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Applying for college is a crucial step in a person’s personal and professional developments. As an applicant, what do you hope to get out of your college years and what expectations do you want to send along with your applications? Be sure to think seriously about the environment that will be most likely to bring the best out of you:

  • Know Yourself and Set Your Goals Clearly

If you haven’t decided on a college major, start taking inventory of your academic successes and interests – which were your best classes?  Favorite classes?  Also think about your favorite extra-curricular activities, sports, music, and even your favorite weather.

  • Student Body Characteristics

Do you want to be surrounded with type-A go-getters, or coffee-shop philosophers?  A highly competitive student body isn’t to everyone’s taste, and neither is a laid-back one.

  • Class Size and Dynamics

What type of relationship do professors and students have with one another at your favorite schools?  Large classes may mean little contact with your professors, which can be unappealing for students who want a personal relationship with their favorite academics.  However, just because your favorite school is a large one, that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to slip through anonymously! 

  • Advisory System

Will you have an advisor at your favorite school?  How much do advisors guide the students’ choice of classes?  Think about how much help you’ll really need – or want!

  • Social Groups

How are social groups organized at your favorite school?  Does Greek life dominate, or do athletics, clubs, classes, dorms, or local hangouts determine who your best college friends will be?  If the social structure is different from your high school, do you think you’ll easily adjust?

  • Feedback from Current Students.

What do current students really appreciate about this school?  What is their biggest complaint?  Are these issues you can handle?

The best way to answer all of these questions is to visit your favorite schools in advance, and keep a checklist of the most important issues for your education.  If you can’t afford to visit, or the school is too far away, try to speak with as many people as you can by phone or email about the school.

A quick way of learning about university statistics is by checking out ranking websites, such as the National Association of College Admissions Counseling (www.nacacnet.org) or College Navigator (http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/).  These sites can help you sort schools by tuition, scholarship/financial aid opportunities, available majors, student body demographics, sports, even the quality of campus security.  Also check out books like the Fiske Guide to Colleges, which have even more information about schools, quizzes, and student testimonials.

With the high price of college tuition in today’s uncertain economic climate, most students who apply for university admission will attempt to secure some financial aid.  The most common form of financial aid is based on need, and is determined by the FAFSA form submitted by the student along with his or her application.

FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) determines a student’s eligibility for federal loans and other aid packages; much like submitting the application itself, sending in your FAFSA early increases your chances of receiving aid from this limited amount of funding.  If you are applying for college entry shortly after high school graduation, your parents’ finances will be examined in addition to your own.

Many colleges and universities offer Merit-Based Scholarships.  These are sometimes offered to students on the basis of their academic achievement in high school, or for exceptional SAT scores.  Frequently, lower-ranked colleges will offer merit-based scholarships to encourage good students to attend, which improves the quality of the student body, and often makes college affordable for good students with less money.  Do inquire about school-specific scholarships through your guidance counselor at school, or through the university’s financial aid office – you may need to do more than just keep earning good grades!

This brings us to Non-Institution-Based Scholarships and Grants – the least-understood source of funding for college applicants.  These scholarships and grants vary widely and can be researched in many different ways.  Did you know that you might qualify for a scholarship because…

  • You plan to pursue a specific major?
  • You belong to a specific ethnic or religious group?
  • You have a specific career goal?
  • You or your family has worked at a specific company?
  • You have participated in specific volunteer work?
  • You have a disability?
  • You can speak a particular foreign language?
  • You are an athlete?
  • You or a family member is a veteran?
  • You and/or your family have experienced a particular hardship (Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, etc.)?

You, as an individual, may qualify for many different scholarships, many with quickly approaching deadlines, so it is important to stay on top of things.  Check out some scholarship books, like the College Board’s Scholarship Handbook, or Peterson’s Scholarships, Grants and Prizes.  Register yourself on scholarships.com, fastweb.com, finaid.com, or any of the many scholarship websites right away; they may notify you when a new scholarship that fits your profile appears, so don’t forget to keep your profile up-to-date with all of your latest successes!  Scholarships listed on these websites are frequently nationwide or international, and receive many applications, so don’t forget to research Local Scholarships as well, such as grants from:

  • Alumni of your high school
  • Local businesses and corporations
  • Community groups, like the Elks, the Rotary Club, the Lions Club, or Masons
  • Your local Department of Education

The best way to learn about Local Scholarships to ask your school or the organizations directly in a respectful and mature way – don’t have a parent write or telephone on your behalf!