College Application & Enrollment FAQ Answers

College-bound high school students share some common concerns. Here is a selection of frequently asked questions:

When should I begin looking at colleges?

Many high schools encourage students to begin their college exploration sometime during the sophomore year. The earlier you start the better prepared you’ll be. As you get further into your sophomore and junior years there will be more and more college related tasks that will monopolize your time. Also, part of the process in looking for a college is the necessity to examine your career and academic goals, a kind of self-awareness that will serve you well as time goes on.

What if I don’t have a career goal?

You don’t necessarily need a hard and fast career laid out to prepare for college. Most four-year colleges and universities do not require you declare a major until your sophomore year. Examine your interests and visit with your guidance/career counselor for help with colleges that cater to liberal arts candidates.

Where can I get help with the FAFSA?

The FAFSA poses a challenge for many students and parents. Coordinating time for all parties involved to sit down for an extended period of time is a challenge. The document is long and convoluted. Students from households with no college experience or minorities with English language shortcomings face an even greater obstacles. Ask your high school guidance/career counselor for information on local or regional financial aid seminars like the national College Goal Sunday. Events like this have been designed to provide free information on applying for financial aid, a big part of which includes filling out the FAFSA.

What if I want to go to a community college?

Part of your college preparation process should include communication with parents and high school guidance counselors. This way there are no surprises. I’m not saying that your interest in a community college is a big surprise. For some parents though, this is somehow misconstrued as settling for second best. Community colleges have come a long way. I attended a community college then transferred to a four-year college. The environment was tailor-made for my needs: hands-on, remedial help with weak academic skills and poor study habits. That being said, I am wondering what your reasons are for choosing a community college. Take a look at my article “Learn About Community Colleges” to see if this choice is right for you.

How important is the PSAT?

A lot of emphasis is placed on college entrance exams like the SAT and ACT. The PSAT is the lead in to the SAT. Colleges do not look at your PSAT score. That said, the PSAT is an important tool. Use it to manage the critical skills for which you’ll be assessed on the SAT. College Board designs the duo of exams. Check into their website for study materials, detailed information on test content, test strategies, and an explanation of the scoring system.

Do my SAT scores have to be really good to get into college?

Depends on what type of college you’re shopping for. Community colleges waive SAT scores. Most four-year colleges and universities use the SAT or ACT scores as a means by which to pare down their pool of candidates. Take a look at the average SAT scores available through College Board. Colleges also rely on other aspects of your academic and personal life, otherwise why would they bother requiring an application? Larger universities are a bit more rigid with criteria like SAT scores and GPA. Contrast this with smaller colleges that often go after diversity and more intangible student characteristics. If you are concerned that your scores are too low in the end and you’ve run out of time to retake them, you should definitely make an appointment to meet with the admissions counselor at the college your’re interested in. Put your best foot forward; there is absolutely no substitution for a good first impression.

Make a note, too, an increasing collection of colleges have downgraded the worth of the SAT or ACT scores. In fact, you might get lucky and not be asked for your score at all.

How many times can I take the SAT?

Don’t look at it this way. If you take it once in your junior year and think you can do better after some further preparation, then take it a second time in your senior year. According to College Board, students that invested further study time following disappointing scores their first time around, improved their scores the second time.

Are there tricks to acing the SAT/ACT exams?

No. The “trick” is good study skills and self-discipline. College Board literally tells you what content is included on the SAT. Take the SAT sample tests, and/or join a study group. My best advice: invest your time wisely. Avoid anything that promises to teach you quick tricks. Take a look at my article “Acing the College Entrance Exams.”

What are some major mistakes students make on their college applications?

Common mistakes students make on college applications include leaving some questions and fields blank, poorly representing themselves in their essays, mentioning other colleges they’ve applied to in their essays. Do not overlook letters of recommendation. And one of the biggest mistakes is made when students miss the application deadline.

My college applications require letters of recommendation. Can I use the same letters for all the applications?

This practice is more widespread than you think and typically college admissions counselors frown on it. Get fresh letters for each application and make sure your sources mention the college to which you’re applying in order to target the letters. Approach each college application individually and as if each were your first choice.

What is “Early Decision”?

Early decision admission is offered at many colleges and universities. Students may apply a few months in advance of the normal admissions deadline under the firm agreement that if accepted they are considered automatically enrolled. Students often use this strategy to see if they can get in via Early Decision to their first choice. If not they have plenty of time to get applications together for second and third choices, which are typically due between January and February of their senior year.

Should I be worried about the essay part of the college application?

I would not say “worried,” but the essay is important. Applications are chock full of generic fill in the blank data. Look at the essay with not so much fear and apprehension, but as an opportunity—it’s where you get to really make an impression. Outrageous is not necessary to convey your individualism. Keep to the required topic, plan your essay on scratch paper; keep it as close to the required word count as possible and let your personality shine through.