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How To Apply to College Without (Mostly) Losing Your Mind: Part 1 – Getting Started

My son is a college freshman.  Wow; I still can’t believe it.  It’s weird.  It’s a big deal.   I’m still sorting out the emotions behind this quantum leap in our family’s life, so I’m not writing about that just yet. But I can share our family’s experience with the college admission experience.  To tell the truth, I’m still traumatized by the process and I thank God that I have a few years until I have to worry about it again.  Like the trauma of childbirth, by then I may have forgotten the pain.   Parents: if the last time you thought about college admission was when you applied yourself, get ready because you are in for a wild ride.  The times, they have a-changed since the olden days.  Colleges are more competitive and the process is more complicated.  If you are a high school student or the parent of a high school student right now or in the near future, this information about how to apply to college is for you.

How To Apply To College Part 1 – Getting Started

1. Students: talk to your high school alums.  Parents: talk to veteran parents at your child’s high school.  They will give you the low-down on how the school is involved with the college application process.  Some schools are great support for the students and some schools are not.  This information will let you know if and how you need to fill in the gaps.

2. If your college counseling office is not that great, hire an outside company.  We did not do that, but I know people who did.  Sometimes, depending on the size of your high school, there may not be enough counselors to give you the attention that you deserve.   And sometimes this process proves too stressful for the parent/child relationship and an objective third party is needed for the sanity of the household.

3. Have a dedicated email address for college correspondence.   Students, you should use the same email address for all college correspondence and check it regularly.  This will be the main way that colleges will communicate.   And I have a surprise for you parents:  the colleges will communicate with your child – not you.

4. Sophomores and parents pay attention: don’t blow off the PSAT.  While it doesn’t count towards college admission, this score does determine if the student will be eligible for the National Merit Scholarship.  That does not mean that you need to prepare for the PSAT, but it does mean that you should try your best and not just blow it off.   My son’s Merit Scholar status (as a result of his PSAT score) was something that he could put on his college applications.  Colleges do pay attention to this honor.

5. Prepare for the SAT or ACT. Parents: enroll your child in prep classes or hire a private tutor.  Students: respect this expense that your parents are paying for and really work during your tutoring sessions.   Personally I think a private tutor is worth the expense because they can tailor the sessions for the student’s weaknesses.   I knew my son was a good test-taker and would likely do very well on the SAT; I just wanted someone to make him even stronger.  They will probably ask for the student’s PSAT scores to get an idea of their skills.  Then they will have the student take a mock SAT test to determine the areas where they are strong and where they need help.   My son met with a private tutor who came to our house once a week and we arranged for the last tutoring session to end the week before his January test.   Although my son only needed 5 tutoring sessions, there are kids who need tutoring for several weeks or even months.  It’s an investment in time for the student and an investment in money for the parents, but it’s worth it.  Budget and plan for test preparation.

6. Take the SAT or ACT the junior year of high school.  Do NOT wait until senior year to take the test for the first time!  My son took the SAT in January of his junior year, with the thought that he could take it again in the spring if he needed to.   Most students take the test more than once because many schools will factor scores from different tests into their admission decision.  As it turned out, my son’s first test score was so high that he did not need to take the test again, but at least he had that option.

In 2012 most schools accepted either the SAT or ACT and competitive schools required 1-2 SAT subject tests.  Even though my son did not know the colleges that he was applying to, it was likely that many would require the SAT subject test so he arranged to take two of those.   It’s best to take the subject tests right after the student finishes that class in high school, so be familiar with the different tests and dates on Update: The standardized tests are changing in 2016, so check the College Board website for the latest information.

7. Research any colleges of interest.  Students: you can do this during mindless downtime, like watching TV or internet chatting with friends.  Parents: this is a concrete way for you to help your student while they are working on applications and essays.  A good place to start is the official college website, but also look on independent student-rated websites.  It’s never too early to start research, but you will want to update information like the cost of tuition because that information changes yearly.

8. Create systems to stay organized.  There will be so much information gathered in these months that if you don’t stay organized your family will be overwhelmed. I created Excel spreadsheets and imported them into Google Docs so that everyone in the family could contribute and edit the information as needed.

I also bought a file folder box for all the brochures and flyers sent in the postal mail.  As soon as the SAT or ACT is taken, the mail will start coming and the amount is truly staggering.  Everyday we sorted through the pile and immediately put the rejected mail into recycling and saved the interesting mail in a small pile.  Usually my son read these within a few days and then that mail would either be recycled or put in the filing box.  He had a system of schools of interest, levels 1-4, so I made file folders labeled 1-4.   Important dates such as local open houses or school visitation dates immediately got put on our calendars.

9. Start the research of scholarships early.  We dropped the ball on this one.  By the time my son had applied to several schools, along with music auditions, he was fried and absolutely did not have any brain power left for scholarship essays.   He should have done this in his sophomore or junior year.  There are many books on the market to help your search as well as independent consultants to do the work for you.

I know your head is spinning; there is just so much information!  Take a deep breath; it’s okay, I’m here to help.   In the next blog post I will discuss college visits.


 *This blog post was written in 2014.  If you are reading this much after that date some things may have changed, but the over-all sentiment remains the same: applying to college is stressful. I hope that I made it less so.

Everything you need to know about how to apply to college (part 1). - Sherrelle
© 2018, Sherrelle. All rights reserved.

Storyteller. Travel junkie. Extroverted introvert. Very, very clever. Find me at .


  • […] in a three part series for high school students and parents.  If you missed it before, please read Part 1 – Getting Started  and Part 2 – College Visits. […]

  • *sigh* my baby girl was just born yesterday…and now she’s in 7th grade!!! We’ve been talking about college for a year or so now. I’ve already taken her on tours of Tuskegee, Spelman, Morris College (in South Carolina) and Voorhees College where she got a chance to interview the president of the school.. We’re gearing up to take the PSAT- just to give her some early practice.

    These tips are sooo very helpful. Thanks a bunch.

    • Krystal the fact that you are even thinking about it means that you are way ahead of the game!

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