Anyone who lives or works with teenagers understands their unique capacity for selective listening. So, it’s no surprise that, when high schoolers hear that they do not have to submit ACT or SAT scores as part of their applications to the majority of U.S. colleges, they often take this to mean that these tests no longer matter in the admissions process. This is actually the reality at “test-free” colleges, most prominently the California State University and University of California systems, which abandoned all consideration of the ACT and SAT in 2020 and 2021, respectively.
In today’s competitive college admissions climate, many students would jump at the opportunity to double, triple, or even quadruple their chances of admission to a college high on their list. Such a way exists—it’s called Early Decision (ED), and it can be a great strategy for many students. Applying ED isn’t appropriate for everyone, but understanding how this decision plan works can help families evaluate whether it’s a viable and desirable option.
Clearly and concisely articulate who you are—in 650 words or fewer. This challenge would be daunting for many adults, yet this is precisely what the Common App personal statement section asks teenaged applicants to do. This main essay is submitted to the vast majority of colleges on a student’s list and therefore should omit mention of any particular school. Most students will write additional essays tailored to particular colleges, activities, or other topics, but the Common App essay is more broadly focused on the students themselves.
There’s no uniform “right” number of schools on a college list. On rare occasions, we’ve had students apply to as few as two schools (both “likely” schools that offered rolling admission plans). Other students, particularly those pursuing niche majors like musical theatre, may submit upwards of 20 applications. The vast majority of students, however, should strive to include 8-12 schools—ranging from “likely” to “target” to “unlikely”—on their lists.
It’s easy to get caught up in the college admissions frenzy and subscribe to the idea that getting in to X or Y school is a coveted prize, one that validates a student’s effort, fuels a parent’s ego, and/or is the ticket to a successful future. But, college is neither a reward nor a final destination. Rather, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience designed to further students’ academic and personal growth and prepare them to confidently approach the next stage of their lives.
With nearly 4,000 four-year colleges in the United States alone, creating a college list can be simultaneously exciting and overwhelming. In the process of identifying universities that fit their interests and goals, many students initially default to schools they already know, perhaps through their families, older friends, or sports.