52 Weeks to College: Week 2 — Make Your Decisions about Where You Are Applying

Applying to college requires you to make some big decisions. This week you need to make some of the biggest of the big decisions. You need to decide where you are applying to college, and where, if anywhere, you are going to apply early. Read on for your full list of to-dos for the week, along with tips and tricks for getting it all done.

Week 2 To-Dos 

This Week and Every Week

  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.

  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year. 

This Week

  • Finalize your college list and adjust your Master Plan to reflect the number of colleges you are applying to (the 52 Weeks Series and the Master Plan assume 10).
  • Decide where, if anywhere, to apply early.
  • Decide the order in which you are going to complete your applications and put that into your Master Plan.
  • Research the financial aid available at each college on your list. Add the financial aid applications and deadlines to the Master Plan. (The 52 Weeks series assumes that you will complete the CSS/PROFILE and FAFSA forms as well as complete 5 scholarship applications.)

Tips and Tricks

Choose 8-15 colleges based on fit, selectivity, and affordability.

All of the colleges on your list should be "good fits," meaning that they offer what you want from a college educationally and otherwise. The colleges should have a range in terms of selectivity. We suggest you balance your list in this way: 2-3 should be colleges where you have a high likelihood of admission (safeties), 4-8 should be colleges where you have a good likelihood of admission (targets or matches), and 2-4 should be colleges where you have a low likelihood of admission (reaches).  Finally, all of the colleges on your list should be affordable for you, meaning that between your family resources and the financial aid you are likely to get from the college, you can pay for it.

Don't ask "why apply early," ask "why not apply early."

There are significant benefits to applying early.

First, applying early can increase your odds for admission. How much it increases your odds depends on the college and the early options available. To get a sense of how much it might help you, research the statistics for early admission at the colleges on your list. (Here are 2013 early admission statistics for quite a few colleges.)

Second, applying early often shortens the waiting time between application and decision.

Third, even if you don't get admitted in the early round, applying early still benefits you. If you get denied, then you can move on to focusing on other colleges on your list. If you get deferred, then you get a second chance at admission and you can keep adding to your application. 

With all these benefits, you can understand why we suggest you focus less on the "why" and more on the "why not" when making your decision about where, if anywhere, to apply early. The "why nots" are about the restrictions that applying early will impose on you. The restrictions concern when you must apply, how many colleges you may apply to early, whether you must commit to attending the college if accepted, and what information you will have about financial aid at the time you must make your commitment. Research the restrictions imposed by the colleges on your list. If you can live with them, then by all means apply early! 

Take time to educate yourself about financial aid.

Financial aid is a complicated business and requires you to expend some time if you are really going to understand what options are available to you. At a minimum, you need to know:

  • your eligibility for financial aid (international students should pay close attention, because much of the financial aid available is restricted to U.S. citizens);
  • the "net price" of the colleges on your list (the net price is the cost of attendance minus the need-based financial aid you would be likely to receive; click here to download a list of the websites of individual colleges' net price calculators;
  • what merit-based financial aid might be available to you at the colleges on your list, and;
  • what the financial aid applications and deadlines are for each college.

You also need to know whether the ability to pay is a factor in admissions, although figuring this out is a bit tricky because you have to be conversant in "admissions speak" to decode the information that colleges give you. In admissions speak, colleges that consider your ability to pay as a factor in admissions will describe themselves as having "need aware" or "need sensitive" admissions policies, while colleges that do not consider your ability to pay as a factor in admissions will describe themselves as having "need blind" admissions policies. If a college does not explicitly state that it is need blind, assume that your ability to pay will be a factor in admissions.

Don't procrastinate when it comes to making your big decisions.

In our experience, lots of applicants hem and haw when it comes to making these big decisions, and that's a big mistake. Procrastinators lose out in multiple ways.

First, they lose out because rushed decision making is never good decision making.

Second, they lose out because they can't take advantage of the opportunities that arise only after the decision is made. You can't apply early to your top choice college if you don't decide it is your top choice college until after the deadline has passed.

Third, delaying your big decisions deprives you of valuable time you could be spending preparing your standout applications, either because you dither the summer away reflecting on your big decisions or because you spend time working on applications to colleges that don't end up on your final list.  

Bottom line: this week is your chance to concentrate on the big decisions related to your college list. Dig in and get your decisions made so you can "work smarter, not harder!" (One of the 7 Ivey Strategies that you'll become intimately familiar with over the course of the next year!)


About the Authors:

Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey College Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (Southern Methodist University, University of Chicago, and Dartmouth College).

Anna Ivey is the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process and make smart choices about higher education.

You can read more college admissions tips in their book How to Prepare a Standout College Application (Wiley, August 2013), and follow them on Twitter @IveyCollege.

About the 52 Weeks to College Series:

52 Weeks to College is a week-by-week plan for applying to college. It breaks this complex and difficult project down into weekly to-do lists with supporting tips and tricks for getting it all done. Based on the Master Plan for applying to college found in our forthcoming book, How to Prepare a Standout College Application, 52 Weeks to College is designed for any applicant who intends to apply to top U.S. colleges. For those of you who are just discovering the 52 Weeks series and want to catch up, click here.