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Cracking the college conundrum

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By Alexandra Hehlen

The essays, the endless applications, the deadlines, the checklists, the fees, the tests, the acceptances, the rejections.
Applying for college can arguably be one of the most stressful, heartbreaking, gratifying and exciting experiences in a student’s high school career.
We Los Alamos High School seniors have just come to the end of the arduous process, beginning our college searches as early as junior year and making our final decisions as late as May 1.
Through web searches, meetings with counselors and oodles of time spent digging through college websites, we’ve discovered a lot about the college admissions process that regular college preparation books might not mention.
Before I embark on the next steps of my life, I’ve decided to pass down what I have learned for the benefit of the LAHS students who are about to start applying for college. This is not a comprehensive list; rather, these are just a few tips and tricks I have picked up along the way.
Junior year pre-college search essentials:
Take both the ACT and the SAT, and study for them using prep books. Some students prefer one test over the other, and most colleges often accept a score from either one. Start taking these tests in your junior year so that you will have time to keep taking one or both of them until you get a desired score. Although it seems counterintuitive, these exams actually measure how well you take the test rather than how much knowledge you have.
Brainstorm a list of classes and subjects you like. This may help narrow down what potential majors you are interested in, which will help with weeding out colleges from your list.
Junior year college search essentials:
Start making a list of colleges. Junior year may seem an early time to start, but this way you will have enough time to really think through your decision and cover all of your bases.
When making a college list, which should contain about three to 10 schools, consider the following:
1) What subjects you are interested in. If you really love engineering, for example, you can start looking specifically for schools that have strong engineering programs.
2) How far away you want to be from home.
3) Whether or not religious affiliation, climate and college population size matter to you.
4) While factors like weather and how nice the school looks do influence your decision, do not let them dominate your ultimate choice. You never know if you will end up loving a school that you originally never would have seen yourself going to.
5) Don’t limit yourself. Some people only apply to the colleges they can afford. True, college is expensive, but try to make your list include a balance of colleges that you can pay for and also that are out of your price range. You never know if an expensive school will offer you a top-notch scholarship.
6) Do a lot of digging. List the pros and cons for each school, whether or not they have honors programs, whether or not they offer all of the majors you are looking for and most importantly whether or not they offer scholarships.
When your list is done, start weeding out colleges by researching more about each one or by talking with a teacher who knows you very well. Make sure to start a list of all the deadlines you need to be aware of for each school that you are applying to.
Senior year college application essentials:
Start in the summer or the very beginning of your senior year on college applications. This will give you time to write high-quality essays.
Have a literature teacher, your parents and a friend edit your essay. Each of these people will have very different suggestions that can improve your essay. Rework your piece and then have them read it again. Sometimes you will have to do several iterations of this process to produce a masterpiece. Be patient. A strong essay takes time, and once you have a good one you may even be able to reuse it for a different college’s application.
Figure out early on how many people you will need to write you letters of recommendation.
One of the schools on your list may only need one letter, but another may need two. Some scholarships awarded by the school can also contain separate applications that require additional recommendations. Ask your recommenders (preferably someone who knows you very well) early, and make sure to provide them with any guidelines you may have been given by the school for what the letter should contain. Give them a thank you card or a gift after they finish the letter.
Most importantly, do not give up. Whether you are applying to three colleges or 15, treat each application as if the school for which you are applying is your absolute dream school.
Although it may sound painstaking, spend a good few weekends on your couch with your laptop and put some genuine effort into your applications. College admissions officers can tell which essays were written the night before the deadline and which ones were worked and reworked over a period of weeks or months.
College applications take a lot of time, but at the end of the year the entire process ends up becoming extremely rewarding. The negativity that comes with possible rejection is far outweighed by the final feeling of knowing where you want to go to school, and of knowing that you made a completely researched decision.