So even at the time students start applying to college and university programs, it’s not to late to learn more about how to get to into the school of your choice. The choice of university program can set a foundation and a framework for your whole life, career, and it’s important to understand as much as you can about the whole application process and how to prepare in high school.
EARLY IN HIGH SCHOOL: A Strategy
Unless you come from a wealthy family and money is no object -- college is very expensive. The sooner you realize that you are college bound, the sooner you should become serious about your studies, your homework, and your entire academic career. This makes you a solid choice for scholarships, fellowships, and other types of merit-based financial aid.
Smart, talented students with aspirations for college -- and the academic scholarships that come with doing well in school - should take as many honors and advanced placement courses as they can handle. The further your high school studies take you, the more prepared you are for what lies ahead academically. This applies to sports, extracurricular activities (photo, yearbook, etc), and the arts (theatre, music, dance) as well. The sooner you begin these activities, the further you will get in your development, and the more you will have to show the admissions committees on your application. The lessons learned in varsity sports - the commitment required to master a musical instrument - the performance experience of theatre, dance, and more -- these are all great skills for a young person to have. They also signal that the applicant will be successful in college.
MIDDLE OF HIGH SCHOOL: Balance
In the middle years of high school, as social activities pick up, the real lesson is about balance. Students need the balance to maintain all the activities, the study, the homework, the grades, the dating, and perhaps even a part-time job. Playing football doesn’t mean failing biology - and hoping for a sports scholarship. To remain competitive, students must balance their schedules, activities, and workload to accomplish all of their high school goals -- all while still enjoying the process.
Perhaps only now will some students be ready for the extra commitment of honors or advanced placement courses. The struggle many students have -- and their parents -- is whether a bright student should excel in regular classes with nominal effort, or challenge themselves with the extra work and obligations of honors courses. The answer is... take more, and then rise to the occasion. Don’t play it safe with grades, take the challenge -- discover the fascinating content of the advanced classes because it may help you determine your college path. And remember that you want to take advantage of every opportunity that your school or program has to offer -- this is always the best choice!
LATER IN HIGH SCHOOL: Research
So now that you have a foundation for a great application, you must start the research process. In this day and age with college costs so high, finances must be a factor. Every junior in high school with college aspirations should sit down and have a serious talk with their parents or guardians about college decision issues -- including money. If they tell you that they were impacted by a layoff, downsizing, or the recessionary environment in general -- and must focus on their own retirement savings - then you have more information. If they have some college savings in a 529 plan or elsewhere, and you have an idea how much is there, it might help you decide a direction.
Why does this matter? When college seniors see a bachelors degree in their hand but realize that they have personally signed for $10,000 to $40,000 in student loan debt it creates a tough career beginning. (For those in many fields that number can be much, much higher!) If high school seniors knew about the actual finances and costs of going to college or university, they might make more informed choices.
CHOOSING SCHOOLS: Which College or University is Best... for you?
High schools juniors can easily make a list of their interests and some potential school choices with some research online. If you have a clear college major in mind, it’s great to choose the leading institution in that field -- but often that means more competition, less available seats, and higher costs. This is even more of a reason to be a competitive as you can on your application.
It also helps to be strategic in your applications. Don’t simply apply to one college -- if you do not get accepted, your fall plans will have to change. It makes sense to apply to between three and five universities/colleges so that you have choices. If you apply to a great deal of schools it can be very expensive (expect to pay $50 to $125 per application), and it just means that you haven’t really done your homework by narrowing your list.
YOUR LIST OF THREE TO FIVE COLLEGE APPLICATIONS
- A state school or university is a great choice for at least one of the slots (maybe more). Not only are they cheaper to attend and very often easier to gain admittance, but it might also be nearby so travel and commuting might not be an issue. Students often consider state colleges and universities their “safe choice” or “fall back school” - but many are quite competitive with skilled faculty and great facilities and research.
- A private university or specialty school (college of art, music conservatory, business school) may be an excellent choice for your field, but pay close attention to the costs and compare the faculty biographies to all the other schools on your list. If you choose a private college or two for your top five applications make sure they are worth the added expense over a state university!
- An Ivy League school or elite institution can be your dream school -- or perhaps it has been your goal all along. If this is the case, the strategy is to apply to more than one. Many applications ask high schools seniors to indicate where else they are applying for admission. If you only apply to Yale University, a couple private colleges, and a couple state schools, then you are signaling to the admissions officer or committee that they are your long shot. “I’ll just see if I can get in!” Those long shot applications probably pay a lot of bills at those schools. At least apply to Harvard and Princeton, or West Point AND the Naval Academy, Juilliard AND Curtis Institute, MIT AND Stanford -- this will let them know that you belong in that league, and that you will go where you are invited.
CONCLUSION: Your Competition
Remember that college - especially at highly coveted schools - is selective. An admissions officer from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) mentioned in a Boston Globe interview last year that MANY of their applicants nearly ace the SAT exams, and also graduate as valedictorian of their hometown high schools. Is this required? No. Other universities might be more impressed by your balance of great grades, sports, scouting, part-time work, and other experiences like volunteering or foreign exchange. If you aspire to pursue a particular field, you could easily be competitive enough to get into any program with the right combination of determination, enthusiasm, and drive. A compelling college entrance essay is easy to write if you found the balance of activities in your education that makes you eager to pursue your dreams.