5 Ways to Optimize Your College Process

By Alyse Levine, Founder & CEO of Premium Prep College Counseling

Throughout my career, I have been a big proponent of “the match.” There is a school out there for everyone, and finding that school is much more a matter of knowing yourself and learning your options than following over-hyped rankings, supposed prestige, or what others in your community are saying. To abide by that philosophy means having to search and discover according to your criteria. This requires first identifying those criteria and then setting your own course through the college admissions process. Translation: you need to do a lot of homework, and there are no shortcuts. Developing a list of schools can be a daunting task, as the variety of colleges and programs can seem endless. Narrowing down is the key, but being open-minded, exposing yourself to different types of schools, and understanding your specific wants and needs are the crucial first steps. Look inward before searching outward. For this blog post, I’ve compiled five ways to optimize your college process.

1. Rank your priorities

The first step is to educate yourself and think long and hard about your options. Urban, suburban, or rural? Small liberal arts college, midsize university, or large research institution? Public or private? North, south, east, west, or maybe even somewhere abroad? Might you want to pursue a specialized field of study? Is working alongside major researchers important to you? Do you thrive in small classes with teachers who can give you extra attention? What kind of social life do you envision? Do you love college sports? Is climate a factor? Before identifying specific schools to apply to, you need to ask yourself: What do you want out of college? It’s a good idea to write things down. Make a list to organize your thoughts. Try to block out the chatter around you and think about what makes you excited, what things might you want to pursue, what are your goals? Write down as much as possible–even something as simple as “cannot be in the middle of nowhere!”–and then rank your priorities. Knowing which things are the most important will help you narrow down your final college choices to the ones that offer the most of what you want. Remember that no single school is perfect. A well-developed ranking will help you decide what things are non-negotiable, and what you can maybe live without.

2. Keep the endgame in mind

What might you want to do after college? I know that this is an intimidating question to ask a high school student, and it’s certainly okay if your answer is “I have no idea!” But some students are already generally aware of what kind of career they’d like to pursue, and in these cases it’s wise to think about how best to position yourself for success in a particular field. Of course, your plans may change, but it’s still important to keep the endgame in mind when entering the college admissions process. For example, if you want to go into the health professions, consider colleges with robust science departments, strong pre-health-science advising, an undergraduate degree in nursing, or a public health school. Interested in theater? You may want to focus on schools that have top repertory companies right on campus. Even if you’re unsure of what kind of profession you’d like to pursue, getting into a school with lots of options in your areas of interest will allow you to connect with like-minded peers and get guidance and mentorship from professors, while both expanding your horizons and focusing on potential career options. You might even discover something you hadn’t considered!

3. Sample a variety of schools and types

It’s important to remain open to a wide variety of colleges and not be too quick to set your heart on one or two (or three). As you think through your priorities, allow your list of schools to evolve too. One of the best ways to know a college is to set foot on its campus. Even if a school seems like the perfect fit on paper, a visit might reveal things you didn’t know or hadn’t considered. Can you picture yourself there? Will the academic and extracurricular options satisfy your needs? Is the atmosphere appealing? If you want to get a real feel for a particular college, nothing beats walking across its campus, attending information sessions, talking to students and admissions representatives, and touring specific departments, programs, or facilities. The campus visit can also be the most fun part of the college application process! (For more on this topic, check out our recent post “10 Tips for Visiting Colleges.”) First-hand experience will make you a better judge of not only that particular school but the types of schools you might consider. And don’t limit yourself to one type. A positive visit to a place that doesn’t fit your initial criteria might inspire you to expand those criteria. Again, the college admissions process is all about self-reflection, and you should allow that process to unfold, develop, and evolve. Cast a wide net, and then refine.

4. Create a Balanced List

This is really the goal. Admissions is a complex, sometimes quite brutal process, and there are no guarantees. The single most important way to manage it and mitigate the risks is to develop a list that is aspirational but also realistic and cautious. It’s okay to shoot for the stars, but don’t be reckless. At Premium Prep, we always stress the importance of a balanced list of Reaches, Targets, and Likelies. (We avoid the term “Safeties,” since these days it seems like nothing is safe.) A great rule of thumb is to start with seven to ten schools in each category and then whittle down to three or four in each. And be sure to do your research and get the latest data, since lots has changed in the college admissions landscape in recent years. Things have gotten substantially more intense, and numerous schools have become much more competitive than they were just a decade ago. (Parents: be especially conscious of this fact. Things are very different than when you applied to school!)

5. Think hard about your “Early” strategy

Options like Early Decision and Early Action are tempting ways for college applicants to get a leg up. (Early Decision is a binding application to a university; Early Action is a non-binding application. There are also other variations of “Early Action” applications.) And the Early trend is well founded: elite schools increasingly focus on Early applicants, often relying on them to make up between 30 and 50 percent of their incoming classes; and admit rates for Early applicants are higher–sometimes shockingly so. (See our recent blog post on this phenomenon and its causes.) Early options are therefore very appealing to students willing to focus on one dream school (and willing to forego potential financial aid comparisons if admitted). Indeed, applying Early can be a powerful tool, but to be most effective it needs to be wielded judiciously. Despite its rising popularity in certain communities, it’s not for everyone, and it can be used only once (sometimes twice–e.g. “Early Decision 2”). Be sure to know your options at each school, what restrictions come with each of those options, and then be sure to choose very carefully if committing to an Early path. This can have a huge impact on your college admissions process overall. 

These steps will put you in a good position to find a great match for you while also protecting yourself from the unpredictability of the college admissions process. Of course, they are only the most basic steps. There’s a whole lot more involved, nuances to consider, and work to be done. And it’s smart to steel yourself for a rollercoaster ride–one that may involve some struggle and disappointment but will hopefully result in a positive outcome for you. By doing what you can to set yourself up well and maintain a healthy outlook, you will have the best chance of achieving your goals.