5 Tips for Successful College Applications

For most students, spring of junior year is the most challenging semester of high school.

Not only are they juggling standardized test prep (SAT, ACT, and maybe AP and SAT Subject Tests) and rigorous coursework, but they also have to kick the college application process into high gear.

The sheer amount of work that goes into college applications is daunting, but what students often struggle with most is having the right mindset and a good strategy to get the process started. Here’s how your student can set themselves up for college application success:

Tip #1: Use the application to tell a story.

A great college application tells a story about the student: who they are and who they want to become. An admissions officer pieces that narrative together from the separate parts of the application, then uses it to decide if a student is the right fit for their school. Students should look at each part of the college application as an opportunity to tell another part of that story. Want to learn more about the narrative of a college application?

Tip #2: Do a “brain dump” to start the process.

To begin, students should c a master list of everything they need to do for the college application process: this checklist from College Board is a good starting point. Be as specific as possible: instead of “write college essays,” students should list out each essay that needs to be completed; instead of “research schools,” try “develop an initial list of 25 potential schools.” The brain dump should help your student set clear goals and get a big-picture overview of the entire process.

Tip #3: Build a strong college list.

If your student has a list of colleges they’re excited about attending (including target, reach, and safety schools), it will help them stay motivated to complete their applications. If your student knows they’re a perfect fit for the school they’re applying to, that’s sure to come through in the application, especially in the supplemental, school-specific essays that many colleges request.

Tip #4: Start early and allow extra time.

College applications, like any major project you haven’t done before, usually take longer than expected. We recommend doubling the total amount of time needed, both for each discrete task (how long it will take to write an essay) and for the overall timeline (how many months the whole process will take). That’s also why we recommend students sit for the SAT or ACT at least once during junior year. Check out our Guide to SAT/ACT Preparation for more standardized testing strategies.

Tip #5: Get feedback and support.

While some students move through the application process efficiently on their own, most will need some help. Every student should have one or two outside advisors review their personal statement, and you may need to help your student with feedback on other pieces of the application as well. If a student feels overwhelmed, they may procrastinate and avoid getting started, so it’s important that they have some outside support to keep them on track.

If your student is struggling with the idea of college applications—or if you want expert advice to make their application stand out—Signet is here to help. Our college admissions team can help your student craft a great application—and make sure they have a clear plan for completing it.

Picture of Sheila A.

Sheila A.

Sheila Akbar is President & COO of Signet Education. She holds a bachelor's degree and master's degree from Harvard University and two doctoral degrees from Indiana University. She joined the team in the summer of 2010, bringing with her a wealth of experience teaching SAT, ACT, GRE, literature, and composition in both one-on-one and classroom settings.

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