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The Student Newspaper of MAST Academy, since 1991.
The Student News Site of MAST Academy

The Beacon

The Beacon

Chapter 3: A Comprehensive Guide to College Applications – Part 1

By Amber Haydar
Features Editor

During these borderline apocalyptic and certainly unconventional times, one thing remains constant for us high school seniors—college applications. The stress incited by these mere words for high school students is exponential; all of our academic and extracurricular accolades are suddenly up for judgment by institutions we may have been dreaming of attending what seems like our whole lives. 

While the college application process may be something that is habitually on the back of students’ minds, when the time comes around to actually start researching schools and take the traditional standardized tests, we often let valuable time pass us by because we get overwhelmed or cannot even imagine where to begin. As a MAST senior myself currently navigating college applications and admissions decisions, there is much I wish I had known before leaping into the process. This guide is to serve for Makos of all grade levels as a breakdown of what to expect and prepare for once the time comes to start genuinely thinking about college.

  1. Standardized Tests

Most people consider the first step in the college application process to be taking standardized tests—the dreaded SAT, ACT, and occasional subject tests. A student’s grade point average, standardized test scores, class rank, extracurriculars, and personal essays are arguably the factors that hold the most weight when it comes to applying to these academic institutions. 

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While things like grade point average and extracurriculars are dependent upon the display of your gradual abilities over time, your SAT/ACT tests are an evaluation based on your knowledge in a single sitting. It is absolutely essential to make sure that you are doing all you can to prepare for these tests as early as possible, whether that means hiring a tutor if you have the means to do so or using practice books and taking practice tests. You should aim to take your first SAT/ACT by fall or winter of your junior year, or the month of March at the latest as far as your first attempt.

A student’s target test score should be based upon the level of competitiveness of the school(s) that they are applying to; you ideally want to get a score that will grant you a decent chance of admission based on the average statistics of their previously admitted classes. Thus, one must keep in mind that what students may consider a decent score varies widely—comparing yourself to your peers will likely only add on unnecessary stress. 

Besides college applications, standardized test scores are also used to qualify students for scholarships—an important one in our state being the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship, where candidates need a minimum of 1330 SAT or 29 ACT score to qualify for 100% in-state college tuition coverage. Students who earn their Cambridge diplomas automatically qualify for Bright Futures, so their standardized test scores are not considered for this program.

Keep in mind that some highly selective institutions require SAT/ACT with the essay portion along with the typical multiple-choice exam. Higher-ranked universities can also require subject tests which, like the SAT, are administered by the College Board and resemble Advanced Placement exams, but are broader in their subject matter. Bottom line is that doing your research proactively is absolutely essential in every step of the college application process.

  1. Making Your College List

When it comes to compiling your top list of universities, many things may first come to mind—reputation, location, your major, etc. To be frank, the weight of different factors when picking your schools depends on each applicant. Most of your college research will be independent unless, of course, you can afford a college advisor. That being said, you can always reach out to your friends, our school’s counselors, upperclassmen; even forming relationships with your school’s alumni can turn out incredibly useful for seeking help and advice on the process.  

Often, students base their selection of top schools off of what their intended majors are or what occupation they would like to pursue in the future. This is probably one of the most important things to consider in the process. However, what a lot of students do not consider are their other interests as an additional focal point. Yes, the rumors are true, college students are more than likely to change their majors within the first two years of their undergrad. This is why it is imperative to ensure the schools you have on your list also have your backup majors, and that their programs offer opportunities you would be interested in.

Most of your decision comes down to being able to envision an environment in which you see yourself thriving both academically and socially, ideally without breaking the bank. Many students make the conscious decision of applying to a school without genuinely identifying with its campus and culture; maybe one specific element drew them in and then, come decision time, they get admitted, realize the school’s climate is not for them, or that the meal plan is pretty lackluster, and forget why they even applied in the first place. 

Remember, application fees are expensive ($30-$85 per school), so unless you qualify for fee waivers, I would advise not to spend a fortune applying to schools you are uncertain about when tuition itself might be more than you and your family can afford. With that being said, before solidifying your college list, it is essential to estimate the costs of attendance if you were to be granted admission. This is a conversation that is so important to have with your parents—how much money are they willing to contribute to your undergraduate degree? Unfortunately, students often get into their dream schools and eventually have to turn down their offer for financial reasons. 

While taking out loans is a one option, it is not for everyone, and it is important to keep in mind your future plans beyond those first four years; are you planning on earning your Master’s or attending law or medical school? You will have to find a way to pay for graduate school as well, and the last thing you want is to go bankrupt. Many universities have Net Price Calculators on their website for potential applicants to utilize in order to estimate their total cost of attendance, primarily based on your parents’ or guardians’ assets and tax returns.

Another significant factor to consider is the type of admission you will apply for, and this will vary from school to school. The selection includes Regular Decision, Early Decision, Early Decision II, Early Action, and Rolling Admissions. Early Decision deadlines are—as the name would suggest—earlier than the other kinds, which also means you will get your admissions decision earlier than if you were to apply Regular Decision. 

The thing is, applying ED to a school is binding, which means if you are offered admission, you are contractually obligated to accept their offer and attend. You can only apply ED to a single school, and the only way you can decline a school’s offer when applying ED is if you can prove that there is no way you can afford their tuition. Early Decision II is also offered by select schools and is conceptually the same thing, except with a later timeline for deadlines. Early Action follows the same principles as Early Decision, except it is in no way binding. You can also apply to as many schools EA as you please unless you apply Restrictive Early Action, which indicates that you will only apply early to that specific school and no others. 

Many applicants will choose to apply Early Decision or Early Action to a school because it typically will provide an applicant better odds at getting in; you will want to apply early if you are absolutely in love with a school and know you will also be able to afford it through one way or another. However many schools, such as the University of Florida or Florida State University, only offer one outlet of admission—Regular Decision. Regular Decision provides all applicants an equal playing field, though you will probably find out the decision much later.

Some schools such as FIU offer a Rolling Admissions option, which means applicants are allowed to submit their applications at any time within a large window of time.

  1. Recommendation Letters

Although not every school requires them, an absolutely critical component in the admissions process are your recommendation letters. With the exception of most public Florida schools, institutions require recommendation letters as a means to validate the other sections of your application. Given, the amount of recommendations each college requires varies, some may only require two while a more selective institution may require three and allow an additional letter to be submitted if the applicant wishes. Of course, it is in your best interest to utilize the entire space of an application. So, if a school allows you to submit up to four recommendations and you have people in mind who would be happy to write them, it could not hurt you to ask them.

If your application follows a significant theme of excellence in STEM, it is in your best interest to ask for a recommendation from a math or science teacher, or maybe a decathlon coach; someone who is an expert in your field of interest and has seen your passions and effort at work. Maybe your activities section conveys a theme of leadership and service within your local community—the same sentiment applies. You want to get recommendations from authority figures who have witnessed your leadership skills and service initiatives firsthand.

One of the most integral steps in getting letters of recommendation is asking for them in a timely manner. After all, you want a letter from someone who can bring every other component of your application to life, and you can’t expect this from them within such a narrow time period. I would advise that the best time to ask for a letter is before junior year even ends, give your teachers the flexibility of writing it at any point throughout the summer to get the result you want.

And of course, ask in a proper manner. If you have the flexibility of seeing your teachers in-person, ask them to write your recommendation then. If your only way of reaching out to your preferred recommender is through online means, an email is probably your best and most professional option. Always present yourself graciously, and remember that they are potentially doing a service for you. Treat the interaction as such.

As Part 1 of the Comprehensive Guide to College Applications comes to a close, I disclose that this is merely advice, for I am not by any means an expert on the topic. However, as someone who has endured the experience and survived, I can say that it is doable. Everyone has their distinct college decisions journey—their own successes and setbacks—remember that these decisions do not define you.

Part 2 coming soon…

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Chapter 3: A Comprehensive Guide to College Applications – Part 1