Applying for College 101: 5 Easy Steps

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It’s time to apply for college, and you’re feeling more than overwhelmed. Your parents are asking a thousand questions, and you don’t have any answers. They may have bought you a sweatshirt from Dad’s alma mater. You’re stressed, to say the least.

The good news is applying to college is easier now than it’s ever been. Sit down at the computer and you’re just clicks away from resources that can help ease your panic. School websites, blogs from other prospective students, and us! We’re all designed to help make your life less stressful. Here are five easy steps that’ll help you navigate your way through the chaos of the next few months.

Step #1: Make a List
According to the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education statistics, there are 2,968 four-year colleges in America. That’s 2,968 options to sort through, which is why lists, schedules and excel spreadsheets are going to be your friend. Make a list of schools you’re interested in. Search by location, search by degree or search by tuition—whatever is a non-negotiable for you. This will help you narrow down the 2,968.

Google the schools and see what they’re looking for in applicants. Make sure they have what you’re looking for. Use to take note of a school’s tuition, financial aid and selectivity. is one of the most comprehensive resources I’ve found. Look at the individual school websites also, just remember they’re more than a little biased.

Then there’s the fun part. Try to find what makes the college unique. If you’re looking for a specific major, check to make certain they have it. Search for student blogs or Facebook groups to get an idea of what campus life is really like. Do you play sports? See if they have a team, or at least an intermural program. Make note of these things on your spreadsheet.

Here are some ideas of what your spreadsheet can include: school name, tuition, application fee, deadline and fun facts. This will help you keep track of when things are due. It will also help you when dealing with step #3.

Step #2: Talk to Your School Counselor
As hard as this is to hear, Harvard might not be an option. And if it is, congratulations! Show your school counselor your list from step #1, and if it’s 20 schools deep, ask them to do some heavy editing. Application fees aren’t cheap, and there’s no use sending an application to the impossible.

Your school counselor knows where you’re at academically, and they’re also aware of your extra curricular activities. School counselors should have an idea of where you can’t get in—and also where you can. This is what they’re trained for. They want your success just as much as you do. Use their guidance during this season.

Step #3: Prioritize
Hopefully your school counselor shaved the initial list down to a manageable size. How many places do you want to apply to? Remember that quality is more important than quantity. The number is not important. According to a U.S. News study, the average application fee is $41. While that may not sound like much, if you’re applying to 10 schools the costs are noteworthy. Prioritizing is important.

Talk to your parents about a budget, and decide on a realistic amount of schools. Be sure to consider where your acceptance is probable. It’s OK to include a long shot or two. Be sure to leave room for a safety. At the end of the day you want to get accepted to a school you’re excited about, so make sure you can see yourself ending up at all of the schools that make your final list. Make the $41 count.

Step #4: Find Your Angle
Now you have your list, and hopefully you’ve made use of that excel spreadsheet. Start with the application that’s due the soonest first. Most applications will ask for similar information and essays, so save the essays in a document and tweak them as you apply to each school. Be sure to throw in shout outs to the respective school to make it more personal. Most importantly, you’ll want to find your unique angle.

Admission counselors read through hundreds of essays. As daunting as that is, know that your essay will be one in a pile of many, making it important to stand out. What makes you you? What’s exciting is that you’re a human with a unique story, a person that has been formed by unique life experiences. What isn’t exciting is trying to put that into words.

Talk to you parents, family and friends. They know you best, and they’ll be helpful when it comes to finding your angle. The truth is it’s your story you’re putting on paper. The school gives you boundaries and prompts, but at the end of the day the essay needs to be wholly you. Whether it’s the profound influence your grandmother had on you, the chronic health issue you’ve battled for years or the year you took off to spend abroad, let every word you write convey who you are. That’s your angle.

Step #5: Relax and Wait for the Heavy Envelope
The applications are in, you’ve given your essay everything you’ve got, but now you’re faced with the hardest part—the wait. Don’t let this time become a constant state of anxiety. It’s your senior year, and there is so much to be distracted by. Let yourself be distracted. Find bliss during this time of oblivion, before the acceptances and rejections find their way to your mailbox.

This waiting period should feel like the relief after a final exam, before the grades are posted. Relish in the relief and allow yourself to daydream. This time next year you might be at Harvard—or you might be at your safety school—but in this moment, sitting in a high school classroom, running in a track meet or eating lunch with your friends, you’re free to live in the in-between.

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Paige Dinneny is a recent graduate of Biola University. Born and raised in Southern California, she currently lives in Long Beach and is now pursuing her Masters of Fine Arts in Fiction at Cal State Long Beach. Her days are filled with many jobs including social media marketing, retail and this! She spends her free time writing, watching the Game Show Network and going to concerts.