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    How to Start the College Admissions Process

    By Will Geiger

    Will Geiger is the co-founder of Scholarships360 and has a decade of experience in college admissions and financial aid. He is a former Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at Kenyon College where he personally reviewed 10,000 admissions applications and essays. Will also managed the Kenyon College merit scholarship program and served on the financial aid appeals committee. He has also worked as an Associate Director of College Counseling at a high school in New Haven, Connecticut. Will earned his master’s in education from the University of Pennsylvania and received his undergraduate degree in history from Wake Forest University.

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    and Gabriel Jimenez-Ekman

    Gabriel Jimenez-Ekman is a content editor and writer at Scholarships360. He has managed communications and written content for a diverse array of organizations, including a farmer’s market, a concert venue, a student farm, an environmental NGO, and a PR agency. Gabriel graduated from Kenyon College with a degree in sociology.

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    Reviewed by Caitlyn Cole

    Caitlyn Cole is a college access professional with a decade of experience in non-profit program and project management for college readiness and access organizations.

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    Updated: May 20th, 2024
    How to Start the College Admissions Process

    The college admissions process is made up of several steps and can take time to complete. This may leave some students wondering what the best way to start the process is. With the right preparation and resources you will be set up for success! In this guide, we’ll go over a few different ways that a student can kick-start their admissions journey, and some pointers on how to do them right. Let’s get into it!

    Build a solid foundation

    Let’s start with the very first things first – the best thing you can do for yourself when it comes time to apply for colleges is to build a great foundation. Your transcripts will be stronger, your essays will be more impressive, and the other aspects of your application will speak for themselves so long as you work hard and achieve great things in high school. Let’s break down each of these aspects to focus on:


    Your GPA is undeniably one of the most important factors that you will include on your applications. You should not wait until your junior and senior year to look at your GPA – make this a habit starting your freshman year! Throughout all of high school, your number one priority should always be earning good grades. Make sure to stay on top of your homework, study for tests, and manage your time well.

    It can be a good idea to form study groups, and whenever you are struggling in a class, be sure to reach out to a teacher for help. When teachers know you are being proactive about your difficulties, they are typically more likely to help you out. Another support system in your high school is your school counselor. They have access to and can help you interpret the grades/credits on your entire transcript and also help you make sure you’re on track to graduate. 

    Standardized test scores

    Although there has been a recent trend away from relying on test scores in applications, they are still a very influential aspect of college applications at most schools. Getting a test prep tutor or taking advantage of free online resources can do wonders for your ACT or SAT performance. In addition to free online resources, your school or local community organization may provide free test prep. Make sure to check with your high school counselor to see if you have access to any similar resources. 

    Remember, you should study early and often, and take the tests multiple times if you are not satisfied with your first score.

    Also see: ACT vs. SAT: Which test should I take?

    Extracurricular activities

    Grades and test scores are very important, but at the end of the day, they are only numbers. It’s your extracurriculars that add humanity to your application. These are the factors that can grab the attention of an admissions officer and encourage them to champion your application.

    A wide breadth of extracurricular activities can look great on an application and prove great subject matter for your essays. These activities can include club involvement, athletics, a job or internship, or a hobby you are passionate about. If you are reading this guide late in your high school career, remember it is never too late to join a club!

    And remember, extracurriculars are not only limited to clubs. A wide breadth of activities count as extracurriculars, such as part-time jobs, participation and leadership in religious institutions, arts, and activities supporting your family (babysitting, cooking, and helping out in a single-parent household can all be considered extracurriculars).

    Relationships with teachers

    Having a strong relationship with your teachers is a great way to prepare for the college admissions process. Especially if you take several classes with the same teacher, you should be sure to establish a relationship. This could include going to see them after class with questions or participating in class.

    The better relationship you keep with your teachers, the better your recommendations will be when it comes time to apply for college.

    Ask for letters of recommendation

    Asking for letters of recommendation can seem embarrassing to some students. As a result, many put it off until the last moment. However, this can often detract from the quality of your recommendation. Your teacher may be rushed or overworked as they are writing letters for a whole slew of your classmates. If possible, it’s a good idea to make your request as early as possible.

    Also see: How to ask for a letter of recommendation

    Talk to your parents about your financial situation

    One often-overlooked factor of the admissions process is getting an idea of your finances. It’s a good idea to establish transparent and honest communication with your parents or guardians from the beginning with regards to your finances. Find out whether they have saved money for your education and how much they can contribute.

    This gives you an idea of what sorts of financial aid packages you’ll be able to accept, and gives you some time to apply for scholarships and mull over the idea of taking out student loans. Many students have not faced any large-scale financial decisions in their lives. Student loans end up being their first, and as a result, they often make shortsighted decisions. By talking with your parents about your financial decision, you’ll educate yourself and end up making a better choice.

    Also see: How much student loan debt is too much?

    Do some preliminary college visits

    As you start off your admissions process, you may have no idea what you want out of a college. On the other hand, you may have grown up with the idea of a state school, a liberal arts school, a school in the city, or a school in a college town. No matter your situation, it’s a good idea to do a bit of exploring to figure out what makes you feel most at home.

    Many students begin by visiting colleges that they already have their eye on. But if your schedule doesn’t allow this, there are other options. You can try visiting some local schools that are representative of different types of institutions around the country. Try out a state school, a smaller school, an urban school, a rural school, and see what you think! Even if none of the schools you visit particularly excites you, you’ll get an idea of what you are looking for in general. If you need financial assistance visiting schools, check into whether no cost fly-in programs are available. 

    Virtual tours

    Another great option students should take advantage of is the possibility of a virtual college tour. While they will never capture quite the same features you’ll pick up on during in-person visits, they are a hugely valuable resource to get an idea of the campus and what the school offers. Especially in recent years, schools have put much more resources into their virtual opportunities. This is a worthwhile endeavor for any school you are even casually considering.

    Related: Tips for planning a college tour

    Do some self-reflection

    One of the best ways to start the college process is through self-reflection. This will help you with many parts of the process, including your college choice and your essays. Here are a few good questions to ask yourself; try writing down the first thing that comes to your mind for each question. After that, you can ask your family and friends the same things about yourself and write down their responses. You may end up going back to this list a good many times as you work through your college applications.

    • Where do you see yourself in one year? How about three or five years?
    • What type of work do you feel passionate about and when did you realize it was your passion?
    • Who inspires you?
    • In what types of environments do you learn best?
    • Do you find your greatest strengths are working as part of a team or on your own?
    • Are you looking for a broad education in college or a more specialized, professional one?
    • How much income do you hope to make from a job to live comfortably?
    • Do you want to work one primary job or multiple jobs in order to earn a living?

    Also see: How to write an essay about yourself

    Key Takeaways

    Key Takeaways

    • The best way to prepare for college admissions if you are still an underclassman is to build a solid foundation by earning good grades, engaging in extracurriculars, forming relationships with your teachers, and studying for standardized tests
    • You should begin the actual application process with reflection, college visits, and a conversation with your parents or guardians to find out your financial resources
    • Do lots of college visits, and if you can’t visit all the schools that interest you most, visit local schools that resemble them
    • Ask for letters of recommendation earlier rather than later to avoid time-crunches and secure more thought-out responses
    Key Takeaways

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