Introducing The Next Generation Of Leaders And Thinkers

Essentials Every Student Needs To Know Before Starting Their College Search

senior graduation
Graduation Caps.

Class of 2020, it’s finally our time. Senior year is a great opportunity to spend time with friends, enjoy senior perks, have fun, and give everything one last shot before you’re out of there for good! It’ll be so easy. Or at least, that’s what everyone else seems to think.

In reality, not only are you going to balance likely the most intense course load of your high school career, more leadership responsibilities, having fun, and of course, the dreaded college application process. Essays, transcripts, majors, acceptance rates, and so much more are in store to inevitably bring about a mental breakdown in all of us. That seems to be the stigma around the college process, but it doesn’t have to be. College is only daunting if you let it be, and starting your research early helps bring the behemoth that college seems to be down to the size of an ant. So, here are some tips on beginning the college admissions process strong!

Essential Terms

When looking at any statistics, college forums, or articles online during your research, you’re going to encounter a lot of terms that are key to understanding the information within those texts. These are the ones I see most frequently that need explanation.

further describes differences
Public vs. Private Pros and Cons.

Private Institution: Colleges that are privately funded, usually high tuition, and have smaller class sizes and enrollment. Elite universities like Harvard, Yale, and Stanford are all private universities. They don’t have a preference if you live in their state or not. 

Public Institution: Colleges that are funded by state governments, have lower tuition, and larger class sizes and enrollment. Universities such as the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) are both public universities. Most of these schools have certain quotas or a number of spots they have to fill, for having a majority of accepted students being those that live in the state of the university. They also provide “in-state tuition“, which is the cost of tuition lowered for in-state residents.

Tuition vs. Room and Board: Tuition is the cost of taking classes in college, while room and board is the cost of living in a dormitory.

Semester vs. Quarter System: The semester system requires students to attend class for two periods of time, usually a fall and spring semester. Most high schools use this system, so you are most likely familiar with it. One college that uses the semester system is the University of California at Berkeley. The quarter system requires students to attend class for four periods of time, known as quarters, which usually last about 10-11 weeks each. Some universities that use this system include Dartmouth University and Northwestern University.

Class Size: The number of students within each grade level.

acceptance rate trends
College Acceptance Rate Trends.

Selectivity: A general term to describe the prestige and level of selection that a college has. A college with high selectivity is seen as elite, because they are selective when they choose their admitted students.

Acceptance Rate: A calculation used to quantify a college’s selectivity. Calculated by dividing the number of applicants accepted to a university by the number of total applicants. Sometimes, this term is very helpful, such as for DePaul University, where there is not a set number of spots to be filled for the entering freshman class. They accept however many students they feel need to be accepted, and so the calculated acceptance rate is an accurate reflection of the university’s selectivity. However, for other colleges, such as Harvard University, there is a set number of spots to be filled, meaning that they will always accept the same number of people. As more people apply, however, the acceptance rate tends to go down, even though the class size is always the same, making the university seem more selective than it is. Try to look more into their admissions standards in terms of class size before using the acceptance rate as a do or die for each college you look at.

Graduation Rate: The number of students in a university that complete their specified degree program (usually within 4 – 6 years). A university with a high graduation rate is positive as it means that most of the students that enter the college leave with a degree. For example, Amherst University has a graduation rate of 90%, which is excellent.

Retention Rate: The number of students in a university that continue at the school the next year. A university with a low retention rate is negative as it means that either due to educational quality, mental health, finances, or overall quality of the college is driving students away from spending another year there. *Important: These are just general reasons that encompass many who leave their college. Everybody is different, and how they ended their academic career at their university is unique to them. But a general trend resulting in a university’s lowering retention rate is telltale signs of these generic factors. For example, Park University has a retention rate of 59%, meaning 59% of the freshman that enter will continue on to their sophomore year after one year of attendance.

most popular college majors
Top Majors in the U.S.

Major: The area that you will specialize in during your studies. Usually, your major will determine what path you go on to get certain degrees. Some colleges require you to “declare” your major, or tell them what you want to major in when you apply (Northwestern University does this). However, most universities will require you to declare your major once you reach your sophomore year there. More on applying for majors later.

Associate’s Degree: A two-year degree that is usually obtained from attending a junior college (a 2-year college) or a community college. These degrees have become popular because a good amount of jobs require “some college work”, meaning a four-year degree isn’t necessary to get into the workforce.

Bachelor’s Degree: A four-year degree that is usually obtained from attending a 4-year university.

Types of Admission Processes.

Early Action (EA): A method of applying to a college in which you submit your application “early” (about November or early December) and receive a decision “early” (about late December or January). Early action is very important as it helps colleges see that you have already done your research, are ahead of the game, and have demonstrated interest by applying early. Colleges that offer early action include Yale University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-Chapel Hill). You can apply to as many colleges as you want early action, but make sure none of those are Restrictive Early Action (or REA). REA only allows for you to apply for that specific college early, meaning you cannot apply EA or ED (Early Decision) to any other college. Colleges that use REA include Harvard University and Stanford University, to which both of them describe that it shows students, “are confident that Stanford/Harvard is their first choice.”

Early Decision (ED): A method of applying to college early, except that if you receive an offer of admission, you have to attend that school. You are required to withdraw all other applications and commit. The round of admissions for ED applicants tends to have a higher acceptance rate than RD (Regular Decision) or EA if offered. This is because universities see that if you apply ED, you are willing to fully commit to the school, no questions asked. You may apply EA to any other school if you ED to a school, but it’s not cautioned if you have a good chance of getting into the school you applied to ED because you wasted your time filling out applications for other schools. Universities that offer ED include Syracuse University. Syracuse offers a rarer application, called ED II, which is essentially for those who may have been rejected ED from another school who wish to apply to another under ED II, or for those who may have missed the first ED deadline.

Note: If the financial aid given by an ED school you have been accepted to is simply not enough to lessen your financial burden, you can legally back out of your ED agreement.

Regular Decision (RD): The regular admissions process that most applicants apply under. Application due dates are usually in January, and you will receive a decision by late March. This process is non-binding. Consider which colleges you apply to RD, especially if they have ED or EA because competition among applicants is much tougher in the RD round. For some universities, such as Barnard College, 49% of the class is filled with accepted ED applicants.

Admission Decision: The end decision of your admissions process. If you are accepted, great! Consider going to that college, unless you applied to ED, in which you are required to go. If you are denied, that decision is final. If you are denied ED or EA from a university, you may not apply again that year under RD. If you apply early to school, you may not be rejected or accepted, and receive what is called a deferral. A deferral is used for when the admissions committee could not make a final decision on the status of an applicant, and so they have decided to consider the application again in the RD pool of applicants. If you apply at the regular time to a school, you might receive an offer to have a spot on the school’s waiting list. The waiting list is a group of people (that are generally unranked, in that there is no #1 person. Everyone on the list is equal.) that the school would consider accepting if not enough of their accepted students decided to attend. Some schools, like Macalester College in Minnesota, have a high waiting list acceptance rate (44% for 2016), while others, such as the University of Chicago, have an extremely low waiting list acceptance rate (0.5%). Some colleges don’t accept any off of the waitlist, like Harvard did for the Class of 2021.

Some schools won’t make an offer of automatic acceptance, waiting list, or rejection. They might offer you guaranteed enrollment in a later semester, automatic acceptance if you attend a local community college or another offer. Every college is different.

Matriculation: A fancy word for saying that a student has committed to a school and plans to attend.

Types of Applications.

The Common Application: An application used to apply to most private schools and some public schools throughout the US. Most of the colleges you apply to will be on this application.

Coalition Application: Another, less commonly known, application that can be used to apply to about 130 colleges in the US. Most colleges that accept the Coalition Application also accept the Common Application.

FAFSA: Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Every college requires you to send this document by certain dates. It will calculate your EFC, or your expected family cost, which is a general estimate of how much they expect you to pay for college. This document is necessary if you need financial aid and/or scholarships from colleges you apply to.

Application Fee: Whenever you submit an application to a college, they sometimes require a fee for sending the application. Some colleges, such as Carleton College, don’t have an application fee, while colleges such as Stanford University go as high as $90. Sometimes, if you prove the application fee would be a financial burden on you or your family, you might be offered a fee waiver, which makes your application free.

For-profit vs. Nonprofit.

Non-Profit: A school that is run for the purpose of educating students, not making money. They tend to cost less money than for-profit institutions and are more generous with scholarships and financial aid.

For-Profit: A school that is run like a business and has one purpose: making money. These schools tend to be involved in many scams and scandals, and generally don’t have a good reputation. However, not all of these colleges are bad, you just have to do your research to find the right one.

College admissions is a big, confusing monster, but now that you know many terms that are imperative to your success in the college admissions process, you are that much closer to conquering that monster. Now that you know and understand these terms, your next goal is to create a college list or a list of colleges that you are considering applying to. You should include requirements for GPA, standardized test scores, and the reason why it interested you. Here is an example of one of the colleges on my list:

Pace University: BA Directing

  • Portfolio and Interview submission
  • Possibility for a second major in Journalism
  • 3.2 UW GPA
  • 1070 to 1240 SAT (Writing Optional)
  • No SAT Subject Tests
  • Common Application, EA and RD offered
  • Only official BA in Directing

College research can be overwhelming, which is why we need to continue to use the resources available. And remember, when you start to feel overwhelmed, take a step back and a deep breath. The next chapter of your life is starting — be excited!


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