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.


Learnist: Basic Algebra on the ACT and SAT

Expert Katie Cantrell over at Learnist offers a great look at the fundamental algebra concepts on the ACT and SAT exams. Refresh how to isolate variables, solve basic equations, and apply the order of operations on Test Day!

This video in particular covers several ways to conceive of variables, how to solve linear equations with fractions, and how to check your work to ensure that you have found the correct answer.

Learnist: ACT Science and Data Representation

The Data Representation format on the ACT Science Test will ask you to understand and interpret information presented to you in graphs or tables. Occasionally there will also be charts, scatterplots, and diagrams.

As the video below outlines, it’s important to REALLY analyze all the data you’re given. The point of Data Rep is to determine your ability to pinpoint and extract conclusions from a series of data. 38% of the ACT Science passages will be in this format.

Making sure you have a strong understanding of the data will save you lots of headache when you read the questions. The questions will be so much easier if you spend just a few minutes focusing on the data. Check out tutor Jim Jacobson’s strategy for just how to do that in this video!

Need to see a passage in action? Sparknotes reviews some basic strategy, then shows you a passage exactly like one you’ll see on Test Day. Start with the intro, then when you get to the chart, you should glance over it to make sure that you know what’s being measured and that, in general, you feel comfortable finding information in the chart.

Now try some ACT Science Test Data Representation questions on your own on Learnist!



How to Manage the Application Process

So you’ve got your list of “safety,” “match” and “reach” schools and you’ve done your homework on each program and campus, now what? To effectively handle the entire process of filling out applications, there are a few things you’ll need to keep in mind.

Get organized!

It may sound obvious, but even the most organized student can get overwhelmed by the amount of papers flying about so you’ll have to work extra hard to stay on top of all of the deadlines. I recommend going to Office Max or Staples and purchasing a dry-erase school-year calendar. Put it on your bedroom wall and immediately fill in all of the application due dates. Let’s say you are applying to 8 schools. Don’t expect to fill out each application a week before they’re due. Give yourself at least a week to complete each one. That means for 8 apps, you should be getting starting with the applications a minimum of two months before the due dates. This will give you plenty of time to get your supplemental information (transcripts, letters of recommendation, resumes, etc.) in order. You don’t want to rush yourself.

For the physical applications, create a file folder labeled with each school’s name and keep them together in a file box. Many students also make a checklist for each of the application’s components and attach them to the front of each application with a paperclip. As you add a transcript or a personal essay to each application, check it off and note what else needs to be completed.

Give yourself a person due date for each application. Aim to have each fully completed one-two weeks before the actual due date. This is will give you plenty of time to re-read each piece of information for errors before you submit the final application. Photocopy the entire application before you mail it and when you go to the post office, make sure to send it by certified mail so you can get confirmation that it was delivered.

I applied to 13 schools as an undergrad and somehow managed to keep all of the applications organized – if I can do it, so can you!

Getting Letters of Rec

Many students feel shy or embarrassed about asking for letters of recommendation but it’s important to remember that your teachers are there to help and support your dreams. If anything, they should feel flattered that you’re asking!

Check to see what the requirements are for the letters of rec. Usually teachers are preferred but sometimes counselors, community leaders or family friends are acceptable. Obviously you want to choose the people who know you best, but there are ways you can help your recommender write the best possible letter.

When asking, check to see what information your teacher would like to aid them in writing. If you can, provide them with copies of your resume, personal statement and transcript. Explain to them why you are applying to each specific school and how you’d like to come across to the admissions department. Give them a deadline for the letter but try and give them at least 3-4 weeks to write it – they’ll probably have lots of others to write as well). When they complete it, make sure to give them a thank-you card and keep them posted in the spring on the status of your applications.

The Personal Statement

Keep in mind is that you will be writing more than one statement, so it’s important to keep a folder on your computer desktop with each school’s essay clearly titled. As you print off drafts label them ‘Draft #1’, ‘Draft#2’, etc. You will probably be able to recycle the same 2 or 3 essays to fit each school’s prompt, but it’s important to get started early. You don’t want to wait until the week before and then write something slapdash. The personal statement should be the first thing you start working on when you print your application since it will take much time to draft and revise.

The prompts are often incredibly open-ended and generic, so it’s important to be as specific as possible in your writing. Think about the experiences you’ve had in your life, especially those times where you’ve experienced great personal growth. Think about your statement as less of an “essay” and more of a “story.” Read short stories by great writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Katherine Mansfield, and John Cheever. Pay attention to how they draw a reader into an entire world in only a few short pages. Obviously your statement won’t be a work of fiction, but it doesn’t have to be boring! Find something to inspire you – http://www.npr.org has great short news pieces on people’s lives all around the world. Think of your statement as an opportunity to write a report on the significant people in your life.

Give your drafts to family, friends and teachers for feedback and comments. Don’t take anything personally; be open to their suggestions but stay true to yourself. Ask your readers, “How does the person who wrote this come across?” You want to use experiences from your life to illustrate that you are a mature, intelligent, sensitive individual who is ready to take on the challenges and opportunities of university-life, but the illustration aspect of the essay in important. As my high school English teacher, Mr. Lawrence, used to say, “Show them! Don’t tell.”

As you work through your applications, don’t be afraid to contact the Admission Department at the various schools. If you met an admission counselor at your school’s open house or at a local info session, ask for their business card and follow up with them. Ask them if there is anything you can add to your application to set yourself apart; keep them posted on your progress through e-mail. Making a friend in the Admissions Office can really help you out in the long run if your application ends up on the waiting list. Don’t be obnoxious, but show your eagerness. Schools want to admit students who want them.