How to Apply and Enroll as a College Student

Take Steps Earlier Than You Think

The road to college might best be mapped out in a series of major steps. Each step encompasses certain processes including deadlines, exams, forms and applications, time management, and research and personal insight.

1. Think “ College ” in Early Childhood Development

Many education specialists urge parents to commit to a child’s college career as early as elementary school. This step alone generally insures parents will implement a college financial savings strategy as well as promote a child’s study habits and motivation toward the college goal. Early preparation cannot be overstressed. I failed in this department. I never formed good study habits and by the time I reached high school it was too late for me to recover. I also did not have the type of support that many students require. In most cases, college is a family choice.

2. Engage Experts

In lieu of motivated parents, students committed to college must engage education specialists early in their education. All other college-bound students are advised to do the same. School guidance, career and academic counselors are highly trained to provide direction for students, and to offer all the available options for a college career. Counselors can provide guidance to students lost in a quagmire of career indecision and, based on personality tests, may also make suggestions for type of college or university environment most suited to the student. In the section on “Kinds of Colleges” I explore the differences between the types of institutions and emphasize the distinguishing features that might be a pro or con based on student personality types and academic goals.

3. Explore Types of Colleges

In light of the information you glean from your guidance counselor, you should begin early in your high school career to explore in depth the academic options and learning environments available to you. Part of this step must include self-awareness of your career and academic goals. No, you don’t have to know what you want to “be” the rest of your life. Plenty of students go to college without a solid career goal, others know their strengths and weaknesses and are open to exploring options. Most colleges don’t require you declare a major until your sophomore year.

However, a student sure about a career in medicine or in teaching is better able to focus his or her efforts on a college search most suited to those goals. Plenty of colleges specialize in a liberal arts education, one quite well suited to the undecided.

4. Make a College To-Do List

Usually your sophomore year of high school turns to talk of college and entrance exams. At this stage you should create a timeline or dated to-do list. Add big items such as PSAT, SAT, college visits, fill out applications, and file your FAFSA. As time goes on refer back to this list/timeline and continue to fill in dates and tasks as they come up. For example you might find applicable scholarships; each will have an application deadline. Deadlines for grants and state-funded programs should populate the list as well. When you have your list complete to the best of your knowledge, review it with both parents and guidance counselor.

5. Prepare and Take College Entrance Exams

Four-year colleges and universities weigh student SAT/ACT scores to a varying degree. Some consider it to be the consummate metric of a student’s abilities while others give it little credence as an indicator of your future potential. Then again, there are those that actually opt to rely on other distinguishing features of an applicant’s academics and personal interests. However, the college entrance exams are a milestone in your college prep process.

In the early part of your junior year you will take the PSAT. Use it to assess your weaknesses in any of the three major skills areas: math, reading and writing. College Board provides sample tests, study resources and an extensive library of further college planning tools. Use the same site to study for your SAT. Many students buy study guides that bundle lists of traditional SAT vocabulary words and offer insightful ways to remember and recall tricky math rules, theorems, functions and calculations. If your region subscribes to the ACT exam you can access similar resources through guidebooks or the ACT website.

6. Complete the FAFSA

Second only to your college entrance exams is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application. The FAFSA earns its own step for its financial weight and for its length and complexity. The FAFSA application enables you to be considered for a number of federal student loan programs. Fill out the FAFSA no matter what. Mistakenly many parents and students assume their financial situation for some reason makes them ineligible for federal student aid. Those that fail to complete the FAFSA by its deadline miss-out. Almost everyone is awarded some financial assistance.

With that said and done, you and your parents should plan time to sit down to fill out the form. Be warned: whether you do it in hardcopy or online, the application length and imperviousness has been compared to that of a complex federal income tax form. You will have to go online beforehand and apply for an online access PIN. Materials to have handy while you’re filling out the form are your most recent income tax forms, pay stubs, figures associated with home mortgage and auto loans, bank statement, and social security and driver license numbers.

Need help filling out the form? Many high schools offer seminars and invite financial aid officials in to help students and parents untangle the mess. One popular and nationwide program is College Goal Sunday.

7. Visit College Campuses

Once you have narrowed down your college search a critical component in your application process should be a campus visit. College is as much marketing as it is academics and finances, so your slick, glossy brochure is designed to sell. Like everything else in sales, sometimes things ain’t as they appear to be. Would you spend $50,000 on a car sight unseen? Then why would you make your choice of college without paying a visit?

8. Apply to Colleges

You’ve taken your entrance exams, narrowed down your college choices and visited campuses. Now you complete your applications and send them in by the deadlines attached to them. Take your time with each application. Complete each one as if it were the only one you had to complete. Plan your essays on scratch paper first and write concise articulate prose that still offers insight into your personality. Do not use the same essay for each application; this is a big turn-off to admissions officers.

9. Make Your Final Choice

Students that receive acceptance notices from multiple colleges have a choice to make. Spend time once again weighing the pros and cons of each school in light of your current plans. Discuss options with parents and guidance counselors. Congratulations!