.
Videos made by the college: These videos showcase the main attractions of the college.
Videos made by students: Campus tours give an idea of the practicality of the campus. How much you should expect to walk, the format of buildings, and what to expect on a normal day may all be answered in these videos.
Drone videos of the campus: My personal favorite, drone videos, give a bird's-eye view of the college campus.
Drone photo of U.W. (photo credit criticalarc.com)
Most virtual tours are uploaded onto Youtube already. YouVisit.com is another website that helps students who want a more personalized virtual campus tour.
As your list becomes smaller, consider taking an in-person tour. These tours give the best feel of the campus environment.
Contacting Alumni and Current Students:
Alumni can share a unique perspective about their college experience, allowing you to learn the pros and cons of a school.
Unibuddy.com is a website that connects prospective students with current students or alumni from a college.
3. The Financial Element:
Timeline- From senior year of high school onward, always be on the lookout for scholarships and grants.
Sticker Price: The price of tuition that is shown on a college website.
Actual Price/ Expected Family Contribution: The price you and your family must pay after financial aid is deducted.
In-State and out of state tuition + Reciprocity:
Colleges offer lower tuition to students that live in-state because of funding the state provides. Out-of-state colleges can cost tens-of-thousands more per year.
- Reciprocity Explained: "Tuition reciprocity programs allow students to attend colleges or universities in a different state than the one in which they reside for in-state or reduced tuition. Usually these programs are reserved for students who live in the same region but not the same state." (Wickline). The Western Undergraduate Exchange is a scholarship many colleges in our region require before granting reciprocity. Click the link for more information about Reciprocity.
- Colleges typically offer more scholarships to out-of-state students to offset the cost of higher tuition rates.
The College Board offers a College Estimator tool to better gauge the price the student will be responsible for covering. Each school also has their own cost estimator on their website.
Guide to Financial Aid:
Unexpected and overlooked costs of college:
Federal and State Financial Aid:
CSS Profile (Many private universities request this financial report):
Choosing schools to apply to:
Timetable: Know the schools you want to apply to before November of senior year. Many early applications are due November 1st. Showing your interest in the school by submitting your application earlier can increase your chances of being accepted by a college.
Each school should offer a unique reason to apply. For example, applying to a college that has an internship program with a company you want to work for after graduation.
4 year university list-
***Students should be aiming for a list of 3-7 schools to apply to.
On a well constructed college list, aim for two well rounded colleges, one reach school, and one safety school.
Community college or Trade Schools-
Find two or three schools that meet your criteria and apply. Community colleges and trade schools have much higher acceptance rates. Many trade schools have a backlog of students. Applying to a trade school during junior year of high school minimizes the risk of waiting for class space to open up.
Weighting different factors-
Only you can decide what you value most. I recommend placing an emphasis on the financial element. Some factors include:
Cost to Education ratio (If a college is twice as expensive, is the education provided twice as valuable?)
Location (Including proximity to family and weather)
Applying to Colleges:
Common Application is a website that allows you to apply to multiple colleges without having to re-enter the same information on every application. Almost all major universities in America allow students to apply via Common Application.
Three Separate Timetables to Apply:
Early Application allows students to submit their application months before the official deadline. The benefits include getting a response back from the college sooner and it improves your chances of being accepted by some colleges. If you are accepted, you are not obligated to attend the college.
Early Decision is for students who know their top college. Universities are much more likely to accept an early decision application. However, be careful, early decision applications are binding. This means if a college accepts your application, you must attend the college.
Regular Decision is the deadline you must have your application turned in by. If all required materials are not turned in by the regular decision deadline, colleges will automatically decline your application.
Extra Information You Might Need Along the Way:
Student to faculty ratio
A useful predictor of future class size. Keep in mind that universities with a small student to faculty ratio may still have classes taught in lecture halls. Typically, as you take higher level classes, your class size will decrease.
Freshman Retention Rate (The Higher the Better)
Shows the level of satisfaction students have in their college. A low Freshman Retention Rate can indicate that students may feel underwhelmed by the college experience offered.
Low graduation rates mean the student body may not be as invested in their education as they should be. Would you want to go to a college where the students didn't value learning?
Average ACT/SAT Test Scores
Gives an idea of the chances of being accepted by the university.
Expect higher academic rigor from a university with high standardized test scores.
An elective class that must relate to your major.
You have all the tools you need to apply for college! Even after you apply and are accepted to the perfect school, keep checking your email for additional information the college will send.
(photo credit epsnj.org)