College admissions tips

It's that time of year again. Colleges across the country will soon begin accepting applications (and some may have already opened up early acceptance). That means that students hoping to start a degree program next fall should be preparing their applications now.

This week, First in Education will share tips on how to navigate the college admissions process, from interviews to application essays to letters of recommendation. But first, we will share our tips for how to best to approach the overall process:

1. Do your research. Don't pick a college because it has a good sports team, or because it "seems” like a good school, or because someone you know is going there. Think about what you are interested in studying, and look for colleges that have a good program in that subject area. If you are certain about what you want to study, you can even research the professors who will teach those courses to see if their research interests match up with what you want to do. Decide whether you would like to attend a large college, or one that allows for more individual focus.

2. Create your list of colleges. Rank these according to priority so that you can also prioritize completion of your applications. Having a ranked lists of colleges to which you will apply allows you to create a timeline for the application process, as well as a plan of attack. Make a list of important deadlines, as well as required documentation, so that you can organize your activities and stay on target. Applying to even one college can sometimes be overwhelming when confronted with all the required information and the deadlines; if you are applying to several colleges, it can make the process even more stressful and confusing. Rank and prioritize to get organized and streamline the process.

3. Attend college fairs and open houses. Whether you're talking to a rep at a fair, or you get a chance to meet with administrators in person at an open house, you'll get the benefit of learning about the college first hand and having specific questions answered. This can give you a sense of what to expect and help you understand if this is the right school for you.

4. Visit the campus. This is one of the best ways to learn about the college you are considering. Meet with admissions representatives, professors and even fellow students. Ask a lot of questions! You are there to get information, and the more you know, the better informed you will be when making a decision and the more prepared you will be in your application. Take the time to interview, as well. A good interview can help set you apart and give you an edge in the admissions process. Even if the interview is not required, or is not allowed, talking to an admissions rep will show that you have demonstrated interest in the school, setting you apart for your dedication.

5. Send a thank you note. Once you have visited, send a personal note to each of the representatives you spoke with thanking them for their time. This gesture will show that you are sincere in your efforts towards the school and that you appreciate the time these people took to meet with you.

6. Register for and take the SAT or ACT. Some colleges will allow you to take either test, but some have specific requirements about which test you must take and when. Pay attention to deadlines. Some colleges will require that you take the test by a certain date, while others will require that your actual scores are received by a certain date. Plan ahead so that you have enough time to prepare for the test, take it, and have your scores reported on time.

7. Start your application early. There are deadlines for each piece of information that must be received, including your transcript, test scores, and letters of recommendation. Request this information early in case there are delays. Another good reason to start early is that some colleges have early acceptance or rolling acceptance — meaning that you may have better odds of being accepted if you are considered early.

8. Read directions carefully and follow them. Do not allow your application to be rejected or delayed because you did not submit required information, forgot to sign it, or did not meet submission guidelines (such as writing out the application instead of typing it). Make sure that you thoroughly read the directions, and then follow them. Don't allow technicalities to derail your application. Meet deadlines. Make sure that all materials are submitted at the time they are required. You should also monitor those aspects of your application that must be submitted by other parties, such as your transcripts and letters of recommendation. Make sure you submit your request with enough time to grant it, and then follow up. You are the person who will ultimately be held responsible if the information isn't received.

9. Admissions essay. We will provide specific tips for writing the best essay that you can later in the week, but as a general rule of thumb, be sure to write a unique essay for each application that you submit. Your essay should reflect how your experiences or goals fit specifically with the college to which you are applying. Don't send a generic essay to each college.

10. Letters of recommendation. Again, we will provide specific tips later in the week. Some general tips to keep in mind include asking for letters early. Many professors will be asked by multiple students for letters of recommendation, and deadlines will all be around the same time. Make sure the person you ask has enough time to thoughtfully complete your recommendation and to submit it on time. When considering who to ask for a recommendation, talk to professors, counselors, or coaches who you have known for a long time or you have worked with closely. The person should be able to speak of your experiences and abilities with confidence.