5 steps toward a painless, possibly joyful application.
And each step has three substeps. So it’s like 15 tiny steps. Anyway. We offer them based on our own experience, and with total confidence that you will, in the end, blaze your own trail of steps.
Start where you are
Before you look at colleges, look (generously!) at yourself.
- Ask yourself questions. Such as: What courses have I loved? Why did I love them? What motivates me as a student? Is it intellectual engagement? Creative expression? Solving concrete problems? Discovering strange and unexpected things? Challenging convention?
- Keep asking! What motivates me as a human being? What makes me want to get out of bed in the morning? What frustrates me? In what ways do I want to improve? Who’s someone I admire?
- Start asking other people! Talk to people who know you well: friends and family, teachers and counselors, coaches and mentors. Talk to representatives at college fairs. Talk to current students. Talk to us. Or be counter-cultural and read viewbooks.
A little planning and preparation goes a long way.
- Use tools that work for you. Make a spreadsheet! Command your calendar to send you reminders! Bookmark your favorite online resources! Adjust your spam filter to accept email from your selected colleges! And so on.
- Follow the deadlines. Look into required standardized testing and consider the optimal time to take those test(s). Take note of application and financial aid deadlines. Open mail from colleges right away and note schedules for visit programs, information sessions, etc.
- Plan a road trip. Try to visit some of the colleges you’re considering. Being on campus, talking to students, feeling the vibe (an actual college admissions term)—these are invaluable. Can’t make it to campus? We’ll do everything we can to give you an immersive online experience.
My advice is to fall in love—a lot. Make sure that every college on your list has at least one thing about it that you’re thrilled about and that motivates you. When you’re fully informed, and when you’re ready to make your final choice, you’ll have options that will make you happy, no matter what you decide.
—Joy St. John, dean of admission and financial aid
There are more than 5,000 colleges and universities in the United States. You probably shouldn’t apply to all of them.
- Make a list of essentials. For example: Do you want to be close to a city? Close to home? Do you want a huge university, a small college, or something in between? Are you looking for special programs or majors? (See below for a little counterintuitive advice.) Try to generate a list of 10 to 20 schools that meet your essential qualifications. Then be ready to revise it.
- Question what’s essential. For example (this is the advice we mentioned above): Your major is not your life. Most students change majors at some point in their college career. And a major isn’t an ironclad, lifetime commitment. On a related note, ponder the value of a liberal arts education—an opportunity to explore a range of fields, make connections across disciplines, and practice the skills that any income-earning, change-making person needs.
- Consider the excellence of women’s colleges. We’re just the tiniest bit biased here. And yet, it just so happens that one of the world’s most powerful social and professional networks is made up of our alumnae. Who happen to be women. Not really a coincidence, to be honest.
My college counselor gave me great advice: ‘College is a match to be made, not a prize to be won.’ The ‘best’ schools are not necessarily the best schools for you. Don’t force a square peg into a round hole. Do what’s right for you, not what you think you’re supposed to do.
—Adele Watkins ’17, Ph.D. candidate in philosophy, Princeton University
When you’re ready to think about cost, be bold
Yes, be bold. Apply to colleges based not on your family income but on your achievements and your aspirations.
- Look at the numbers. You’ll want to get this information from every college on your list: What percentage of students receive financial aid? What forms of aid are provided? What’s the amount of the average annual aid package? What’s the average loan debt of the most recent entering class?
- Get a rough sense of the true cost. Most selective liberal arts colleges (which may have a higher sticker price) offer financial aid to support families with calculated financial need. The result is that many families pay less (often a great deal less) than the listed price of the college—less even than they would pay at a public or state institution. Every college has a Net Price Calculator on its website—a tool that gives you a rough estimate of what your family would expect to pay. We also have our own MyinTuition calculator, a simple, straightforward tool developed by one of our professors.
- Pay heed to deadlines! The deadlines for the FAFSA and CSS Profile really matter. A late application can affect your eligibility for financial aid.
I ended up getting into top-ranked liberal arts schools and large research universities. But in the end, Wellesley was my top choice, and it gave me the most financial aid. If you apply and you get in, they’ll cover 100 percent of your demonstrated need.
—Aubrey, senior, media arts and sciences and political science major
Write an essay you love
Which might be different than an essay you think a college will love.
- Set reasonable expectations. You don’t need to have had extraordinary experiences to write an extraordinary essay. You don’t need to have done incomparable things to be interesting. An essay about a small, seemingly insignificant event can be more powerful than an essay about how you’ve saved the world or overcome tragedy. Also: You’re not writing a novel. You should be able to do the work in about 500 words.
- Follow a reasonable process. Write several drafts; let a draft sit for a few days, then tackle it again. Share drafts with people you trust. Ask them: Does this sound like me? Is it interesting from the start? You know you’re done when you’ve used only the words you need to use to say only what you wanted to say.
- Give yourself a pep talk. Such as: I love who I am, and no college will change that. I love my voice, and I’m using it now. This is actually fun! I’m having fun! Even if I’m awkwardly telling myself so! I can’t be anyone other than myself, and that’s enough.