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Nadyja Von Ebers

A Family Guide to College Admissions Season

Laptop screen showing showing admissions page representing college admissions and application deadlines guide - image by Magoosh

If you’re the parent or guardian of a student embarking on the college admissions process, congratulations! More than likely, the process of sending your student to college is exciting AND overwhelming. It can be hard to know where to start, how best to support your student, which college application deadlines you’ll need to know, how to pay for college, and so on!

That’s why we here at Magoosh have compiled all of our best resources for students and their families to use along their college admissions journey. This post is specifically geared toward parents, family members, and guardians looking to support their students through this complex process, but we’ll link to plenty of resources addressed directly to students!


 

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How to Use This Guide

We highly encourage you to share and discuss these resources thoroughly with your student (or students) because if there’s one thing we believe fully, it’s that the college admissions process is highly collaborative by nature.

Also, most colleges require ACT or SAT scores (though there are a growing number of test-optional colleges and universities now) and official transcripts with a cumulative GPA. For the purpose of this post though, we’ll be focusing on the other major moving parts of the college admissions process. For more information on preparing for the ACT or SAT, feel free to check out our ACT resources and SAT resources! Both resource hubs link to many support tools and pieces of advice for preparing to take these exams.

For now, though, let’s dive in and take a look at the other pieces of the college admissions process.

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Choosing a College or University

First thing’s first: the epic college search. Choosing a college is perhaps the biggest beast of the entire college admissions process. It’s a big decision and involves all kinds of financial and logistical considerations.

Juggling Different Opinions and Considerations

There may be conflicting opinions and desires when it comes to choosing a college. For example, your student wants to move to the other side of the country, but you’d like them to be able to come home affordably as much as they’d like to. Or perhaps your student is expressing interest in attending a college for a given major, and you’d prefer they study something else.

There may also be prohibitive factors. Perhaps your student’s GPA isn’t as competitive as it needs to be to get into a certain school. Perhaps you are doubtful that your family will qualify for need-based financial aid and college tuition is just not in your budget.

Never fear. ALL families face these discussions and compromises but rest assured, the perfect school choice is definitely out there for your student.

Common Factors for Choosing a College

As a good starting point, here’s some advice on how to choose a college based on a number of factors:

  • 2-year vs. 4-year colleges
  • Small vs. large colleges
  • In-state vs. out-of-state colleges
  • Private vs. public colleges

 
Some other factors to consider when discussing which colleges to apply to are:

  • Diversity and demographics of the school
  • Extracurricular activities offered
  • Athletics offered
  • Greek life
  • Religious affiliations
  • Majors/programs offered
  • The rigor of the curriculum
  • Internship/externship opportunities
  • Study abroad opportunities
  • Average class sizes
  • And so on

What is most important to YOUR student? It can be easy for students to get caught up in what their friends are prioritizing for college but what resources, opportunities, and programs are “must-haves” for your student? Because there are SO many factors to consider, a good starting place is college size, as this will greatly inform your student’s experience. Is a bigger, more expansive campus their thing, or is a smaller, more intimate setting more up their alley? Share the below quizzes with your student to start the conversation:

 

 

Once your student has a clear idea of what they want to study, the second quiz can help narrow down the application process to schools with good programs for this major. (Side note: it’s definitely okay if your student doesn’t know their intended major as a senior in high school. Most colleges and universities do not ask students to declare a major until after their first or second year of college!)

We also really like this piece about choosing the perfect college that includes many great reflective questions you could discuss with your student.

Top Tips for the College Search Process

Overall, here are some tips for parents and guardians for how to choose a college as a team with their student:

  • Start the college discussion and college search/research process early, ideally at the beginning of junior year. This will give you more than enough time to get a sense of the many options out there.
  • Visit as many colleges as possible (we understand this can be costly). Nothing will give your student a better sense of a college than being on the actual campus. Taking virtual college tours with your student is also a great way to get a feel for the campus while staying safe in these COVID-19 times (and saving on travel expenses!).
  • Engage in deep, frequent, meaningful discussions about college with your student and ask many questions. It’s beneficial to have broader conversations about things like why going to college is important, as well as more quantitative discussion about what paying off student loan debt looks like after graduation.
  • Talk to your student about their greatest passions, what excites them most in life, and where they may see themselves down the line in life.
  • Keep an open mind about what your student says they want in a college experience or what they want to study.

 

 

For more great advice on supporting your student in choosing a college, check out this piece on helping your teen with college decisions.

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Getting Letters of Recommendation

Once your student has chosen which colleges to apply to, you’ll want to help them stay on top of the application requirements for each school.

But beyond these standard requirements, there are a few very key pieces of the college application process you’ll want to check in with your student about.

Every college has its own specifications, but nearly all of them ask for at least one letter of recommendation from a trusted academic teacher or advisor. These are almost always due along with the rest of the application materials.

How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

We recommend these guiding principles when asking for a letter of recommendation, and encourage you to discuss your student’s plan for asking for letters from their teachers.

  1. Please urge your student to ask for letters as early as possible, as it’s not uncommon for teachers to get flooded with requests. Waiting until the last minute can lead to rushed letters or denied letters, so check in with your students about the status of their letters.
  2. This downloadable letter of recommendation student fact sheet is something your student can fill out and give to their teacher(s) to assist in the process. Your student’s high school may have their own template or materials they prefer you to use, so the above resource is by no means the only option.

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Completing the Common Application

If you’re not familiar with The Common Application, commonly referred to as “The Common App,” it’s the relatively universal application that allows undergraduate students to apply to 800+ different colleges in one place.

And more than likely, it’s what your student will be using to apply to most or all of their schools.

We suggest that you review the Common App with your student and create an account together. Each school will have their own deadlines to keep track of, but the Common App will act as a “one-stop-shop” through which your student keep track of multiple applications.

The Common App Essay

The most important component of the Common App, however, is the Common App essay, an essay that is sent to each school in addition to individual college’s requirements.

For the last several years, the seven Common App Essay prompts have stayed the same, and will likely remain the same for the 2021-2022 school year. Students are required to choose one of the prompts and answer it in 650 words or less.

 

 

Here are some other ways you can support your student in writing the Common Application essay:

  • Help them brainstorm: often, coming up with the initial topic of focus can feel the most daunting for students. Encourage your student to write about what they are genuinely most passionate and qualified to write about, not what they think colleges “want to hear.”
  • Encourage them to write rough drafts: as we all know, the best writing is rewriting!
  • Check-in with them about their progress: they will write a stronger essay if they do not leave it until the last minute
  • Proofread their essay: Another set of editorial eyes is always encouraged, but of course, encourage your student to write the essay in their unique voice and tone.

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Writing Supplemental College Essays

In addition to the Common App essay, your student may have to write supplemental college essays for individual colleges as well.

The best thing you can do to help your student prepare for these essays is to discuss the topics with them, help them brainstorm, and get their creative juices flowing. We find that students often don’t know where to start, but bouncing ideas can help them find a direction.

College essay prompts obviously vary school by school, but many tend to fall into one of the following categories:

1. Why Do You Want to Attend X School?

This type of prompt will ask your student to reflect on why they want to attend a specific school. We recommend helping your student do some research on this front so that they can adequately articulate specific aspects of the school or academic program that appeal to them. They should also be prepared to explain what they will contribute to the academic community. What extracurricular activities will they join? What kind of peer will they be in class? How will a degree from this school in this program help them achieve their future goals? These are all great questions to discuss with your student if they’re answering this type of prompt.

For reference, a prompt of this variety may look like this one from the University of Pennsylvania:

“How will you explore your intellectual and academic interests at the University of Pennsylvania? Please answer this question given the specific undergraduate school to which you are applying.”

2. What is Important That We Know About You?

Another type of prompt asks students to provide any additional information that does not appear elsewhere on their application. This type of essay provides them the opportunity to explain personal circumstances like hardships they’ve overcome or to provide a detailed explanation for poor grades, prior legal troubles. Students may also discuss facets of their learning styles or struggles in these types of essays. Since this information can be a bit sensitive, we encourage you to discuss these topics with your student in a way that empowers them. Remember, colleges aren’t looking for perfect students, they’re looking for thoughtful ones!

3. What is Your Greatest Strength/Weakness?

Oddly enough, it can be harder for students to talk about their greatest strengths (vs. their weaknesses), which is why having a brainstorming session with them is so great. For prompts like these, students should aim to be honest, humble, and reflective. How can knowing their greatest strengths or weaknesses serve them as a student? How has this strength or weakness helped shape them into a viable candidate?

4. Show Us Your Creativity

Some colleges have notoriously “wacky” prompts like this classic from The University of Chicago:

“Were pH an expression of personality, what would be your pH, and why? (Feel free to respond acidly! Do not be neutral, for that is base!)”

These types of essays want to gauge a student’s ability to think outside the box. Your student should be encouraged to have fun with prompts like these but the #1 thing to remember is to prioritize the ideas and content no matter what. This means that no matter how creative your student may get, they should still make a solid case for what they’re arguing.

5. What Kind of “Citizen of the World” Are You?

These types of prompts ask your student to reflect on how they will contribute positively to the world in the wake of massive change and complex challenges. Your student may be prompted to choose a pressing topic in today’s world and discuss how and why they will rise to fix it in college and beyond. For example, they may wish to discuss climate change, famine, cyber issues, and so on. Because these topics can be controversial, it helps to talk them out with your student. Encourage them to stay on track and focus on the ways they can use their skills and education to help give back to others in the world.

Now, of course, not all essay prompts will fit neatly into one of the categories above, and prompts often change annually. Some colleges will supply very specific templates or samples for reference, but there are also plenty of college essay examples out there. Students can take a peek at what kinds of essays are helping students get accepted. Of course, these are meant to be used for inspiration–not to be plagiarized.

And how long should a college essay be? It depends. Some colleges will issue several short essays that are each 100-200 words, while others will ask for a longer personal statement that can range anywhere from 500-1000 words.

 

 
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The 5 Steps to Applying for Financial Aid

Funding college is perhaps the most stressful component of the college admissions process, but it doesn’t have to be. The truth is that there are many ways to make it happen and most of them come down to securing financial aid. The following steps will walk you through exactly how to apply for financial aid.

1. Fill out a FAFSA Before the Deadline (Preferably Earlier)

The very first (and most critical) step to securing financial aid is completing a FAFSA application. FAFSA stands for “Free Application for Federal Student Aid” and it’s an application to apply for college funding from the United States Federal Government.

If possible, plan on helping your student with the FAFSA, as the application requires information about your income.

After you and your student complete the application, the government will send you a SAR (“Student Aid Report) including an EFC or “Expected Family Contribution.” The EFC, reflecting the amount you can potentially help contribute to the cost of college, is used to determine how much federal aid your student is eligible for.

Types of Financial Aid for College or University

Then, each college or university your student applies uses the FAFSA information to generate a financial aid award letter. Each school may also give their own need-based or merit-based financial aid, but there are 3 core types of financial aid that your student may qualify for:

  • Grants – Financial aid sums that are typically need-based and that don’t have to be paid back
  • Scholarships – Financial aid sums that are typically at least partially merit-based and that don’t have to be paid back
  • Government loans – Financial aid sums that are lent to your student with low-interest rates and various repayment options
  • Work-Study – Financial aid in the form of a part-time job for your student (through the college and usually on campus) that help your student earn money while attending college

For more information on how to apply for financial aid, check out our complete guide to the FAFSA application, which will be updated to reflect the newest information for the 2021-2022 school year as soon as this information becomes available.

FAFSA Deadlines 2020-2022

To this point, the FAFSA deadlines are the same every year and are as follows:

  • October 1: FAFSA application opens for the following school year
  • June 30: FAFSA deadline for the following school year
  • September 15: Corrections due for the current school year

Check out this chart to see the see how these dates affect this current academic school year (2020-2021) and next academic school year (2021-2022):

YearApplication OpensApplication DeadlineCorrections Deadline
2020-2021October 1, 2019June 30, 2021September 15, 2021
2021-2022October 1, 2020June 30, 2022September 15, 2022

 

  • Resource Alert
    If for any reason you are unsure if your student should fill out the FAFSA, refer them to this FAFSA quiz.

 

2. Consider Taking Out Private Loans if Necessary

If your family doesn’t receive enough federal aid to cover the cost of college, you can always seek out private loans, for example, through your bank or other lenders.

There are many ways to secure private financial aid but there are some drawbacks to them. For instance, they’re often contingent upon credit scores and carry higher interest rates.

 

  • Resource Alert
    This is a phenomenal guide to choosing the best student loans can help you sort out which loans are right for you.

 

3. Seek Out Scholarships and Grants

Scholarships and grants are monetary awards that don’t have to be repaid and there are literally countless opportunities available out there. You just have to do some digging.

Again, we recommend checking out our how to pay for college resource hub that includes an entire section on scholarships and grants, complete with a list of 25 of our favorite websites for finding free money for college.

4. Weigh Out Work-Study Aid

If your student was awarded financial aid in the form of a work-study program, you’ll have to spend some weighing out if this is the right option. On the one hand, a work-study job will provide an income to your student that can help with many expenses. On the other hand, working while also attending classes can be a challenge for some students.

 

  • Resource Alert
    This work-study quiz will help your student weigh out whether accepting this type of financial aid is the right scenario for them.

 

5. Get More Financial Aid Using These Tips

While we’ve covered a lot of ground with steps 1-4, there are some lesser-known ways to get additional aid and even save money in the college application process (which can get expensive as well). Just follow these tips to get more financial aid!

Consider Private Schools

One of the best-kept secrets of financial aid is that private universities and colleges often have a lot of it to give! Because of alumni donations, the high cost of tuition for students who can pay in full, and small class sizes, private schools can typically afford to spend more per student. Many private institutions (like Barnard College, for example) even boast that they can meet 100% of an accepted student’s financial needs. So don’t discount private schools when considering where to send your student!

Reach Out to the Financial Aid Office and Ask for More Assistance

Don’t be afraid to call the Financial Aid office at a school of interest and ask to talk to an advisor directly. If your student wasn’t awarded enough financial aid, explain your situation and ask if there is any additional grant money available. Be friendly and respectful, but remember that you don’t have to settle for the first package you’re offered; you can consider it a starting point for negotiations. If your student was accepted, then the financial aid package is at the discretion of a few people who genuinely want them to attend, so you’re definitely well within your right to negotiate a better package.

Get Fees Waived

ACT fee waivers and SAT fee waivers are both available, and if your student takes the latter, they may also be eligible for college application fee waivers (depending on where they’re applying). Check the College Board’s fee waiver info for a directory of participating schools. While this isn’t “financial aid” in the classic sense, college application fees can really rack up, so fee waivers free up this money to use elsewhere.

Complete the FAFSA Early

While the FAFSA’s application window is quite large (as discussed above), we encourage you to apply as early as possible to have “first dibs” at the federal funds available. If you’re applying early, keep in mind that you’ll likely have to estimate your income for the rest of the fiscal year, so give yourself plenty of time to gather this information and complete a FAFSA as soon as you’re able.

Don’t Forget About Institution-Specific Financial Aid

Plenty of schools (Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania, for example) have their own separate financial forms in addition to the FAFSA. Make sure to check the requirements for each specific school that your student is applying to. You can always ask the Financial Aid Department at each school directly.

Also, along these lines, make sure to look into the specific financial aid policies of the schools your student applies to. Some (but not all) schools will decrease the amount of institution-specific financial aid based on the amount of outside funding you receive. Feel free to call each school specifically to get a clear sense of their financial aid policies.

Look into Cal-Grants

If your student is applying to any school in California, make sure they apply for Cal grants! Cal grants offer financial aid/grants to anyone attending a California university — and according to its website, you can receive up to $12,192 in financial aid that you don’t have to pay back. All you have to do is fill out the FAFSA and have your student’s counselor fill out a GPA verification form. The deadline is normally early March (March 2 this year).

Have Extra Application Materials at the Ready

Many scholarship applications will require the same materials as college applications, so it helps to have extra transcripts, resumes, tax returns, letters of recommendation, etc. on hand. If you have copies within reach, your student can apply quickly without missing the necessary deadlines.

Use College Board’s CSS Profile

The College Board’s CSS Profile is a financial aid application that is even more detailed than FAFSA. Not every school uses it, but it definitely provides access to quite a bit of financial aid. If your student is applying to Early Decision (more on this in a moment), they will likely be using the CSS Profile, which may open them to more financial opportunities. You can check right on their website which schools use this platform.

Apply for Local Scholarships

People are often surprised to find out how many local scholarship opportunities are available to their students when they start looking (a basic Google search of your area or zip code + “scholarships” will do it)!

From car dealerships to churches and cultural centers, you can usually find a local business or organization that wants to give students financial help. Many school-based organizations also have scholarship funds as well. These scholarships are typically on the smaller side ($500-$2,000) but they add up!

FAFSA and other financial aid deadlines aren’t the only ones you’ll need to keep track of, however. In the next section, we’ll go over more general college application deadlines!

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Keeping Track of College Application Deadlines

It may feel like there are a million college application deadlines because each college has different ones to keep track of. The key is keeping an organized checklist or spreadsheet with the deadlines for each college your student is applying to. It’s a good idea to help your student set calendar notifications for these college application deadlines so that they don’t miss out on their chances of attending their dream school.

College Application Deadlines Breakdown

In addition to the FAFSA deadlines shared above, there are some pretty standard college application guidelines to keep in mind. Every school is different, but for the most part, college application deadlines look like this:

Admission TypeWhat It MeansAdmissions DeadlineAdmissions Decision
Early ActionYour student applies early but their application is non-binding if they are accepted.October or November
(Oct 15, Nov 1, and Nov 15 are two of the most popular deadlines)
December (exact date varies by school)
Early DecisionYour student applies early to ONE school of their dream and commits to attending if they are admitted.Same deadlines as aboveDecember (exact date varies by school)
Regular DecisionYour student applies at the “regular” deadline set by each school and typically has plenty of time to decide where they’d like to go.January or February
(Jan 1 and 15 are two of the most popular regular deadlines)
March or April (exact date varies by school)

 

The most pressing of these college application deadlines is Early Decision, since it requires your student to be certain of where they want to attend by Fall. To help them decide, you can encourage them to take this Early Decision quiz.

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Happy College Admissions Season!

We know there’s a lot of ground to cover during the college admissions process, but we believe in both you and your student! Remember to take things in stride, check in often, have open conversations about your student’s plans and dreams, and stay mindful of those college application and FAFSA/ deadlines.

The pride you’ll feel when your student begins receiving college acceptance letters is unparalleled, so enjoy the journey!

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About Nadyja Von Ebers

Nadyja von Ebers is one of Magoosh’s Content Creators. She writes for the Magoosh High School Blog, where she shares helpful resources for students searching for test prep tips and advice. Her content includes advice on college admissions, from how to get into the University of Chicago and how to complete financial aid forms to tips on asking for a letter of recommendation. Nadyja has extensive experience working with students to prepare for standardized tests, from AP exams and the GED to the ACT and SAT. After receiving an MA in English from DePaul University, Nadyja went on to teach English at the high school and college levels for over a decade. She loves helping students reach their maximum potential and thrives in both literal and virtual classrooms. When she's not teaching or contributing to the Magoosh blog, she enjoys reading, writing, and spending time in or near the ocean. LinkedIn


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