Whether your students are just starting to look at colleges, or they’ve had their eyes on the same university since they were 5, applying to colleges is a confusing and stressful process. When I was a junior, I didn’t even know where to start. I think I probably just googled "how do I go to college.” And now I have a degree! So maybe they’re off to an okay start...but they could definitely use your help!
Many students have some idea of what schools they would like to apply to, but they have trouble keeping track of the multitude of application-related tasks needed to complete the process. Help them stay on task and take it step by step--that’s the only way to make it to the finish line.
In this post, we're going to go over all the most important components of a student’s college application to make sure it's in great shape for the admissions committee.
Table of Contents
- College Application Essays
- Letters of Recommendation
- Admissions Interviews
- Application Fees & Waivers
- Choosing a Major
- Other Options: Considering a Gap Year
- A Final Word on College Applications
College Application Essays
Some pieces of your students’ applications--their GPAs for example--will be fairly impervious to change by the time they’re applying to colleges. During the application process, however, they will have much more control over the quality of their essays. You should definitely encourage them to take this opportunity to shine in their writing and show admissions committees who they are as an individual. A strong essay can bolster weaker areas of their applications, or lock in an already strong set of stats.
But of course, any opportunity for success can also be nerve-wracking. What makes a good essay is much more difficult to quantify than a good SAT or ACT score, so many students struggle with uncertainty about the quality of their writing.
One thing that is certain though: every one of your students will need to write at least one essay—if not more—to apply to college.
The Common App, the online college application accepted by most major American undergraduate programs, includes an essay component, which is required of all students who submit a college application on the Common App platform. On top of this mandatory essay, many schools will require responses to their own supplemental essay questions as well.
So what does it take to write a stellar college application essay?
By following the seven steps below, your students can ensure they write the high-quality essays their college applications deserve.
We’ve also created a downloadable quick guide to writing a great Common Application essay that they can print out for reference!
Ok, let’s get started.
1) Choose an essay prompt
The first step in the process is choosing an essay prompt to respond to. The Common App offers several prompts for students to choose from, and individual colleges may also allow for some flexibility in terms of what supplemental essay questions applicants decide to answer.
Students should pick a Common App essay prompt that speaks to them the most, and the one they think will provide them with the meatiest and most meaningful material. If a particular prompt jumps out, choose that one. However, if your students are struggling to differentiate between questions, tell them not to worry too much. To a certain degree, it doesn’t really matter which prompt they choose to answer, so long as they write and present themselves well.
Authenticity is key, so just make sure they choose a prompt they can answer thoroughly.
Whether or not your students are immediately successful in choosing a prompt, their next step is brainstorming. Encourage them to start by jotting down anything that comes to mind when they think about the prompts they’re considering.
Tell students to make a list of strengths, as well as a list of any weaknesses in their application they might want to speak to. The ideas they generate this way will help them move forward in the application, and will probably clue them in to which prompt offers them the most content and examples to elaborate on.
3) Don't Lose Sight of the Question
Each prompt is posed as a question, and your students need to answer that question… don't let them forget that!
It won’t look good if their essays devolve into ramblings that never address the heart of the prompt, even if those ramblings are well-written.
So once your students are ready to begin drafting their essays, tell them to set an intention to regularly pause and refer back to the question—maybe at the end of each paragraph. This is also a good time for students to make sure they’ve read the mission statement of the college they’re applying to, so they can incorporate it into their planned responses.
Advise your students not to move on to the next paragraph until they have identified how the current paragraph plays into a larger narrative that responds to the prompt.
4) Structure the Essay
College application essays probably aren’t like most essays your students have written in high school. Rather than arguing for or explaining an academic topic, students will be sharing something personal about themselves, and then reflecting on and analyzing why what they’ve shared is important.
Nonetheless, they can still rely on their knowledge of basic essay structures to help them. Just like with a regular essay, they’ll still need a clear introduction, body, and conclusion.
Let’s talk about those three pieces now.
The purpose of an introduction is:
1) To grab the reader’s attention and compel them to continue reading
2) To introduce the reader to the general topic of the essay.
While both goals need to be addressed, number one is definitely the priority. The introduction should be a unique attention-getter that establishes a personal voice and tone, while drawing the reader further into the essay. Students should consider using a brief illustrative anecdote, a quote, a rhetorical question, or something of that nature.
A good rule of thumb for structuring an essay’s body is as follows:
Paragraph 1: Situate the reader: provide context for the story by focusing in on a particular setting, subject matter, or set of details.
Paragraph 2: Explain more about the topic and why it is important, using specific examples and key details.
Paragraph 3: Go deeper. Elaborate and reflect on the message at hand and how this particular topic shaped the person you are today.
The conclusion is a great place for students to draw connections between the subject of their essays and their continued learning trajectory as college students and beyond. For example, how might your students want to expand on the knowledge they already have? What problems do they anticipate being able to solve given their experience?
5) Write Honestly, Specifically, and Vividly
It may go without saying, but students should always follow the cardinal rule of writing: show and don’t tell. Encourage them to provide specific details, examples, and images in order to create a clear and captivating narrative for their readers. And of course, make sure what they’re showing-not-telling is their own story. Their application essays are meant to be autobiographical--not a fictionalized version of someone else's memoirs.
6) Be Mindful of Voice and Tone
Your students’ essays should be professional, yet still conversational. Tell students to try reading their essays aloud; do they sound natural? That’s good! Students should keep the tone semi-casual, but avoid profanity, and make sure they’re still upholding all the rules for proper style, grammar, and punctuation.
7) Revise, Proofread
This is not optional. Make sure students give themselves time during their application process to revise, rework, and even rewrite their essay several times. After students write their first drafts, they should walk away from it for a couple days, so they can return to it with fresh eyes.
For some really fresh eyes, tell students to find at least two people they trust to review their essays, like a parent, a teacher, or anyone who has gone through the college application process before.
And of course, students should make sure their essays are pristine before pressing submit. That means triple and quadruple check for spelling and usage errors, typos, etc.
Letters of Recommendation
Letters of recommendation play an important role in college admissions, offering an objective third-party commentary that no other piece of a student’s application can. But letters of rec can also be incredibly stressful to ask for.
By following these seven steps, students can get a strong letter of recommendation that will send them on their way to the school of their dreams!
- Build meaningful relationships: Encourage students to get to know their teachers, employers, coaches—anyone they work with consistently who can speak to their strengths when it comes time to apply to college. After all, when they ask for letters of rec, it’ll be a big problem if their teacher can’t remember their name!
- Ask the right people: Now that you’re students have gone to all the trouble of building meaningful relationships, they’ll want to ask those people for letters of rec. Advise them to ask someone who can discuss their qualities and potential firsthand—that type of recommender will write a much stronger letter than someone who only knows of your student through the grapevine.
- Be appreciative: When asking potential letter writers for their help, make sure students understand that they’re doing just that – asking for help. They should be polite and show their appreciation when asking for letters.
- Give enough time: Asking for a letter of recommendation two days before the application deadline is a recipe for disaster. Students should provide at least a month’s notice (with very clear due dates).
- Highlight your strengths: In any request for a letter of recommendation, it’s helpful to provide some talking points to give recommenders some reference for how to start.
- Follow up: With all that recommenders have on their plates, it can be easy for them to procrastinate on your letter. Students should send an email a week or two before the deadline, thank the recommenders for helping you out, and politely check on the status of the recommendations.
- Send thank-you notes; Show recommenders gratitude by sending thank-you notes after submitting the applications. Many students forget this step, but they can easily make themselves stand out by remembering.
While not all colleges require admissions interviews, if your student’s school of choice recommends them, the admission interview can be a crucial part of their application.
But if the idea of sitting down with a stranger and selling them on why you’re a good fit for their school freaks your student out, they’re definitely not alone!
But before everyone starts panicking, here’s our advice on how to prepare your students for their admissions interviews and soothe those pre-interview jitters.
The more your students practice, the easier their college interviews will be. They can start by reading sample interview questions and writing some notes down. Then they should say their answers aloud. Practicing in front of a mirror, with a recording device, or with another person--especially someone with admission interview experience--can also be incredibly useful.
Students should write down their talking points in advance. These interview talking points can get them started:
- Your proudest moment
- Your favorite memories
- Your biggest challenges
- Times you overcame adversity
- People you admire
- New experiences you want to have in college
Do your homework
The admissions interview is a chance for your students to show that they’re a good fit for the school, but they can’t show they’re a good fit unless they know what the school is all about. Tell students to research to get a sense of what the college values, its mission statement, its strengths, and its weaknesses. Then they should try to make connections between those things and your own interests, goals, and experiences.
Two words: business casual. If you’re not sure what that means, there are heaps of outfit guides online (I like this infographic from Purdue University’s career center).
We’re all prone to rushing when we’re nervous. Instead, encourage students to slow down, and try to eliminate “umms,” “ahs,” and “likes” from their speech. It’s also okay for them to pause for a few seconds to collect their thoughts; in fact, it shows just how thoughtful they are!
Ask insightful questions
Most interviews will end with the interviewer asking “Do you have any questions for me?” Students should not say “no” to this question! After doing the research mentioned above, they should be able to come up with three to five meaningful questions for the admission interviewer.
A few more tips for students about keeping their cool...
- Take a deep breath before you go in.
- Make eye contact.
- Have a firm (but not crushing) handshake.
- Strike a tone that’s friendly but professional.
- If it’s your first interview, it’s okay to say so.
- Bring paper copies of your résumé, transcript, and test scores, just in case.
- Say thank you when you’re done and send a thank-you email later on.
- Chew gum if you’re nervous. (No, seriously, it helps.)
- Don’t forget to spit your gum out before your interview
Application Fees & Waivers
Applying to colleges is an expensive and confusing process. Some schools' applications are a lot more expensive than others...on the flip side, there are also schools that don’t require any fee at all.
The good news is, if your students qualify, they can get fee waivers, meaning they won’t have to pay to apply to some of the schools on their list, even if those schools do come with a fee!
The cost of applying
The national average application fee is $41. But every school’s fees are different. Schools like Stanford and Columbia tend to charge the most to apply, around $90. Your students will definitely want to research each school they're interested in individually, so that they aren't blindsided by a huge fee.
Another good reason for students to do their research is that they could be eligible for a fee waiver.
Three of the biggest suppliers of fee waivers are the College Board, NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counseling), and the Common Application. There are similar qualifications for fee waivers from each organization.
If your student has received an SAT fee waiver, they’ll also qualify for college application fee waivers. Students can also qualify if their family income falls within certain eligibility guidelines.
Because fee waivers are meant to be used for top-choice schools only, students can only receive around four waivers from each organization. But if they obtain waivers from many different places, they may be able to waive the fees for all of the schools on their lists.
Colleges with no application fees
In an effort to be more accessible, some schools don’t have any fees at all. Great colleges like Tulane and Oberlin fall into this category—remember that when it comes to college applications (and colleges!) expense does not necessarily equal quality!
Choosing a Major
Some colleges require students to declare a major when they apply. This can be daunting if they haven’t considered choosing a major up until this point.
Direct students to our "What Should I Major In" quiz to get them started, and share these brainstorming tips:
Consider what you love
People are predisposed to enjoy, and excel at, certain disciplines. Use this flowchart infographic to figure out what you should major in!
Some majors (like nursing or engineering) teach students how to perform a trade. They’ll prepare your students to begin a specific career once they graduate. Other majors (like international studies or English) often teach students more theoretical skills that can be applied in many ways after graduation. Students should consider which type of major they would prefer, and what type of career they might ultimately like to have.
Remember that you can change your mind
Most students change majors once or twice during college – and that’s completely okay!
But if your students aren’t sure at all what they might want to study, or they’re torn between many different fields, they should consider applying to liberal arts programs, or at least colleges where they don’t have to declare a major right out of the gate.
Other Options: Considering a Gap Year
Are your students having trouble choosing a major? Not sure where they should apply to college? Not even sure if they want to go to college? Maybe they should consider a gap year!
A gap year after high school allows students to figure things out on their own time – especially if they’re not sure that they really want to go to college after all, and don’t want to commit to all those years of school right away. Taking a gap year lets students gain some valuable experience while still giving them the space they need to consider (or reconsider) their academic and career goals. Many students choose to take a gap year before applying to colleges, or apply to colleges and defer for a year.
Taking a gap year between high school and college can also be a great chance to see different parts of the world, particularly for students who have never traveled abroad, or don’t plan to study abroad during college. Gap year programs (or self-directed travel time) can allow students to learn about other lifestyles, make new friends around the world, and come back with a renewed sense of their futures.
It's important to remember that a gap year will inevitably come with financial costs, especially if your students spend that time volunteering instead of working. Taking this kind of time off will also delay their academic careers by a year. If they plan on going to college, they’ll graduate a year later than they would without taking a gap year. In the grand scheme of things, taking one year off makes little difference, but it can impact one’s career in the early days.
It’s up to each individual student to assess the pros and cons of taking a gap year after college and see if it’s the right move. If your students are interested in finding out more about whether a gap year could be a good option for them, tell them to check out our “Should I Take a Gap Year” quiz!
A Final Word on College Applications
A lot goes into applying to college--not to mention the 12+ years it takes to make it all the way from preschool to high school graduation! Your students have worked hard to get where they are now, and their college applications should reflect that hard work.
So encourage them apply to that reach school! Or take that gap year! Or pursue whatever their post-graduation dreams are!
With your support, anything is possible.