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Taking the Steps to Fulfill Your Dream:Navigating the College Admissions Process

Authored by: Daisy Mejia Perez

September 18, 2020

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of admissions, take a moment to acknowledge how far you have come! Having the desire to further your education in spite of having the odds against you is an amazing feat in itself. You have come this far to achieving a major goal--do not let the fear of the unknown get in your way now. You can get through this!

Since TAP has a nation-wide audience, the information below is in regards to navigating the general timeline of the Common Application, a single online college application form used by over 700 colleges and universities. So instead of filling out the same general information—like your address, GPA, and extracurriculars—for multiple schools, you only have to do it once. Attend webinars and conferences for more knowledge on state university systems such as the University of California (UC) system.

#1: Know Your Wants and Your Needs / Letters of Recommendation

The most important step in navigating the college admissions process is to distinguish your wants from your needs. Ask yourself, “What is my purpose in going to college? What do I want from my life?” Whether you seek recognition, a stable career, success, friends, community, happiness, peace, improved quality of life, your choice in college will affect all of these attributes. The sooner you know your motivations, your purpose, the easier it will be to maneuver the path of admission. 

Ask teachers, sports coaches, community leaders, staff members, and counselors--any non-familial adult who you are close to--for letters of recommendation as soon as possible! As college application season approaches, these adults will be backed up with students asking for recommendations, possibly reducing the quality of your letter. Give your recommenders a reasonable deadline (between 2-5 weeks) so they can write a thorough letter and so you can use it for your applications. 

#2: Get Your Standardized Testing Done BEFORE December

Before you sign up for any tests, first check your college’s testing requirements! As of May, many schools are not requiring standardized testing scores from the 2021 applicant pool, including several Ivy League schools and the University of California system (New York Times). Still, be safe than sorry. Look at your university’s scores and ask yourself, “Do my ACT / SAT scores match or exceed them?” If they do, the decision is up to you whether you want to improve them or not. If they do not meet the average, then retake the test that is more geared towards your strengths. 

If your college(s) require an essay portion, add it to your test when you’re signing up! If your college(s) require SAT Subject Tests, sign up for the ones that will highlight your knowledge. These tests generally pertain to your major. Check with your high school counselor to see if you are eligible for a test fee waiver. Getting your scores in before December allows you to receive your scores before the Early Action and Early Decision deadlines for the Common App (more information in the following paragraphs). This will require you to take your tests at the latest, in October. 

#3: Work on College Essays (and Scholarships) Well Before the Application Filing Periods

College portals, whether it be Common App or state university systems, are open for students to start writing their essays and begin filling in information. Take advantage of the opportunity and spend as much time as you can on these applications. You do not want to wait until the final months (or worse, weeks!) to begin your application. Think of this: why are you pushing yourself so hard your entire high school career only to sell yourself short in your college application(s)?! 

Although the Questbridge National College Match Program offers the chance for a full ride to any of their partner schools, nothing is ever guaranteed. Make sure you have a backup plan for financial success and apply to as many scholarships as you can. The money you accumulate from scholarship awards can always be used for textbooks, school supplies, or private expenses. 

Don’t know where to start? Here are a few resources that may help demystify the scholarship search: 

  • "10,000 Degrees" List of Scholarships - Great website for anybody to begin their hunt. Content spans across multiple ethnicities including African American, Asian American, Hispanic / Latino, and varying backgrounds across the United States.

  • A Jumpstart into Senior Scholarships - A small list of monthly scholarships and reminders I created. The content is primarily centered around Hispanic / Latino, first-generation, and low-income students, but my advice to seniors is universal. 

  • "Fastweb" and "Go Merry" Scholarship Search Engines - These two sites work in a very similar fashion. You create an account and are immediately equipped with however many scholarships that apply to your profile and interests. These sites are not super helpful as they provide a lot of spam and click-bait emails, but honestly, it serves as a reminder to search for scholarships. I recommend applying for any credible scholarships you find via their posted websites, instead of through Fastweb and Go Merry, because it ensures your application is received and reviewed by the organization offering the scholarship. 

#4: Complete FAFSA and CSS Profile - Opens October 1!

FAFSA: The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the form that determines your financial aid from the government and most colleges. You can apply for financial aid starting from October 1 until the end date, June 30. You want to submit this form as soon as possible because aid is distributed on a first-come-first-serve basis, meaning that those who apply early on are likely to get the most financial aid for their family’s income bracket. You must apply for FAFSA every year you attend college, so keep the required documents readily available. Here is a checklist of information you will need to complete the form: FAFSA Checklist.

CSS Profile: The College Scholarship Service Profile (CSS Profile) is an online application created and maintained by College Board that allows college students to apply for non-federal financial aid. There are nearly 400 colleges and scholarship programs that require the CSS Profile for the 2020-2021 applicant cohort. Check to see if your school or program requires the Profile here: 2020-2021 List of Participating Institutions. The form is also open for completion beginning October 1 of your senior year. However, the deadline for submission varies between January 1 and March 31, depending on your school. Submit your form as close to October 1 as you can to avoid any issues with your non-federal financial aid. 

What’s the Difference?: The major difference between FAFSA and CSS Profile is that FAFSA provides federal grants, loans, and other types of government assistance, and the CSS Profile is an application that universities use to determine how much non-federal financial aid you need. For further questions differentiating the two financial aid forms, see CSS Profile vs FAFSA: Know the Differences

#5: Early Decision / Early Action vs Regular Decision - Submit When YOU Feel Ready

According to College Board, “Early decision plans are binding — a student who is accepted as an ED applicant must attend that college,” whereas “early action plans are nonbinding — students receive an early response to their application but do not have to commit to the college until the normal reply date of May 1.” 

Early Decision: Applications are due in November (deadlines vary by college). Students will receive an admission decision by December. Again, if you are accepted by a college under Early Decision, then you must attend their school and withdraw applications from other schools. 

Early Action: The two common deadlines are on November 1 and November 15 but confirm these dates with your school. You will receive an admission decision around January and February. If you are accepted, you can hold off on committing to a school until the national response date, May 1. For more information on who should apply early and the benefits/drawbacks of doing so, see College Board’s: Early Decision & Early Action

Regular Decision: You have the option to apply to several schools, review offers of admission and financial aid, and then make the choice to commit. RD applications are due between January 1 and February 1, depending on the college. As opposed to applying early decision or early action, you will receive your admission decision in Spring and will need to commit to a school by May 1. Keep in mind that your financial aid forms (FAFSA / CSS Profile) are due at the same time as your college applications, regardless of applying for early decision, early action, or regular decision. 

All three of these applications are completed through the Common App and all deadlines vary between colleges. This is why it is so crucial to do extensive research on your top college choices before you decide to take any course of admission. You will be spending the next two to four years of your life at your chosen institution, so refrain from making any decision based on a whim. If you need more time, take it! You set the pace of navigating your future, and college is no exception. Best wishes on your journey, and reach out to TAP advising, your school counselors, or college admissions offices if you need any help along the way!

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