Undergraduate Admissions Process: How to Select Schools

Applying to college can be a daunting process, but it is also an incredibly exciting time. Attending university is an experience that will shape the rest of your life so it’s important to put some serious thought and consideration into your application choices. Let’s focus on what you should take into consideration when choosing where to apply.

What’s Your Major?

You’ll be asked this question hundreds of times when you first arrive as a freshman on campus, and even if you are undecided (many students are at this point) or plan on going in Undeclared, it’s a good idea to make a list of 3-4 majors you are seriously considering. If you’re flip-flopping between Broadcast Journalism and Film Studies, it would be wise to focus on schools that have solid programs in both fields. Transferring is always an option but it’s a lot easier to switch departments than to switch universities, and you don’t want to find yourself having to repeat this same application process in two years.

If you are hoping to be recruited to play sports for a specific school, you will need to be registered with the NCAA Initial Eligibility Clearinghouse. Talk to your coach and find out when recruiters are coming to visit. Follow up with a personal letter explaining your desire to play for them!

Location. Location. Location.

For many students, college is an opportunity to see the world. For others, they’d prefer to stay near family and friends at home. What kind of person are you? If you know you’d like to be close to a big city, focus your research on schools in urban areas like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. For other students, a smaller liberal-arts school in a less densely-populated area is ideal. In-state tuition can often be less expensive, so if money-hurdles are a concern, then perhaps sending away for applications for schools thousands of miles away isn’t the best idea. If possible, try to plan school visits. There is only so much you can learn about a school from a magazine or Google Earth. Eventually, you’ll need to see it in the flesh. If you can, contact the schools individually and find out about their campus tour schedules. When you go on the tour, ask questions and take notes!


Applying for college can be a bit like gambling in a casino. To ensure that you “win” (i.e. get into at least one good school), it’s important to divide the schools into three categories: ‘Safety’, ‘Match’, and ‘Reach’.

A “safety” school is one that you wouldn’t mind attending but that you are reasonably certain that you’ll be able to get into (research the average GPA and SAT scores of recent incoming freshman to help you figure out which category to place each university). Your scores and grades should be above the average.

A “match” school is one whose statistics on its incoming freshman relatively match your own. You can reasonably expect to get in to a few of your “match” schools, although don’t be disappointed if you are rejected from a few others.

A “reach” school is one that you would love to attend, but that your statistics are a bit lower than the average incoming freshman. These schools are long-shots, but that’s part of the fun. Who knows – you could be accepted!

One final thing to consider is Early Decision or Early Action. If there is one school in your “reach” category that you dream of attending more than any other, you may want to look into whether or not they have an early-admission option on their application. Typically, these applications are due a little earlier and in exchange students are notified by January. Essentially, if you are accepted you automatically agree to attend.

Application Fees

We all know that paying for college can be expensive, but keep in mind that each application will have an accompanying fee as well. The University of California school system, for example, costs $60 for each school – many private schools charge more. You’ll need to create an application budget. Talk to your parents about what they can afford to spend and ask your college counselor for advice as well.

According to College Board’s website, if you’ve participated in the SAT Program Fee-Waiver Service, you may also be eligible to waive application fees at the colleges to which you’re applying. Check out http://www.collegeboard.com/student/apply/the-application/922.html for a directory of participating schools.

Schools, like people, have personalities. There’s a huge difference between Middlebury and NYU. Schools have reputations for a reason – they aren’t always true, but it’s important to understand what you might be potentially getting yourself into. Ask yourself the big questions: Does a ‘name’ school matter to me? Do I want more focused one-on-one attention from my professors? Do I want to join a sorority/fraternity? Even if you don’t know all of the answers, you’ll want to do plenty of research now so that you will genuinely love your program, campus and community.