The Bridge to College: Applying to Public Universities

Many parents worry about how well their students will complete college applications. Students also suffer anxiety over the admission process, particularly since online portals make applications hard to read and understand.

Relax. For public universities, the admissions process is neither complicated nor overly challenging.

The first thing to recognize is what is required and what is not.

Because of the number of applications they review, public colleges use streamlined applications, not complex processes. They don’t want extra information, and their websites state clearly that they will not accept or review materials beyond those requested.

So what do they want? Public colleges only need four things: a student’s grades, one standardized test (SAT or ACT), a list of the student’s activities, and one essay. They seldom request additional essays, nor do they need teacher recommendations or interviews.

During the junior year, and perhaps in the fall of the senior year, high school students will take the SAT or ACT. They can take the tests more than once; the colleges will only consider the highest scores. Because the standardized test score is perhaps the most important consideration in the application review by major universities, it is prudent for students to take these tests seriously, utilizing whatever resources may be available, including practice tests and private or group tutoring. Students must have the company administering the test (College Board or ACT, Inc.) provide the test scores to the colleges where applications will be filed.

The application itself is not complicated. The first section merely asks for a student’s personal information, such as name, high school, e-mail, parent information, and the like.

The second section asks applicants to self-report their high school grades. In other words, students list each class and final grade in the application. An unofficial transcript from the high school is extremely helpful in completing this section painlessly. Even though the high school will (upon a student’s request) send an official transcript to the colleges, the admissions departments want the information loaded into their systems via the application itself.

Third, applications require that students insert a list of their activities during the four years of high school, whether the activities are school-sponsored or off-campus. Many applications allow for a limited (50-word) explanation of each activity. It is a good idea for younger high school students to start a log or diary of their activities right away, as young minds – like old ones – forget things.

Finally, most public universities ask applicants to write one essay, usually limited to 500 words. Although they are likely to provide a list of topics from which students must choose, the essays are merely personal statements. Students need to be able to write about themselves, or else the opportunity to “sell” oneself is squandered. To make essays memorable, students should provide details about their lives; details, rather than platitudes or adjectives or adverbs, provide the kind of information that human minds absorb readily. Ask a trusted friend or professional to review the essay to ensure that what is intended is actually communicated.

Major public universities generally “open” the portal for applications in August or September of the senior year. It is strongly recommended to submit all application materials by the schools’ “priority” deadlines, which are usually mid-October or November 1 (note that a different strategy applies to private, highly-selective colleges). Because of the rigors and distractions of the final year of high school, students should use the summer before senior year to get as much done on their essays as possible.

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