I applied to college in 2016 for the Fall 2017 semester, but I also had the chance to observe my brother applying to college in 2018, and my sister doing the same in 2021. I can now proudly say that all three of us were offered (in my sister’s case, several) full rides to college! Here I compiled some perspectives on the process based on my family’s rather successful experience with college applications. If you are interested in hearing more about my own, very personal, experience, I will discuss them at the very bottom**.
Act early and plan in advance so you don’t end up panicking.
When I was not accepted to my dream school (The University of Chicago) in December of 2017, which was all I had been thinking about, I panicked and ended up filling out about 7 additional regular cycle applications, as opposed to the earlier cycle I had participated in before. But because you are often considered for the best scholarships only if you apply „early action“ (not to be confused with „early decision“, in which you actually commit to a school should you be accepted), or before a certain deadline in the fall, I ended up not really considering any of the schools I applied to in this second cycle.
Therefore, I recommend focusing just on the first deadline your school might have. This may be called the „early action“ deadline, or, if your school has a rolling (i.e. continuous) application process, where you can submit whenever and receive an answer several weeks later, I would focus on the first deadline, the one usually associated with qualification for the most prestigious scholarships.
Think realistically and apply to schools strategically.
You should be applying to all schools early or before any scholarship deadlines (so ideally you should be done by December – by the way, I would start applications in August or September at the latest), but how do you know what schools to apply to? Be honest about your expectations, priorities, and your financial and family situation and circumstances.
Do you find it important to stay close to family and how often will you want to come home during the semester?
If you’re going to be home every few weeks (which is totally okay), maybe it makes sense to choose a school only a few hours away from home instead of having to consider flight or high gas costs, as well as the time it will take you to go home.
How much can you and/or your family afford to spend on college or are you willing to take out in loans (and if so, how much)?
Your FAFSA application will tell you your EFC, or Estimated Family Contribution, which will affect how much „free money“ you’ll get from the government. However, you might even find that this amount, as I did, is not really realistically what you can afford or want to spend on college. This is because the EFC doesn’t take into consideration personal circumstances. For example, if your family is spread over two continents and you spend your savings on plane tickets to visit each other, you won’t be able to actually contribute that amount of money. Consider smaller schools with great scholarships programs, community college, and other scholarship opportunities. You might also have to consider a part-time job which has its own pros (money, resume building and connections) and cons (distraction from school, high time commitment).
What are you interested in now and what could you be potentially interested in besides this?
If you are dead set on a particular program, by all means, consider only that program at various schools. But if you are less certain, make sure the schools you consider have multiple things you are interested in – a particular major can turn out to be different than expected, and it’s usually better to change majors instead of transferring schools entirely. For example, not all schools (even large state schools) offer engineering programs, so if this is a potential interest of yours, make sure its offered where you apply.
What are your chances of getting in?
There are lots of programs for high schoolers that might tell you the chances of getting into a particular school, but often a quick internet search or word of mouth will tell you the same thing. Categorize schools into three groups: ‚a bit of a reach‘, ‚on par with my academic performance‘, ‚definitely will get in‘. Apply to only a few schools in each category. I think the magic number is 6: 2 of each category. Applying to this number instead of many more will help you save money on application fees and time that you would have spent on essays that you would rather use to do anything else. Also, you will be much more motivated to produce only 6 quality applications, instead of 10 or 12.
Small school or big school?
Larger schools tend to offer more opportunities (i.e. more clubs, sororities, majors) and have more money for their programs, although this isn’t always the case. However, you can be easily overwhelmed, and you will have a lot more competition for these exact same opportunities. At a smaller school, there might be less programs or student organizations, but you can often do many more different things at once, and it is easier to stand out of the crowd if you work hard, because that crowd is, well, smaller. Personally, I preferred the „big fish in a little pond“ mentality a lot more and loved getting to be so close to so many people at SIU, but it wasn’t that small either (about 10k students when I went there). You need to decide what works best for you.
**My own story/credentials
Applications, Scholarships, and Decision
When I applied to college, my first round of application consisted of these schools (I already discussed my irrelevant second round): Northwestern University. University of Chicago, Purdue University, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Illinois State University, and Southern Illinois University Carbondale (my final choice).
I was accepted to all but the University of Chicago, but I really only considered the last two. In retrospect, while these might not have as good of a name recognition as the others on my list, I found that I really appreciated being in a smaller department with professors who had more time for me.
As a result of being a high-achieving student (>3.5 GPA, >32 ACT, >1400 SAT), I was able to be considered for the highest merit scholarship offered at both ISU and SIU (which I both received after going through the rigorous interview process). In the end, many opportunities were awarded to me at Southern and I am lucky to have wonderful relationships with many of the professors who taught me throughout the years.
Finances and Cost of College
Thanks to my full ride scholarship, I did not have to pay for housing during my undergraduate years. Meals were partially covered (fully in the dining hall while I lived in the dorms, and partially while I lived in an apartment my Junior year and while in France my Senior year). I did work (at Illinois minimum wage) for roughly three semesters for the university in the physics department office – this was a job I loved, because it allowed me to gain valuable insight into the behind-the-scenes of my work life and to grow close with my professors whom I served in this position. In addition, I spent about a semester as a paid (again, at minimum wage) undergraduate researcher – I was really fortunate to be paid to do my undergraduate research from my advisor’s grant!
That being said, even with a full ride, that I was allowed to use towards my year studying abroad (I am so grateful for this!) college wasn’t necessarily free. Books, supplies, and transportation all cost me money and weren’t always cheap. I paid for these using spending cash I received from my father (all year round) and my grandparents (during school months), as well as my job earnings (in later semesters). I realize that this is not something to which everyone has access. That being said, I saved the bulk of this money, choosing to limit going out (eating out only a couple times a month), fancy trips (my only spring break trip was a mission trip to rebuild destroyed homes after Hurricane Harvey), and shopping for myself. I truly believe that self discipline can lower the cost of college immensely.
My year studying abroad was an experience in which I knowingly invested. Food costs in France can be (but aren’t always) higher than in the United States (especially for someone who loves avocados – at one point these were 35 cents at the Carbondale ALDI; they were almost four dollars in France!). In addition, the trips I took added up! While I saved money by getting a student pass for the French rail system (which is much more affordable than the German one, actually) and always split Airbnbs with friends, my year in France cost me just over $4000 out of pocket (not including flights there and back, which were gifted to me by my family; this was even with my SIU full ride being applied to the cost)! I had initially budgeted (yes, I actually budgeted for the whole year in advance – feel free to send me an email if you want more details or if you’d like to hear more about this!) $3757.80 for the 10 month period, so considering also that I hurt my back unexpectedly, I am really happy with the accuracy of my budgeting and my ability to keep my spending in check even with all that splurging on trips.