A guide to college admissions for newbies

Rachel Schlueter, Editor-in-Chief

The words “college apps” are usually enough to send any junior or senior’s heart rate soaring. Though there is no how-to manual for applying to college, seniors and College and Career Specialist Lynn Otto are ready to offer their experience and guidance.

Start Early

The most common piece of advice given was to begin sooner rather than later, which does not have to mean cranking out a 500-word essay on the first day of summer before senior year. 

“Start doing research on colleges during your junior year,” Lexi Pesavento (’22) said. “Make your college list toward the end of your junior year. Decide where you’re applying early versus regular, and start writing your essays during the summer before senior year.” 

For students applying through CommonApp, a popular online application portal for U.S. colleges, it is crucial to prioritize the CommonApp personal essay, which is 650-words. Just planning for the essay over the summer can become a major life-saver once the school year starts. 

“​​Take the time when you have it,” Otto said. “[Students] procrastinate often and wait until the last minute to get things submitted. And that doesn’t always go well.” 

Stay Organized

With all of the information, deadlines and requirements, a successful application process demands organization, whether it be a list of application deadlines or a checklist. 

“I pasted each of my supplemental prompts into their own Google Doc,” Brianna Mathis (’22) said. “This helped me keep track of everything I had to write and allowed me to easily share the documents with friends and teachers for help editing.”

Organization can also help students plan ahead, determining when to complete phases of their applications. 

“Try to space out the work and do it in chunks so [applying] is more manageable,” Jac Cochran (’22) said. 

Do Your Research

There are nearly 4,000 U.S. degree-granting colleges, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Any student can find their fit, but it requires some research. 

The website Naviance contains a plethora of college information and a school comparison feature. For each college, Naviance provides application deadlines, tuition and details on academics and student life. 

Conducting research is especially integral for students who are considering applying Early Decision (ED), which has an earlier application deadline, typically in late-Oct. to early-Nov. ED is also binding: if a student is admitted, they must go. 

Pesavento, who applied ED to and was accepted by the University of Pennsylvania, suggested that students who are thinking about applying Early Decision to a school should embark on a tour, either in-person or virtual. 

“In the past, I’ve visited some colleges that sounded great on paper,” Pesavento said. “But when I actually went on a tour, I didn’t feel like I could call that college my home for four years.”

Explore Your Options

Since 2008, the average in-state college tuition for public universities has risen 79%, according to U.S. News. High tuition prices are a significant obstacle for students. But, there are scholarships for low-income students of lower income to alleviate this financial burden. 

Luciana Vera (’22) applied to college through QuestBridge, which has a National College Match program: students with less than a $65,000 annual household income can win full-ride scholarships to one of 45 U.S. colleges, including Brown, Duke and Yale University. 

“I never thought [QuestBridge] was something legitimate because they gave students full-ride [scholarships], and I didn’t want to be fooled,” Vera said. “I told my counselor about it at the beginning of this year, and we figured out that it’s an actual thing and that I should apply to it.”

Students must complete the competitive admissions process, which includes writing numerous essays and submitting transcripts, recommendations and extracurricular activities lists. If selected as a finalist, students rank their top 12 QuestBridge partner colleges and complete school-specific applications. If a college is interested in admitting the student, QuestBridge can match them with a scholarship. Vera matched with Northwestern University. 

Vera highlighted that students need to carve out time for college applications as QuestBridge can be time-consuming. 

“T​here are many short-answer questions and essays that you have to write,” Vera said. “So it’s really just about taking the time to fill out the application.”

However, in the end, the amount of work is incomparable to the end result. 

“I really encourage anyone who fits [QuestBridge’s] requirements to apply,” Vera said. “Even if you don’t mesh with a school, there are chances to receive a lot of financial aid for competitive schools. It’s really worth it.”

Use Your Resources

At times, college applications can feel like you are muddling through alone. However, Madison has many resources to support students. Throughout the year, Madison will host college planning nights for students and parents with information about applications and financial aid. 

“There are also programs in place in the fall of senior year to go over like the nitty gritty pieces of how you request your transcript and all of the nuts and bolts for the college process,” Otto said. 

Students also have online tools at their disposal, such as the Student Services Schoology, which has application checklists, transcript request forms and scholarship opportunities. Additionally, Otto sends a Student Services newsletter with information similar to the Schoology page, along with dates for college information sessions and visits. 

For many students, teachers and counselors in the Madison community can be the best resource, Otto said. Peers can serve as support systems too. 

“My biggest resource that I used was my friends,” Mathis said. “Although some things were new to all of us, we were able to navigate them together.”

Focus on Yourself

Comparing yourself to others can be instinctive during college application season but avoiding this can save time and stress. 

“It’s really easy to compare yourself to your peers and their accomplishments,” Pesavento said. “At the end of the day, no one really knows why a specific person gets into a college over another person, so just try to relax and not compare yourself to others.”

Mathis reiterated the significance of focusing on your application process. As a first-generation college student, Mathis sometimes found herself feeling like she was not doing enough in comparison to her peers. 

“Everything I learned through seminars and articles I then had to explain to my mom in a way that made sense to someone new to the entire process,” Mathis said. “[First-generation college students] very easily can be behind people because [they] have to research more. That’s okay because each person does things differently.”

Remember: It Will All Be Okay!

College application season is a whirlwind, so there is one essential piece of advice to remember. 

“Breathe,” Otto said. “It’ll all work out. There is a place for everyone.”

Keeping faith can be easier said than done, especially considering the seemingly colossal amount of work needed to apply to college. 

“It’s hard because everyone [applying to college] is swimming through the waters right upstream,” Otto said. “Sometimes it feels like there is a fire hose spraying right at you because there’s so much information.”

Despite sleepless, work-filled nights, students will end up where they are meant to be. 

“This whole process is super stressful, so take a break sometimes and do things that make you happy to relieve it,” Pesavento said. “Believe in yourself throughout the entire process.”