College Apps 101


Amanda Chang, Media Editor

As the number of college applicants increases, so does the difficulty of getting into one you like. Here are some tips and tricks from seniors to help your college app process go more smoothly.

1. Start Early!

You’ve heard it before—it’s never too early to start. Here are some questions you can ask yourself if you don’t know where to start; it’s an overwhelming process! What are my interests? What can I do to build onto these passions? What do I not know about the college application process?

From there, you will probably realize that there’s quite a lot to do. Every school has a different name or variation of the major you’re interested in. There might even be instances where your desired major is unavailable. Are you still interested in attending the school if that’s the case?

To navigate through the process effectively, make sure to look through all the different applications and make a to-do list. The CommonApp and UC Application both require basic information about yourself, your family, and more, including whether your parents attended college and what your household income is. Oftentimes, extra essays and information will be required per school you’re applying to. If you’re applying for an artistic major, you may have to submit a portfolio as well.

“Right when your junior year ends, or even maybe during the end of that year, I would suggest getting started on your applications. You could start looking at the UC questions or prompts from your colleges to get an idea of how you want to answer. I would jot down the points you want to include in your essays and start editing as soon as possible. Ask as many people to help you proofread to give you feedback,” said senior Isabella Lo.

Before starting the initial applications, know which schools you plan to apply to. If you have a busy summer schedule, start your applications during your second semester of junior year. Consider visiting some campuses before you apply; visiting can help you to narrow down the list of colleges you apply to.

2. Letters of Recommendation

On the topic of starting early, make sure you get a good letter of rec. Typically, it is advisable to ask your teachers from your junior year and extra curriculars, such as a coach or employer. The admissions officers are well aware that your senior teachers may not have had sufficient time to develop a comprehensive understanding of your character and ability.

To get a good letter of rec, starting really early gives applicants an easier time when deciding whom to ask for a letter. If you are a freshman, you may not be thinking about college applications right now, but it’s crucial to anticipate future needs. Once you’re a senior and are considering who amongst your previous teachers to ask for a letter, make sure the teachers you ask will write a letter that will help your application. Thus, no matter what grade you’re in, pay attention in class, be engaged, and participate to allow your teachers to gauge a firm sense of your ability and character. You’ll thank yourself in the long run.

If you made sure to start early and make a to-do list, you’ll also notice that different schools require various types of letters. Some schools ask for letters from a specific type of teacher, or require more than one letter. If the school you are applying to is less specific, consider asking a teacher that has taught you for more than one class, knows you fairly well, or will be able to give the college a comprehensive understanding of your abilities regarding your major. For example, if you are applying for an engineering major, it is better to ask your physics teacher for a letter rather than your history teacher. Be sure to ask your teachers at least three months before your application is due in order to give them adequate time. For more tips on getting letters, visit our article “Requesting Letters of Recommendation”.

“It’s critical to interview the student and get a view into what makes a student unique. [Students] tend to copy everyone else, thinking it’s [their] ticket in. Every college is going to get a data packet with the same basic information…you need to find something that’s unique about yourself and find a way to stand out,” said social studies teacher Mr. Mike Pasqua.

Once you are done with your college apps, make sure to thank your teachers, counselors, and anyone else who helped you, especially if they wrote a recommendation for you. You can do this in-person, through a heartfelt letter, or through a gift card.

3. Research

Deep dive into the rabbit holes of the internet to find information about what’s helpful to completing a college application. Read the syllabi of the majors you’re considering. If you have a portfolio, look at examples of what a good portfolio should look like.

Other people can also be a great source of information during your research! Connect with alumni who can offer firsthand experiences and insights into the college admissions process. Ask about their strategies for gaining admissions, their perspectives on different programs, and if they have any tips to share. In the end, these perspectives can provide valuable guidance on your application process.

4. Majors

It can be overwhelming when it comes to choosing a major. While it is important to have a major that will serve you well after college, make sure you also enjoy the material you’ll be learning.

“Choose a broader major and then later in your career you can narrow it down. Don’t go for something too specific in case you don’t end up liking it,” advised senior Destiny Farley.

Also choose one that is not too competitive, but be sure to also declare a major that appeals to you! Do not select a random major if you have no interest in it. For instance, do not choose to study German Studies if you are interested in math and science. While a less competitive major may improve your chances of admission to your dream college, there is no guarantee that you will be able to switch majors. Additionally, admissions officers can most likely tell whether you are truly interested in a major, especially when looking at your application as a whole–if you wish to major in an artistic field, it would be noticeable and strange to not have any extracurriculars that indicates an interest in art.

5. Essays: Write, Edit, Repeat.

Essays are a MAJOR part of college applications. Use the essays as an opportunity to share more about your life that aren’t listed in other parts of your application. This will allow the readers to know more about you and the kind of student they would be getting should they accept you.

Turn in your first essays to schools that you have a good chance of getting into, like your “safety schools”. Your essay skills will improve over time. Submit these better essays to your more competitive schools. Try to answer prompts that are similar to other essays so that you can reuse parts of your essays to craft new answers, but make sure that they still grab the reader’s attention and are easy to follow. 

When it comes to editing, many people, including your English teacher, will most likely be open to meeting with you to help you with your essays. However, be sure to ask them many weeks in advance to ensure the best results. Writing and editing your essays is a long process.

“You can send your essay to your English teacher and they can look it over or give you helpful tips,” said senior Nipun Batra.

6. Be Passionate

Show your interests in everything from the extracurriculars you list to the stories you include in your essays. This gives the admissions officers a better taste of what you’re like. Doing extracurriculars that you truly enjoy can also be a great source of inspiration and content in essays.

You can also try to connect your extracurriculars and essays to the major you’re applying for. This shows the admissions officers that you truly have an interest in the major and will stick to studying it, even when times get tough. 

7. Resources

Anyone and anything can be a helpful resource during the tedious application process. As mentioned, family, alumni, friends, and your teachers can be helpful in becoming a resource to you. Ask your friends what they are doing to motivate themselves, stay organized, and approach the application process. Don’t forget that our college counselors are also available to help answer any questions you have. 

Some other resources include:

The College Essay Guy (CEG) gives in-depth explanations and materials for applicants to use. He updates his site annually to address each year’s specific prompts and gives a guide for many popular colleges. Many of the resources he provides are free. While he does also have paid services, they aren’t necessary to a good application.

“College Essay Guy is where students, parents, and counselors find smart, practical guidance for the college admission journey,” says the CEG About Us Page.

The UC site for the prompts gave good explanations for what the admissions officers are looking for. Reddit and Quora are also great since they show you the opinions of current and graduated students,” said senior Jada Isabela.

Other seniors also suggested YouTubing tips, going to college essay-writing classes, having a tutor advise you, and Googling examples. Although many essay-writing classes and tutors can be helpful, they can also be quite expensive, so keep this in mind when looking for help.

8. Apply To A Lot Of Schools

In recent times, there has been an increase in the number of students applying to undergraduate colleges, which subsequently decreases the likelihood of acceptance to the schools you apply to. Be prepared for rejection and apply to many schools that you would be open to attending. The more places you apply for, the more chances and choices you will have in the spring.

“I heard that a lot of students this year only applied to a couple and they didn’t get in. So applying to more than your reach schools is better,” said senior Jada Isabela.

However, don’t apply solely for the sake of applying. If you are genuinely uninterested in attending many schools besides your dream school, a better route would be to enroll in a community college. At the end of four years, you will still earn a degree, regardless of whether you went to community college or not.

I would like to acknowledge that it is quite costly to apply for multiple colleges, but if you are financially able, it is advisable to apply for a variety of colleges. Some colleges don’t have an application fee while others have considerably high fees. According to, most college applications cost between $30 to $90, and the national average cost is $43. Both the California State University and University of California applications cost $70 per school. For some students, an application fee waiver can be used to help offset the cost.

9. Stay Organized

Although this is a given, staying organized is really important, and there are many different ways to do so. Consider:

  1. Organizing all extracurricular activities by type and the amount of type dedicated to it.  Write a small description of each activity too. This is especially important for underclassmen to do as they volunteer and do other events before applying. By the time students are seniors, most probably will not be able to remember how many hours they dedicated to each activity they participated in, but such information is necessary for college apps.
  2. Creating a new Google Drive folder for each school you’re applying to and separate folders for the CommonApp and UC general essays and information.
  3. Making a spreadsheet that lists the schools you wish to apply to, then ranking the schools based on different categories like student life, food, housing, and value. This can help to organize information you do on each school and help indecisive students to decide on which schools they like best. 
  4. Schools can also be categorized into three types: safety, target, and reach. Applicants are not guaranteed to get into “safety schools”, but they do have a pretty good chance. A “reach school” is a school that applicants have a slim chance of getting into, such as an Ivy League. Typically, students’ dream schools are of this type. Finally, “target schools” are schools that applicants have a good chance of getting into based on their grades, extracurricular activities, and/or standardized test scores.

10. Financial Aid and Scholarships

Research and apply for scholarships early on, too. Many scholarship and honor programs require a separate application and it is best to get them done in advance. This “free money” can help to pay for any number of expenses that comes with college apps and the college experience. If filling out the financial aid applications proves difficult, ask your economics teacher if they would be willing to guide you through it.

11. Talk to Your Counselor

The Arcadia High School (AHS) counselors often hold webinars and workshops that are helpful for students of all ages to prepare for college apps. Attend them for extra insight into the minds of the admissions officers and for other tips.

 “They can give you information that you wouldn’t be able to look for and you can ask them any questions you may have,” said senior Irene Banh about the counselors’ webinars.

The counselors are also available before school, at lunch, and at the Counselor of the Day desk during the college app season. And since most apps require a counselor’s letter of rec, the AHS counselors make sure to interview each applicant individually to be able to write the best letter of rec for students.

12. Take Advantage of Your Space

While some essays and standardized tests are optional, it’s better to complete the “optional” things. Every answer is one more piece of information you’re giving the admissions officers. 

Although the college app process can be daunting, difficult, and frustrating, we hope this crash course to apps is helpful. Good luck!


Photo Courtesy of UNSPLASH.COM