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Applying for College

Factors Affecting College Entrance | Admission Options | Writing the College Essay | College Visits

By this time you have looked at a variety of colleges and have an idea to which ones you will apply. It is important to apply to schools with a varying degree of selectivity. One suggestion is to apply to one or two “reach” schools, two or three “level” schools, and one or two “safety” schools.

Reach schools are the most selective among your choices. The chances of being admitted are roughly one in five.

Level schools are those that tend to match up to a student’s credentials and financial abilities. The student’s chances for admission are approximately one in two.

Safety schools are those that admit students with profiles that almost exactly match yours.

Factors Affecting College Entrance

How does a college choose the students that they will admit to the freshman class? The Admission Trend Survey conducted by the National Association of College Admission Counselors (NACAC), including both private and public institutions, released the following information. The factors influencing admission in order were:

  1. Grades in college prep courses
  2. Admission test scores
  3. Grades in all classes
  4. Class rank
  5. Essay/writing sample
  6. Counselor recommendation
  7. Teacher recommendation
  8. Interview
  9. Community service
  10. Work/extracurricular activities
  11. Ability to pay
  12. Personal recognition programs

While individual colleges and universities differ somewhat in the specific factors influencing admission, clearly, the most important factor is the high school record. Colleges want to see that you have done well in challenging courses.

Admission Options

In addition to the normal admission process, there are several other options that you may want to consider. These include early decision, early action, early entrance, deferred admission, and rolling admission.

Regular admission: send in your application and all admission materials by the college’s deadline. Notification of admission is usually in April with a response date of May 1.

Rolling admission: some schools continue to accept students until they have filled the class and will notify accepted students as decisions are made.

Early decision: this is the option to use ONLY if, after doing your research, you have ONE clear first choice. Applications are usually due in early November and notification takes place before winter break. You will receive one of three possible replies: an offer of admission, denial, or deferral. If you are accepted, you must cancel applications to all other schools. If you are deferred, your application will be put into the regular group and reconsidered.

Early decision is binding: you must sign a form promising to withdraw all other applications and your parents and college counselor must also sign it.

Early action: this option has an early application deadline and early notification; however, you will not have to commit in advance before the regular response date of May 1.

Deferred admission: after you have been accepted to a college you realize for financial or personal reasons that you want to delay entry until the following term or year. You must write to that college prior to May 1 and request that your acceptance and admission be suspended until a certain date. Most schools will allow you this flexibility; however, you cannot take college classes for credit during this time period.

Wait list: perhaps the most frustrating admission decision, the wait list means that you are fully qualified to attend the school but that the number of applicants was so high that they could not accept all qualified students. If this is your first choice school, stay on the waiting list, but you may want to send a deposit to you second choice school. You will lose it if your first choice school chooses you from the wait list.

The normal timetable for the majority of schools is applications due between January 1 and March 1 with notification date by April 1. May 1 is the common reply date. Remember to notify the colleges that you will not be attending.

Common Application

The Common Application is currently used by 230 colleges and universities with the goal of simplifying the admission process. Students complete one application, copy it, and send the form to any of the participating colleges. Check online for the list of colleges participating and to apply.


It is important that the people you select to provide recommendations for you know you well and are able to provide valuable insights about you and your activities. Some points to remember include:

  1. allowing the person 3 weeks to complete the recommendation (plan ahead!!).
  2. giving the college recommendation form to the person when you ask.
  3. completing the student section ahead of time.
  4. providing an envelope and instructing the person to return the recommendation in the sealed envelope to the guidance office (remember all materials will be mailed together).
  5. checking with the person one week prior to the mailing date.
  6. writing a thank you note to the person.

Writing the College Essay

Most of the schools to which you apply will require an essay and most essay topics ask who are you and what makes you different from everyone else. The college essay is an opportunity to share your story that reflects your feelings, values, interests, and commitments. Powerful tools that you can use may include humor, irony, and satire. It is highly recommended that you do some preparation prior to writing your essay by taking some time to complete an interest inventory that will help you evaluate your talents, opinions, and perspectives. Secondly, it is recommended that you start writing drafts early on in the college admission process by taking some essay topics and practicing. Some examples include:

  • Describe an experience that had a significant effect on your life.
  • Why do you want to attend X University?
  • What book had a profound effect on you?
  • Tell us something about yourself that the application does not reveal.
  • Name a person who has had an impact on your life, either positively or negatively.
  • Discuss a local or international issue that is important to you.
  • Discuss an activity that has had special meaning to you.

As your essays are being read, the admission readers hope to see an essay that is:

  • well proofread including spelling, punctuation, and grammar (get help proofing)
  • word processed and clipped to your application (don’t try to type on the application)
  • observes the required word count (250 means 250, not 500)
  • creative and tells your story
  • written in the first person
  • started with an opening sentence that hooks the reader
  • positive and honest

College Visits

Living in the information age makes the college search process all that much easier. At your fingertips is a wealth of information. In addition to internet resources, you will gather invaluable information from college fairs, admission reps, friends and relatives, and school personnel. After narrowing your list to the recommended 3-6 schools, college visits are in order. One suggestion is to plan a three-day weekend visit so you have at least one day to visit while classes are in session.

After calling the admission office, schedule an appointed time to visit. This is the time for special requests including meeting with a coach, faculty members, and financial aid officers. Additionally, let it be known that you would like an overnight visit or audition if applicable.

Your visit should include:

  • An interview with an admission representative
  • A guided tour as well as one on your own
  • A visit to a class or two in session
  • Talking with students and faculty
  • Eating in the dining hall
  • Checking out the surrounding community
  • Meeting with coaches, faculty, and advisors in areas of interest to you

Before your visit, compile a list of questions. Try not to ask questions already answered in the catalog or view book.

Sample questions:

  • What is the philosophy of the school?
  • How do you decide who gets accepted?
  • Does the ability to afford school determine getting in or not?
  • Is financial aid available for all four years of study?
  • How large are most freshman classes?
  • How are roommates selected?
  • How many students return after their first year?
  • What kind of help can you get outside of the classroom such as computer labs, libraries, art studios, music practice rooms, exercise facilities, and/or writing labs?
  • What is the social life on campus like?
  • How important are sororities and fraternities?
  • Are there tutorial services available?
  • How safe is the campus?
  • Are professors available for one-on-one help?
  • Does the school help you find a job?
  • What is different about this college?

Some additional suggestions:

  • Take notes or use a campus visit form.
  • Try not to judge a school by one student, one professor, or one tour guide.
  • Be prepared to discuss your GPA, your current classes, your co-curricular activities, or special talents.
  • Take an unofficial copy of your transcript.
  • Write a thank you note to the admissions officer after your visit.