How Do I Start the College Application Process?

If you’re reading this, you’re going to apply to college (or your kid is going to apply, and you’re going to tell them about this at the dinner table, so it’s basically like they’re reading it anyway). Just knowing that you’re going to apply to college, though, isn’t enough to actually kick-start the college process, and figuring out how to start can feel crippling.

After all, there are thousands of colleges and universities—and that’s just in the US. These schools span every style, structure, and size imaginable, from a few hundred students to tens of thousands, and from entirely open curriculums where you can take nearly whatever you want  (like Smith) to schools built on a central ‘core’ of classes (like Columbia). The number of possibilities can become overwhelming, but the variety of options means that there is a perfect fit for every student. You just need to find it.

The 2 Simple Steps That Will Kick-Start Your College Application Process

1. Figure out what you want

With so many schools to choose from, the first step isn’t to start your Common App essay—it’s to figure out what you want in a school and to find schools that fit that criteria. To do this, you need to come up with some fields of constraint, or deal breakers, that can be used to weed out schools that are never going to be a good fit.

If you’re a sophomore, pick a school. Any school, seriously. If you leave near a college, go there first. There’s no reason to spend money on a trip to visit schools until you’re sure of what you want. So set up a tour, bring a notebook, and take lots and lots of notes (don’t use your phone as it will look like you are screwing around. If you end up liking this school, you’ll want to have left a good impression).

It’s likely that you’ve already given some thought to how big (or small) of a school you want to attend, about class size, proximity to home, or even the meal plan system. Visiting a school makes these obtuse concepts and numbers concrete. Seeing things in person is a chance to confirm things you were pretty certain you’d love, but especially to challenge what you thought you wanted. For example, if you’ve always fancied going Pre-Med at Columbia, but the idea of hundreds of people in a class is totally overwhelming, Columbia is not the right place for you.

All of this applies if you’re a junior, with an added filter. Once you’ve taken your first standardized tests, you have an idea of what is realistic. You may be able to get your scores up, but that starting score is a good baseline when paired with your current GPA. If you have an 89 average and you’re taking 1 AP a year, you’re not going to get into Yale (no, killing yourself your junior year isn’t going to fix that). So be kind to yourself. Yes, Yale may be right nearby, but that’s not the place to start your search. Pick somewhere that is at least a ‘likely’ for you academically, bring a notebook, and remember not to look at your phone.

2. Figure out where what you want, and where you can get in, line up.

After you’ve visited a school and reviewed your notes, write up a checklist of the things you now know you want in a school. If you’re an overachiever, you can even separate the list into three categories: high-priority, priority, and low-priority, so that “circus arts gym class” and “edible food” aren’t given equal rank moving forward.

Once you have your priority list in order, pull a chair up to your desk or kitchen table for your ego.

The college process is tough, but students (and their families, and their teachers, and administrators, etc.) have a way of making it tougher by getting wrapped up in brand recognition. There’s so much pressure put on going to a school with a big name, and it’s ridiculous. We see this especially among international students, many of who have only heard of the top ten or so schools. If they don’t get into Yale, they feel like they’ve failed. This is absurd, and we want to help break people out of the brand-obsessed bubble.

You can build a successful career and a fulfilling life with a degree from just about anywhere—as long as it matches up with your priority list. The fact that a school is a great brand doesn’t make it a good fit for you, or somewhere that you’d flourish.

So, back to your ego—tell it to take a hike. From here on out, you’re focusing on what you want, what you need, and what will make you successful. And if there is somewhere you really really want to go but you’re academics are on the cusp, send us an email. You can’t redo sophomore year or suddenly become a protégé, but killer essays make a big difference.