applying to college

college application tips; college decision tips

Y'all. It is almost August. This time last year, I was creating a list of all the colleges I was planning on applying to and frantically creating a color coded schedule with all the application dates, decision notifications, and more. I recommend you do the same because, let's face it, college applications are long and stressful and I want to help you all get a head start. So, let's navigate this together. I feel like I am a pro at college apps at this point because I spent about 6 months of senior year filling out just about everything I could. So, with that, let's get started on this hopefully not as stressful journey.

// choosing where to apply //

When determining where you want to apply to college, your choices need to be most influenced by yourself. At this point, hopefully you have toured everywhere you are planning on attending. If not that's ok, but do make time to tour the colleges left on your list that you haven't attended just so you can narrow down the options as applying to college can get expensive. Think about what made you like each college. Did they have your intended major? What is the academic rigor? Could I see myself attending here? What were the political and religious preferences of the college? How diverse was the college? What was Greek life like? How much money would you receive from the college? Was the college in a good location for you? Are you ok with living on campus all four years or do you want to live in an apartment sophomore year? These are all questions that need to be on the back of your mind. When I was determining where I wanted to apply, those questions came to be the most important. Make a list of the most important questions and attributes about a college, and make a list of what each college has. If a college has none of the factors you want in it, then there is no need to apply. 

For athletes: if you want to pursue your sport in college, be sure that the college has both your intended major and your sport. That seems self-explanatory, but don't sacrifice one for the other. You need to find both. If that means going to a D-3 school rather than a D-1 that didn't have your major, you have to consider what is more important in the long run- your education. And while choosing colleges as an athlete, consider questions like I stated in the previous section, but also questions such as"do I like the coach? do I fit in with the team? will the training programs better me? is there a good health/nutrition/care program here in case I am injured? will the sport take over my academics or vice-versa?" Also take multiple trips to a college to be sure you like the team, coach, and environment of the athletic department (and also to make sure you like a college). Don't just go somewhere because you can play that sport or get offered full tuition. Go somewhere because you like it and it fits your criteria. This is so important. (this info was inspired by my brother who will be running track)

Another thing I want to note: don't let your parents choose the college for you. While it is important for them to have an influence on where you go, this is ultimately your decision. My parents suggested certain schools for me, but they ultimately let me decide where I wanted to go (albeit it had to be in their price range). So, talk to your parents before you start the application process. Hopefully you have already had a conversation with them about places you are interested in and the price range they are willing to pay (or you are willing to pay). If your parent is dead-set on you attending their alma-mater and you don't want to attend it, let them know. College is an important step in your independence, so it should be a college you want to attend. (quick note- always be considerate of your parent's budget if they are paying for your college. You might want to go to Harvard, but they might only have the budget for an in-state school. Be mindful of this)

// having a backup //

While I hate to be the bearer of bad news, many students won't get into their first-choice or even second-choice school. So, while applying to college, keep an open mind. Don't completely disregard a college because its acceptance rate is super high or it isn't as impressive as another school. I had a backup state school just in case financial aid didn't work out for me at my dream school. And also- my dream school didn't have the most selective acceptance rate. I originally wanted a super selective private school, but the school I am attending has just the same bells and whistles as those super selective schools, even though it has a higher acceptance rate. Don't pay attention to acceptance rates. A good rule of thumb is to have several colleges with pretty open acceptance rates if you are applying to several colleges with really selective admissions. This is what I mean by a backup- somewhere you are guaranteed to get in with your qualifications if something doesn't work out. Even if you are super qualified and look like the best student on paper, some colleges still won't accept you. It's heartbreaking and I hate that the process works that way, but it's just the way it is. So, find a backup school you like and can see yourself attending if worst comes to worst. 

// planning process //

Start making your definite list of colleges now and then make a calendar of all the deadlines. Pay attention to EVERY deadline. Not just the application deadline. Make note of scholarship deadlines, notification dates, financial aid info, and more. Even if you are applying to a back-up school, you need to know these things. If you are like me, color-code for each school. Also, don't neglect the deadlines that your high school has. Pay attention to when you need to take your last ACT or SAT.

// marketing yourself to colleges //

Now let's start getting into the actual application process. Start doing this now rather than later as you have a long road ahead of you that won't end overnight. Waiting until the last minute to apply for college is the worst thing you can do for your applications. You want your app to be robust, error-free, and unique. It's your way of letting a college know why you should be at that college and why they should pick you. Your application is a marketing tool all about you. So brag a bit. This is not the time to be humble. There are multiple different facets of the application, so I'll break them down.

// your resume //

By this time in your life, you need to start having a resume that you can show colleges and employers. Make a detailed list of every activity, award, and job you have had since your freshman year. Colleges look at depth in activities, so even if you only have two or three activities but you are super involved in them and have been participating in them for a while, that's better than sporadically joining clubs for a couple months and half-heartedly being involved. Colleges also look for leadership. Have you made yourself a leader in your school, a club, or your sport? Even if you don't have an official leadership role somewhere, maybe you are a leader in the classroom. Have that teacher write a rec letter for you specifically talking about your leadership. Do you have a blog? That is something to include. It's not necessarily a leadership role, but it is something that stands out to colleges and shows your initiative and courage. Also, don't do something just to put it on your resume. Do something because you are passionate about it. I volunteered at my local animal shelter because I love cats. It's probably not as impressive as volunteering at a children's hospital or homeless shelter, but it is a passion of mine and I let the colleges I applied to know that. They like to see passion, depth, and leadership. (another quick note- your resume is also your college app. Some colleges ask for a resume, but others will have questions for you to fill out. Having a resume ready can help you to fill out the application even quicker)

// recommendation letters //

Rec letters are extremely important for many colleges. They give you credibility because other people are writing about your attributes and character. In order to have a standout (or standout) rec letters, pick individuals who have influenced your life and school career in a positive and important way. Have variety to your rec letters. Find a teacher or two that know you very well and you know would write positively about you. Make sure those teachers have helped you become the student you are. Also consider having a counselor write a rec letter for you, as long as they know you well. A lot of the time schools require a counselor to write you a rec letter, so familiarize yourself with your counselor and make sure they know you well enough to write one. Also consider individuals such as church leaders, volunteer coordinators, coaches, employers, etc. who have seen your work ethic or character in action. They can write letters about a different aspect of your life than what a teacher or counselor can. Have variety in your letters and pick individuals who genuinely know you

// essays //

Ugh. essays. So many to write, so little time. That's why you need to start your applications early. The common app has already released essay topics, so take a peak at those and start drafting some ideas. And more than likely, your first essay will not be the essay you send to colleges. It took me about 10 tries to get it down to my final essay. Here are my tips for essays:

1) be creative- this is one of the best ways to let a college see who you are. This is your voice, not just a list of your activities and honors. When writing your essay, ask yourself "would I want to know this student in real-life? Are they humorous, intelligent, intuitive, or super passionate?" 

2) let your personality shine- tell a story, your thoughts, or something else entirely. The admissions board needs to be able to see what type of person you are based on this. I wrote about my love for psychological thriller movies because they helped turn a hobby into my passion. So, admissions could see I was passionate about psychology. They knew based on a couple hundred words that I was a passionate student. What do you want to sell yourself as in your essay? Think about that one (or two) traits and make that shine in your essay)

3) go against the norm- be different in your essay! Don't write like you would in English class. Try to make use of colloquial language, colorful diction, and expressions that make your voice standout. Obviously be mindful of errors, but be creative with your punctuation. You are telling a story here- make it a fun one to read. Also don't write about what everyone else is- don't talk about your life-changing mission trip, role models, sports stories, or competitions or awards you have won. Make sure your paper is about you (not a family member or friend) and make sure it lets you be vulnerable

4) show your essay to lots of people- don't be nervous about letting people read your essay. give it to multiple people (including teachers, parents, friends, and counselors) so they can edit your paper and make sure your voice is present. Also read more tips online. It never hurts to read a couple essays before starting your own. Never copy them though. Your essay needs to originate from you

// writing essay telling a college why you want to be there (or personal statements) //

Some colleges request you write a personal statement or essay telling the college why you want to go there. Find something special that made you want to go to that college, not just because they have your major or have a high rigor. For me, I talked about how effortless the decision was to attend my college. The decision came naturally to me- everyone at the college seemed like they wanted me to be there and that really fueled my desire to go there. I talked about the genuinity (is that a word?) and passion of the students there, something that can sometimes be hard to find at a college. Find that one thing that stands out at your college to you (such as the people there, a super specific program, etc.) and let that be your main point. Once again, make this about you. Don't say you want to go there because your mom and dad went there. Turn that situation into why you want to continue the family tradition of attending there. 

// the common app //

So considering many of you will probably know the Common App like the back of your hand by the end of the semester, I thought I would give you a couple of tips for the program. If you don't know the Common App, I'll give you a basic explanation. It's a standard college application that many colleges use for applications. And it's amazing. The fact that this even exists blows my mind because if not for the common app, applications would be so much worse. This makes things so much more streamlined as it allows your essays, resume, and rec letters to be put all in one place for (hopefully) multiple colleges you apply to. Check and see if your colleges use the common app. Many colleges prefer just the common app or their standard application, but other colleges let you choose. If you get the choice, go ahead and choose the Common App. If the Common App hasn't opened yet, it should early August. Go ahead and start to fill out the info in the Common App and familiarize yourself with the layout. The App also lists your deadlines for dates so it is great to have all of your info digitalized into one space (but still write your own deadlines down too!) So even if you don't know exactly where you are applying, simply fill out the basic parts of the app now so that you have less to do when you start choosing where to apply. 

// your guidance counselor is your bff //

A quick note on guidance counselors- they should be your best friend. I went to the guidance office all the time junior and senior year asking about college rep visits, opportunities, and scholarships. Like I said about rec letters, you want your counselor to know you well enough to write a solid rec letter. Ask your counselor tons of questions, don't be shy to shoot them an email, and please thank them when you have finished the application process. They do so much for your applications and are really pivotal in the decision process since they are the ones sending your transcripts, test scores, and rec letters. Become "friends" with them and let them know who you are and why you deserve to go to a specific school. 

// scholarships //

Start browsing for scholarships early. I continually beat myself up for not applying for all the mini $500 or $1000. There are tons of books like this one from Amazon that have the most random scholarships. Also look on websites like Fastweb and Chegg- they have weekly scholarships that you can apply for. And hey-even if you don't get them, at least you tried. Chances are the more you apply for, the more likely you will receive one. Also be best friends with your guidance counselor. They can help you tremendously with scholarships. My high school had a database of local scholarships, so be sure to ask your guidance counselor or college coach for local scholarships you can apply for. And last but not least for scholarships, apply for all scholarships that you qualify for at the colleges you are applying to. Yes that means tons of essays and work, but it also could be the deciding factor of where you go. Scholarships are meant to select hardworking students, so put in the work now so that you don't have to pay off a ton of student loans later. And some colleges automatically give you scholarships so that's always a plus too.

// money //

So continuing about scholarships, I think it's important to talk about money. Always consider you and your parents' budget while applying to college. While I don't want you to sacrifice your dream school, sometimes money doesn't work out and it is important to be open to other options. So, with that being said, be sure to apply for FAFSA . Deadlines vary from state to state, so check out the link I provided to find your state's deadline. Also consider state sponsored scholarships. In Tennessee, we have the Tennessee Promise and Hope scholarships which are offered to students attending community college and in-state "state" schools. Community college is free in TN, and the TN scholarships have helped many fellow students of mine receive almost full-tuition at state schools. Research the options in your area in order to get the most out of your money. And another thing to consider- apply for financial aid at the colleges you are applying to. The FAFSA usually works for financial aid at a given college, but double check just in case. Sometimes colleges have other applications to fill out. And one last thing- talk over money options with your parents. Look at the net price calculators that many colleges offer. The majority of the time college decisions come down to money- and there is no shame in that. College is uber expensive in the USA. Be optimistic when it comes to aid and scholarships, but be ready to accept disappointment if things don't work out financially for a specific college.

// quick questions //

should i apply early action, early decision, or regular? 
So let me break this down. For most colleges, this is what each means
Early Decision: binding (meaning you have to attend the college if you are accepted); usually has the highest acceptance rate
Early Action: non-binding (meaning if you are accepted you have the choice to decline); usually a higher acceptance rate than regular decision
Regular Decision: non-binding; usually has the lowest acceptance rate

disclaimer: you need to check out what each of these means financially and time-wise for each college as these definitions can vary

how early should i apply?
As early as you can! This is especially important if you are applying to a college with rolling admissions, meaning that scholarship money and housing is given out as is and so is admission (once again that varies from college to college but it is something you need to research) Try to give yourself a two-week grace period between submitting your application and the due date just in case something goes wrong

how should i prepare for interviews?
Some colleges prefer interviews for parts of the application, and many colleges require interviews for scholarships. I didn't have to do an interview during my college application process, but I still practiced interviews in a college app class I took during junior year. My biggest piece of advice to you is to be genuine. Don't memorize a bunch of stuff and fill up your speech with impressive words. Be accurate to you- in a professional setting. Practice interviews by having a family member or friend ask you common interview questions (which are easy to find on the internet). Begin to have ideas in your mind for what you are planning on saying for particular questions. Practice being articulate, concise, and clear in your speech. Don't try to impress the interviewer by rattling off your accomplishments- they already know that based on your application. Tell the truth and be you.

// choosing your college //

I want to close this post with one final thing. Deciding where to go to college is stressful and a difficult journey. Some journeys are easier than others, but others are so distressful that you end up feeling distraught. The entire time I applied to college and waited for decision notifications, my mom reminded me that everything works out in the end. Even if you don't get your first choice, there might be a reason. Your life is going in the direction it needs to go. If something goes wrong, and you don't like where you end up, then you can always transfer. There is absolutely nothing wrong with transferring colleges or choosing a different path entirely. Everything will work out in the end, even if it doesn't work out immediately or until the end of your first year. I try not to be religious on here, but I think that this verse is so important in the college process.

While questioning the future, consider this

"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future" -Jeremiah 29:11

If you pray, be sure to pray for your college decision and during the process. It is not greedy or selfish to pray to God for help and guidance along the way. He can help ease your worries and lead His hand in the process. Trust in Him. He knows your pathway.

I hope you all found this post super helpful. If you have any more questions, please leave a comment below or email me. I would be happy to help you on your college admissions journey. And if you have any questions about applying to Furman University (the college I will be attending) specifically, I would love to answer those as well! Thank you for reading!

As always,


  1. Thanks for making this so in-depth Madison! I especially like the idea of color coding the deadlines for each option!
    xx Jocelyn //

  2. Thanks for this helpful post. You discuss about applying to college. You also give best tips about this. I am waiting for your next post about purdue university admissions here.