1. HOW MANY COLLEGES TO APPLY TO.
There's no written rule when it comes to the number of schools you should ultimately apply to, but many school counselors agree that it's best to submit applications to around five to eight colleges. In that pool, make sure you have a good mix of reach schools, target schools and safety schools. And of course, if you end up finding even more schools that really align with your values, aspirations and lifestyle, it's fine to go over eight.
2. THE COMMON APP MAKES THINGS A LOT EASIER.
Does it sound overwhelming to fill out more than five separate, unique college applications? That's why the Common App exists. More than 750 colleges in the U.S. accept the Common App—and no, you won't be dinged by admissions committees for choosing to go this more efficient route. You can check out the colleges that accept the app, and learn more about it, on the Common App's official website.
3. WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A COLLEGE.
This is all about you—what interests you, what excites you, where you feel safe, where you feel challenged. It's a personal quest that you'll most likely include your family in on, but that being said, here are a few factors to consider as you research schools: size, location, the quality of the academics, the outcomes (where graduates work now), opportunities to learn outside of the classroom (through study abroad trips, for example), clubs and organizations that appeal to you, the strength of the alumni network and the differences between private vs. public schools. Ratings and "best of" lists help for sure, but that shouldn't be the only thing you focus on.
4. THE SINGLE BEST WAY TO KNOW IF A SCHOOL IS RIGHT FOR YOU.
Visit the campus! We stress this a lot on this blog: there's no better way to get a sense of life at a particular college—and whether or not that life feels comfortable and exciting to you—than by touring the grounds and experiencing the school firsthand. Start with campus tours, then dig deeper into the ones you really like with Open Houses or other visit opportunities.
5. HOW PEOPLE AFFORD COLLEGE.
No matter what grade you're in, chances are you've heard that college can be costly. But don't let any fears surrounding affordability get in the way of your college search journey; there are actually plenty of ways to make higher education affordable. For starters, the federal government doles out billions in federal grants, federal student loans and work-study opportunities to those who qualify every year. Colleges and universities also offer their own scholarships and grants, and in addition, there are a number of ways families can save up. Be sure to visit the official site for Federal Student Aid at some point, and always talk to financial aid counselors. They're there to help!
6. WHAT TO DO IF YOU'RE UNDECIDED.
Don't stress and don't feel unprepared. These days, being undecided is not only totally okay, it's embraced. A lot of schools offer exploratory programs and options that help undecided students uncover their true passions, making a four-year school totally worth it regardless of whether or not you start out with a declared major. (At Siena, we actually call undecided students "exploring" students.) Find out what each college on your list offers to help you find your way, and while you're at it, download this free guide on being undecided.
7. WHO CAN HELP YOU OUT.
As personal as the college search is, you'll no doubt want assistance along the way. Turn to your parents! Ask your older friends about their experiences. Talk to the teachers who know your best. Utilize your school counselor every step of the way (here are 10 things school counselors can do for you). And at the colleges you're really interested in, don't be shy—the admissions counselors have all the answers you need to narrow down your list.
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