The Ultimate Guide to Surviving College Applications


Sushmita Pathak Career ,,,,,,,,,,

Applying to universities for higher education is like being in a relationship with a super-possessive person—it demands all your time and attention. The sheer length of each application [10 pages at the least] coupled with all the stress about whether you’re good enough to make the cut can drive anyone crazy.

To make life easier, we’ve come up with a timeline and a step-by-step guide to help you plan your applications in a way that lets you keep your sanity.

Stage 1— Plan and Research

When: At least 5-6 months before the **application season kicks in.

Think about what particular area you’d like to advance your knowledge. This is also a great time to change or explore careers. Try to find a balance between what you like, what you’re good at, and what can be a viable career option.

Choosing the right university and program:

  • Group all your universities into three categories: safe, moderate and ambitious. Shortlist anywhere between 6 to 10 universities with at least 2 safe ones. Average GPA, test scores, intended field of study and the university’s acceptance rate are some of the factors that can help you categorize.
  • Read about universities’ preferences. What kind of students are they looking for? This will tell you if you’re a good fit.

**Application season is when universities start accepting applications. Typically, between one year to 9 months before the start of the program.

Stage 2—Appear for Standardized Tests


When: 3 months before the deadline.

Standardized test are a common feature of application for universities all over the world. English, math, and analytical skills are generally tested.

You’ll probably take one or more of these—GRE, GMAT, TOEFL, IELTS—depending on your level of education and intended degree. Find more information on these tests here.

Quick tips:

  • Although universities say you can send scores any time before the deadline, avoid the last minute. Take them well in advance so that they don’t interfere with the rest of your application. This way you have plenty of time if you want to take a re-test.
  • Start preparing as soon as you can. Ask peers or seniors for tips to study. Go to online forums and ask questions. You also have a wealth of free online resources that you can take advantage of. Download the Magoosh mobile app that lets you prep on the go!

Stage 3— Start Applying!

When: As soon as universities open the online portal. Usually, 2-3 months before the deadline.

The application season is finally upon you! Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to do it right:

Step 1: Get started

Tricks of the trade:

  • Create an account on the online application portal and bookmark the application sign in pages. You’re going to open them a hundred times in the coming months.
  • Make an excel sheet with all the usernames, passwords and important dates.
  • Use an email address that’s decent. Universities will judge you if you have a whacky username.

Step 2: Letters of Recommendation


All universities require a minimum of three letters from academic/professional references in your support. Recommenders should be people who know you well. Professors that you worked under for a research project, editors who’ve looked over your work, etc. are preferred.

Tricks of the trade:

  • Inform them well in advance [2 months, at least].
  • Tell them how the letters have to be submitted [online/by email/ snail mail]. If your professor is a bit of a dinosaur when it comes to technology, spend time with him/her and explain the process patiently.
  • Keep track of the recommendations and send timely reminders.
  • Urge recommenders to submit their letters before the deadline. But don’t freak out if, for some reason, they can’t. Most universities allow you to submit your application even if the recommendation hasn’t been received.
  • Don’t forget to send your recommenders a nice Thank you card or a box of chocolates in the end.

Step 3: Consolidate all required transcripts

Universities may have different definitions for what they consider acceptable transcripts but mostly these are documents that show all courses that you took during your undergraduate education and the grades you received.

Tricks of the trade:

  • Read every university’s transcript requirements carefully. Extra carefully if you have changed majors, transferred credits or any other anomaly.
  • If a university requires that your current institution send them your transcripts directly, get in touch with your teachers about the process. This may take time.
  • The university you studied in and the university you’re applying to might follow different GPA scales. Find out from the office if you need a conversion.
  • If you’re uploading them yourself, don’t take pictures from your mobile. Scan the documents instead.

Step 4: Start working on the personal essays


Although most universities state that they follow a holistic approach when it comes to evaluating an applicant, it is common knowledge that no other part of an application is as monumental as the feared personal essays.

Tricks of the trade:

  • Read the essay prompt carefully. Make a rough outline first, then elaborate. Make multiple drafts over a month or two.
  • Proofread. Proofread. [Use online editors like Grammarly for help with commas, dangling modifiers, etc.]
  • Show your essay [with the prompt] to at least three other people.
  • Customize essays. DO NOT send the exact same essay to all the universities.
  • A special note on writing personal essays: Get creative—tell them your story. Delve into what makes you unique. Write something that they won’t find in any other essay [they’ll read hundreds, mind you].
  • Get additional advice on how to master the personal essay here.

Step 5: Upload additional documents

Depending on the program, you might be asked to provide samples of written work, academic papers you’ve published or portfolios [for art/architecture students]. Some universities also ask for resumes. You might even be asked to submit proof of financial backing.

Tricks of the trade:

  • Highlight academic achievements, affiliations, patents and scholarships while preparing your resume.
  • Double check while sending resumes—sending a resume with the wrong university mentioned in the objective line would be your worst nightmare.

Step 6: Interviews or Video resume

More universities are utilising technology and social media to get to know their applicants better. This may be the most frightening part of your application but this is your chance to score.

Tricks of the trade:

  • Prepare for a Skype/telephonic interview as you would for an in-person interview. Learn about what can be asked.
  • Arrange for: decent light, decent background [no heavy metal posters, please], no disturbance and a trustworthy Wi-Fi connection.
  • Ask questions about the program. Focus on what you’ll be able to learn.
  • Steer clear of questions that make you look materialistic.

Step 7: Check out financial aid options


Studying abroad is expensive as hell. Thankfully, most universities provide partial aid in some form or the other.

Tricks of the trade:

  • Dig deep for scholarships, grants, fellowships or any other financial aid source.
  • Check if your program allows you to work part-time. If yes, research about probable work opportunities. In your essay/email correspondence, express your willingness to utilise these opportunities. You instantly become a go-getter.
  • Do not hesitate to ask about the type of aid available specifically for international applicants. Also enquire if you can apply to application fee waivers.
  • Check out Kaplan’s blog about financial aid for more information.

Other Useful Insider Tips:

  1. Stalk universities rather than celebrities, for a change. Twitter, Instagram and Facebook handles indirectly give you loads of hints about what can make your application stronger.
  2. Take part in Twitter chats and virtual open house sessions. Makes you shine out in a pool of applicants.
  3. Keep in touch with admissions officers. They will value you because they know you have options too.
  4. Bookmark FAQ pages. They clear 90% of your doubts.
  5. Schedule visits to the campus, if you can. Meet up universities when they come to your city for career fairs.

Drumroll, Please:

Finally, pay the application fee and press submit.

Phew, the worst is over, right? Haha, not really. You still have to wait for the admissions decision. In the meantime, cut yourself some slack and have some fun. Seriously – you’ve been through a lot! Good luck.

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