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.


How to Get the Maximum in Financial Aid

Just like your applications process, a key thing to remember about the scholarship process is to stay organized. When you find a scholarship that you feel competitive for mark its due date on your wall calendar. Create a folder for it and aim to have it complete a week before its official due date.

When you get your financial aid package from your school of choice, don’t start crying. Think of it as an opening bid in a negotiation. Your financial aid package is at the discretion of a few people who genuinely want to help you attend their institution. Don’t be afraid to contact them and explain your financial situation. In the meantime, let’s look at how you can bring in some cash!

Find Scholarships That Fit You

There is no shortage of scholarships out there. They range from the incredibly prestigious with hefty gift amounts (the Coca-Cola Scholars Program gives out up to $20,000 for example) to the downright silly. There are scholarships at the local, state and national level. It will take awhile to find ones that are worth your time but online research is a great place to start. I recommend College Board’s Scholarship Search (http://apps.collegeboard.com/cbsearch_ss/welcome.jsp) and Fast Web (www.fastweb.com). Both sites offer searchable databases of scholarships which will help match scholarships to your online profile.

Consider looking for scholarships based on your gender, race, religion and field of study. Pay attention to see if the scholarship money is awarded directly to the recipients or if it is sent to the school of your choice. Many schools will decrease their financial aid packages proportionally with the amount of outside scholarship you receive. Call your schools and see what their policies are – will they decrease the amount of loans first before they take away some of your grant money? Here is where having a friend in the Application Office can come in handy – get a referral to someone in the Financial Aid department you can call and ask!


The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (known as the FAFSA) is a requirement for most schools to process a Financial Aid Application. The application is available after January 1st of each year online (http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/). Your parents may need to estimate their income for the rest of the fiscal year, so give them plenty of notice to gather the information they’ll need to give you the right numbers.

You may also need to fill out the CSS Profile (https://profileonline.collegeboard.com/prf/index.jsp). CSS is short for the College Scholarship Service Profile and it is more detailed than the FAFSA. If you are applying to schools for Early Decision you will most likely have to fill out the CSS Profile since the FAFSA is not available until the New Year.

Types of Loans

In addition to any grant money you can win through scholarships or through Pell Grants (also a great source of extra money to explore), you can expect that part of your financial aid package will involve loans.

Federal loans are usually the best way to go since they can offer deferment of interest and a lower rate than most banks. Here are the ones you’ll need to know about:

Federal Stafford Loans – These are awarded based on financial need and there are three kinds to choose from:
Subsidized – This type of loan means that the government will pay the interest on it while the student is enrolled.
Unsubsidized – For students who don’t qualify for subsidized loans, unsubsidized loans require the student to be responsible for the entire amount of interest.
Additional Unsubsidized – These loans are for independent students, as determined by Federal guidelines. Students become eligible if their parents are denied a PLUS loan (for having bad credit, for example).
PLUS Loans – These are low-interest loans for the parents of students who qualify based on financial need – repayment is required upon graduation or completion of the loan.
Federal Perkins Loans – These loans are for students with extreme financial need. Usually they do not accrue interest for 9 months after graduation and have extremely low interest rates.
In addition to grants and loans, your school may offer work-study as part of your financial aid. This involves working a minimum numbers of hours a week on-campus tax-free.

Get Supplemental Info Ready to Go

Many of the items you’ll need for scholarships you will already be obtaining anyway for your college applications. These can include transcripts, resumes, and personal statements. Make sure you have plenty of copies at your disposal so that you won’t run out and have to scramble to meet deadlines. You may also be required to submit your parents’ tax return for the previous fiscal year, so ask them to make copies of that for you as well.

While the application process will be over for you in January, applying for financial aid is an on-going process that will take you well into the spring. Try not to get discouraged if you apply for 50 scholarships and only get a few. Stay positive and motivated and keep putting that extra effort into your applications. Remember – free money is out there with your name on it! You just have to go and get it.