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University 101: The Ultimate Guide to the College Process

It’s no secret that the college application process can be a very exhausting one. This is especially the case for a prospective student who doesn’t really have parents or siblings around who have endured the process and can help. This is a major life decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly– and students should start the process as soon as possible to avoid being too overwhelmed.

There are so many different steps to the college process. Students will lofty university goals will have to prepare their personal statements for their college profile, master their standardized test scores, and come out on top before thousands of students who are trying to enter exclusive colleges. Getting into the World’s Top 100 Universities is getting more difficult than ever. In fact, students might find that working with a school counselor and researching different schools early on in high school makes the process a lot more pleasant. You can also consider hiring a university student tutor that has recent experience of getting into the college of your choice.

If college acceptance is on your mind, you’re in luck. We’ve put together an in-depth guide to everything you need to know about the college process. From summer programs to prepping for tests to mastering supplemental essays, we’ll walk you through the timeline of applying for college and the college process as a whole.

University 101: The Ultimate Guide to the College Process

Prepping for college involves making smart, informed decisions about your future. And planning for these decisions can be quite an intense job. There is a lot of research involved in planning for the college process. Luckily, this guide can help you follow a manageable timeline towards getting accepted at your dream university and starting school.

Start Researching Ahead of Time to Meet Important Application Deadlines

Some students who think a lot about their future may want to begin researching potential college or university plans when they first begin high school. However, the biggest bulk of the work you’ll need to do will take place during your junior and senior years of high school. Still, it is vital to not put off your research and applications until the last minute. There are a variety of things you can do in your early high school years that will make the rest of your college process much easier. We recommend asking for your recommendation letters and discussing your future plans with your counselor early on, which we will explore in more depth later on in this guide.

Gather the Necessary Documents and Supplies

You’re going to be filling out a lot of paperwork on your journey towards becoming a college student. Different schools might require different information, but in general, you should have the following items available in print and digitally if possible:

  • College application forms from all of your prospective colleges.
  • Enough funds to cover all of the application fees.
  • Your SAT, GMAT, GRE, and ACT scores if applicable. (Need help? Hire a Prep Test Tutor.)
  • Two or three letters of recommendation from high school guidance counselors or teachers.
  • A resume. (This is optional and we will go into more depth about it later on in this guide.)
  • Your personal essay, proofread and edited to perfection.
  • Your high school transcripts. (These will need to be sent directly from your high school in a majority of cases.)
  • Any mid-year or final-year reports of your grades, if applicable.
  • A secondary school report, if applicable. (This is often used in lieu of a counselor recommendation.)
  • Your birth certificate.
  • Your social security card.
  • Tax return transcripts from the last year, if applicable. 
  • If you are under the age of 24, you will also need financial information such as tax return transcripts from your parents or legal guardian.
  • A full list of your personal information, including your pre-college credits earned, standardized test scores, extracurricular activities, citizenship information, summer jobs or internships, and honors.
  • Keep in mind that your prospective college will also want any information available about disciplinary infractions, so make a note of those if they are on your record.

Complete and Submit the FAFSA

No matter which school you decide to attend, you should always fill out the FAFSA. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is a federally-funded grant and loan program designed to help students who do not have the funds available to attend school or are not able to receive assistance from their parents. In most cases, students will receive tuition funds through the FAFSA, but the FAFSA rarely covers the entirety of tuition outside of public community colleges. If your goal is to attend a top-notch four-year university, the FAFSA won’t cover it all. However, it can take care of a pretty big chunk of your tuition needs, and it’s very easy to fill out.

Visit the FAFSA website and click “Fill Out the FAFSA Form”. The platform will walk you through each and every step of the process. The myStudentAid app also has the FAFSA form available.

Basically, you’ll be following this timeline when you apply:

  • Create an FSA ID.
  • Submit your social security number, your parents’ social security number if you are under the age of 24 (in most cases), your driver’s license number if available, and your alien registration number for International students.
  • Submit your or your parents’ IRS 1040 form or foreign tax return for the last year.
  • Submit records of any untaxed income that may be relevant.
  • Submit information about your bank account balances, investments, and cash if applicable.
  • List the potential colleges or universities that you plan on applying to, even if you have not applied anywhere yet. This ensures that if you are granted funds from the FAFSA, those funds will go to the college you eventually sign up for. You can list as many as ten schools.
  • In order to ensure that your FAFSA is submitted on time, be sure to keep application deadlines and other important dates in mind. You can find recent deadlines via the FAFSA website.

    The FAFSA can be a bit overwhelming, so we recommend taking this step slowly. You can save your FAFSA at any step and finish it later.

Download and Fill Out the Common App

The common application, also known as the Common App, is a non-profit organization that represents about 900 different universities and colleges. The common application is also, quite simply, a common application for applying to a wide range of schools at once. The non-profit side of the application is designed to help students in the U.S., as well as twenty other countries, gain access to the application processes of public, private, and Ivy League schools.

Filling out the Common App is relatively easy and follows these steps:

  • Gather your high school transcript, resume, activities list, test scores, parent information, and list of academic achievements.
  • Create a Common App account.
  • Complete registration information.
  • Add your prospective colleges.
  • Submit your official school forms and letters of recommendation.
  • Follow the rest of the instructions in the application to submit your profile.

Keep in mind that there will be varying deadlines and application fees for each school, but each school will accept your common application. You may have to write a unique personal essay for each college, though.

It is highly recommended to fill out the Common App when you are ready to start applying to potential schools.

Draft an Excellent College Essay

Once your application forms and tests are complete, it’s time to write your college essay. Almost all colleges will welcome a college admissions essay, and some will even require it. This is an excellent opportunity to impress your prospective admission officers with your story, your goals, and your writing skills.

In general, an admissions essay is only about 500-600 words. Still, a lot of power needs to be packed into these. Read the essay requirements for each of your prospective schools, and read the instructions as carefully as possible.

While writing, be sure to include a compelling “hook” or introduction. Make sure to use a tone that is true to who you are, but avoid using too many cliches in the essay. When you’re making your case for why you would be a great fit for a specific college, be sure to use a variety of real-world examples to support your statements. Finally, make sure that you proofread your essay several times and have a third party proofread it as well.

Start Seeking Out Recommendation Letters

We recommend doing this during your senior year of high school. Recommendation letters typically come from teachers, professors, guidance counselors, and sometimes family members or related peers. For each college application you send, take the time to find any information they have available about recommendation letters. Typically, your application or prospective college’s website will note who and where recommendation letters should be sent. Some colleges may want exclusively teacher recommendations, so make sure to read the fine print before asking for recommendation letters.

Many teachers and counselors are more than happy to write recommendation letters for you if you have shown promising traits and have put a real effort into your education. Basically, your recommendation letters will note why the teacher or counselor believes you would be an excellent fit for your college of choice.

Consider Submitting a Resume

If you have worked a job, especially an entry position that is relevant to your prospective college program, it may be worth penning a resume and attaching it to your college applications. Just as well, a resume could beef up your college portfolio if you have committed to volunteer positions or taken on leadership roles in clubs or after-school programs.

Understand How Financial Aid Works

Financial aid is necessary for every student whose parents are not paying for their college tuition as a whole. There are a few different types of financial aid that you can look for:

  • Grants – Money that goes toward tuition costs, not usually in full, but you don’t have to pay them back.
  • Student loans – Money that you’ll have to borrow from Federal Student Aid or a third-party company like Sallie Mae. This money will need to be paid back once you graduate, sometimes with a lot of interest.
  • Scholarships – Like grants, you won’t have to pay your scholarship money back if you graduate. Scholarships can cover a portion of your tuition or the entirety of your schooling.

Your first point of reference for finding and accepting grants and loans should be through the FAFSA. After you have submitted your FAFSA, do a bit of research into potential scholarships and apply for as many as possible. There are scholarships for everything– your race, your gender, your unique field of interest, your college of choice, etc. You can find scholarship opportunities via your school’s financial aid office, your high school counselor, libraries, and the U.S. government’s free scholarship resource.

Break Down Your Prospective College’s Total Tuition Costs

Many colleges will have references on their websites for total costs to attend. These costs often go beyond simply the cost to attend school. In general, you should account for the following costs at your prospective schools:

  • Tuition.
  • Application fees.
  • Additional fees for out-of-state students, if applicable.
  • Room and board.
  • Dorm fees.
  • Textbooks.
  • Supplies.
  • Transportation.
  • Personal expenses that you will need to pay for during school, such as laundry, food, phone bills, etc.

When you narrow your college choices down to your top five, take the time to research and list the total cost for attending each school for the duration of your degree. This way, you’ll be able to have a frame of reference for how much needs to be covered while you are looking for financial aid.

College Admissions Tips for the Process

There are a number of best practices that you should adhere to from the beginning of your college process and journey:

  • Stay organized from the get-go. Once you start your college prospecting journey, you might find yourself with an increasing pile of brochures, letters, and other content from your prospective schools. Take the time to file your information so you don’t get too overwhelmed. Just as well, organizing your college correspondence makes the process of making a decision much easier. We recommend creating a folder for each school and labeling them accordingly.
  • Be sure to know your deadlines and write them down as early as possible.
  • When writing your college admissions essay or filling out your college application, make sure that you read the instructions for each application as thoroughly as possible. Different colleges will have different requirements.
  • Take your time when evaluating schools. If you start prospecting a program or university early in your high schools years, you won’t feel rushed when it comes time to make a decision of where you want to apply. When evaluating schools, note factors such as overall reputation, total admissions costs, tuition costs, how ideal the program is, and how ideal the location is. Rank them in order of which college is the most ideal for you.
  • Proofread everything you submit. It can help to have someone else available to proofread your college materials as well.
  • When looking for letters of recommendation, be sure to choose your teacher or counselor wisely. For example: If you are set of a biology program, you might have better luck submitting a recommendation letter from a science teacher or professional who leads your after-school biology club. Just as well, you should give your teacher or counselor enough time to write something meaningful and thoughtful. And don’t forget to thank them!
  • Choose universities based on smart choices. Just because a friend, partner, sibling, or your parents attended a university doesn’t mean that you should. Just as well, if you plan on entering a school because of an excellent sports program, you might just discover that the actual program or course you are taken is not very reputable or aligned with what you want to do long-term. Your chosen college should align with your personal goals and career focus. Remember, this is your future– not anyone else’s!
  • Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed. Again, if you start this process early, it will be much easier to explore a wealth of colleges and weigh their pros and cons. When it comes time to make a choice, narrow your choices down to five or so school. There’s no need to overwhelm yourself with fifteen or twenty different college application processes. Your top choices should include your dream school, your reach school, and a few schools that you will absolutely be admitted to. College applications can be costly, so keep that in mind too when it comes time to submit applications.
  • Your college essay will need to be very well-written, but it should also represent who you are, your future goals, and what makes you a great fit for a particular school.
  • Request copies of your high school transcripts, even if most colleges only accept submissions from your high school. Your transcripts will be helpful when it comes to beefing up your college profile.
  • Remember that while this is a major decision, it is far from a permanent one. If your dream college doesn’t accept you, there is always the chance of being accepted later on down the road in the future. Do your best at the college you go to in order to become an even more attractive transfer candidate. Just as well, you might find that the college you ended up attending is an even better fit for your personal goals and dreams. It’s easier to get into the college you really want from the get-go, but it isn’t an impossible thing to change.

By sticking to these best practices and following our guide, you’ll have a much easier time prepping for your future college days. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Do all colleges give interviews?

Most colleges tend to host interviews for a number of reasons. Mainly, they do so to evaluate you and see if you are personally a good fit for their college culture and focus. Colleges also host interviews to get a better feel for your personality, strengths, and goals to better decide if your needs align with what the college can provide. Keep in mind that colleges aren’t trying to put you in an uncomfortable situation. Rather, they are trying to benefit both you and the college as a whole.

Ivy League colleges like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia University almost always require a formal college interview with prospective students. Private colleges may offer the option for a student interview. If you decide to go to a public university or college, they usually do not give interviews. Just as well, most technical colleges do not require interviews to apply and get accepted.

In general, the following schools all require student interviews during the acceptance process, though some only require interviews for specific programs:

  • Cornell
  • Georgetown University
  • American Academy of Art
  • Bard College at Simon’s Rock
  • Cogswell Polytechnical College
  • College of the Ozarks
  • Divine Word College
  • Goddard College
  • Gordon College
  • Hebrew Theological College
  • Hellenic College
  • Juilliard School
  • Kendall College
  • Berea College
  • Berklee College of Music
  • Boricua College
  • Cairn University
  • Monroe College
  • Northwest College of Art and Design
  • Paier College of Art
  • Point Park University
  • VanderCook College of Music
  • West Coast University
  • Western Governors University
  • Yeshiva University
  • Pontifical College Josephinum
  • Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design
  • Sacred Heart Major Seminary
  • State University of New York Upstate Medical University
  • Stevens Institute of Technology
  • University of North Carolina School of the Arts
  • University of Waterloo

Where can I find and research colleges?

There are so many ways to find and research prospective colleges. Google is your best friend in this situation. However, there are many excellent applications and college admissions resources for college shopping. These include Niche.com, CollegeData.com, College Board’s BigFuture, Cappex, and College Insight.

What are the best Common App colleges?

The following schools have been noted as being the top colleges that accept the Common App in 2021:

  • Harvard University (Cambridge, MA)
  • Stanford University (Stanford, CA)
  • Yale University (New Haven, CT)
  • Duke University (Durham, NC)
  • Princeton University (Princeton, NJ)
  • Rice University (Houston, TX)
  • California Institute of Technology (Pasadena, CA)
  • Brown University (Providence, RI)
  • University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, PA)
  • Vanderbilt University (Nashville, TN)
  • Columbia University (New York City, NY)
  • Dartmouth College (Hanover, NH)
  • Northwestern University (Evanston, IL)
  • Washington University St. Louise (Saint Louis, MO)
  • University of Notre Dame (Notre Dame, IN)

There are hundreds of other schools that accept the Common App in addition to the above-listed schools.

How can I improve my profile for college applications?

Luckily, there are quite a few ways to beef up your profile for college applications. To start, work on improving your writing skills. The essay portion of your application can absolutely be the deciding factor when it comes to getting accepted by a college. While you are attending high school, you can significantly improve your GPA by taking AP classes where possible. If the situation arises where a college administrator has to choose between another prospective student and yourself, if your GPA is the same, they will usually go with the applicant that took harder high school classes. Just be sure not to overwhelm yourself with difficult classes in every subject.

It can also help your college application profile to take on leadership roles. If you can really show how much you shine in a leadership position, you’ll stand out from meaning other applicants. In addition to having strong examples of leadership on your profile, it can also help to establish your niche. By having a clear focus on what you want to get out of college, the process of finding the right college will be much easier. Even with a niche in mind, you should have a very diverse profile as well. Don’t put all of your focus into one niche, but rather let that niche be a standout feature of your profile. Even if you’re dead-set on medical school, your grades, extracurricular activities, and writing skills are all vital to getting accepted because they show you have a pretty wide range of talents.

How was our guide to the college process? Tell us which tips were particularly helpful in the comments below!  Also, check out our other blog Does my child need a university prep tutor?

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Jonathan is the VP Growth at TutorOcean. Jonathan previously worked at Klipfolio, Invest Ottawa, Irdeto and IBM. Jonathan is also the Co-Founder of STEAM Foundation who successfully launched a Kids Coding Camp helping inspire students early in their educational development. Jonathan is also an active startup advisor, giving back to help the next generation of entrepreneurs. Feel free to reach out on LinkedIn.

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