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How to Tame the College Application Monster

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Stewart Black

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Applying to college is a grueling, intimidating process. Post-high school education is a step closer toward joining the real world as an adult. However, with the right approach, applying to college is a beast which can be tackled.
Thinking about college can start long before the physical process actually begins.
“I started thinking about it the beginning of my junior year,” senior Alex Chung said, “and started the process during the early summer.”
Beginning early can be a student’s best friend to make sure that he or she has enough time to truly take the application process seriously. This can include doing research on schools, attending college fairs, and visiting colleges.
“I tried to get things done as soon as possible,” Chung said, “getting my transcript and test scores in. Then, I really just talked with my parents about what schools I want to apply to. I visited the colleges, had interviews, and talked with the admissions officers.”
High school counselors start to become more involved a few months into junior year. They hold meetings with students and parents reinforcing the importance of thinking about college and educating families about what it means for students to be on the right track to college.
“In December, we meet with our juniors, and then in January, we have our junior parent night,” high school counselor Margaret Veenstra said. “At that time, we’re sort of laying the foundation for getting them to think about college, what colleges’ expectations are, encouraging them to start visiting colleges, and encouraging them to start taking SAT tests in the spring.”

In addition to these workshops and presentations, which occur more frequently and in more detail as application deadlines approach, counselors are a very helpful and available resource for students. They deal with official documents and recommendations, and though applying to college is a student-driven process, they offer a significant support role.

“I think I’m here as part of a team to help a student get to college,” Veenstra said. “I believe that it’s such a big process that it’s helpful to have somebody with experience to guide and to educate. I believe that a big piece of my role is education, and also I think another big piece of my role is submitting the official school documents to the colleges, including a letter of recommendation or a secondary school report that helps the college to make a sound decision about whether or not to accept a student. Hopefully, it’s to accept a student.”
Besides any standardized tests or transcript forms, the first official step for many students is the college application form itself. Some colleges have individual applications, but the Common Application is a single online application accepted by nearly 700 schools. It involves filling in personal information, providing a resume, writing Common App essays, and submitting college-specific writing supplements.

“I worked a lot with my parents on the Common Application,” Chung said. “For the essays, I tried to start early and really plan it out, took my time on it, and was patient.”

The Common App also requires teacher recommendations, but this is not a facet of college application that is exclusive to the Common App. Most colleges require some form of teacher recommendation.

Pre-calculus and calculus teacher Susan Kim is one teacher that frequently receives requests for recommendations.

“[Teacher recommendations] give [students] just another way to show who they are, what kind of things they do, and their integrity, perseverance,” Kim said. “I think they’re very important.”

Like other aspects of college applications, starting earlier is better.

“The end of their junior year, they can start asking me,” Kim said. “I also accept it in the fall of senior year, but I request that I have at least two weeks before the deadline. Definitely a couple weeks just because I want to write a good recommendation.”

The manner of approaching teachers is important, not only because it reflects the character of the student, but it is courteous to teachers.

“First of all, just contact me personally,” Kim said. “So they could either come to me face-to-face or through email, and then ask me, not just say ‘do this’ because teachers actually are really busy.”

Besides a request for recommendation, teachers may need additional materials.

“For me, as I mentioned, write out a student resume,” Kim said, “and let me know about that. Then give me all pertinent information. So, if it’s say, Common App, they need to send me the link, and if it’s something that needs to be sent out, that they should have a stamped envelope.”

Once the college applications are submitted, transcripts are in, and recommendations have been successfully requested, families may decide to seek financial aid through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Students may also seek out scholarship opportunities for themselves as early as spring of their junior year.

“Scholarships are definitely personal research,” Veenstra said, “but of course Mrs. Edwards has a whole database in Family Connection for scholarships that are Fairfax County vetted scholarships. It’s helpful to go through the vetted process because then we know that it’s not a ‘for a profit’ type scholarship, that there’s genuine interest in helping students to become involved.”

From there, it’s a click of the computer mouse or a trip to the post office, and the hardest part is over. The best thing to do is relax and celebrate the hard work that’s been put into the process. However, it doesn’t end there. Be sure to let the people who have helped along the way know how much they are appreciated.

“It’s actually really nice after they get accepted that they would come and actually say to me ‘Oh I got accepted to this college,’” Kim said. “Teachers actually take time out of their busy schedule to be able to write a recommendation. Maybe you could even write a nice thank you note? Maybe you could give them a nice little gift card? The last part’s just a joke, but let them know you appreciate what they have done.”

That’s it. Of course applying to college is a scary, daunting thing, but it certainly is a mountain that can be scaled, an animal that can be wrangled, especially with the proper knowledge and supportive mentors and peers.

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