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Choosing Between Colleges

“What is the FAFSA?” “Is acceptance rate important when looking at colleges?” “How do I choose which colleges to apply to?” “How do I get into college once I’ve made my decision?”

Deciding what college, university, or technical college to attend after high school is a major life decision. According to greatvaluecolleges.net, educationusa.state.gov, and collegechoice.net, these are some of the most common inquiries about the college application process.

For most UW colleges, applications are accepted somewhere between September and February or March, but early action applications are due around November, according to admissions.wisc.edu. WIth that being said, these deadlines are approaching soon, so it’s important to begin working on applications and deciding on which schools you are going to apply to.  

If you are unsure of where you are planning to attend college by the time these deadlines arrive, these suggestions and recommendations can help you decide your future and help you get accepted, too.

To start, researching is an important part of the college application process. This is really the first step to finding a college that is right for you.

Kate Landry, a guidance counselor at New Berlin West, said that before you research what colleges best fit you, it’s important to know and think about what your interests are and what you would like to pursue in the future.

“This would be your basis in looking up which schools provide that type of program or focus of study, and will simplify your college search later on,” Landry said.

When you know what you’re interested in or what career you might want in the future, decided if you would prefer to go to a school that is in state or out of state, and know if you would like to attend a smaller or bigger school.

Landry said that you can then “look up your interest or major to see if it requires a two year school or a four year school which differs between the major and program that you’re interested in.”  

Once you find schools that match your interests, distance preference, and size preference, it’s substantial to look at each schools’ admissions requirements like ACT/SAT score, GPA, and the courses you’ve taken throughout your high school career to see if you meet the criteria those schools require.

“We usually divide that into three categories: your reach school, safe school, and your match school,” Landry said. “A reach school is one you may have more difficulty being accepted or possibly being waitlisted. A safe school is one where you are almost guaranteed to get into that school. A match school is one you’re more likely to be accepted in.”

According to Landry, finding and applying to a reach school, a safe school, and a match school ensures that you will at least be accepted into some school and shows why it’s important to cover all aspects of this process.

The next step, after you’ve done all of your school research, tour the schools you are curious about attending.

“Place yourself in the school’s environment, and decide if it’s your fit based on the feeling that you have on that school’s campus,” Landry said. “I don’t know what it is, but I’ve heard from multiple students that when they were on the campus of the school they were interested in attending, that it just felt right to be at that school and that they feel like they fit in, kind of like they found their niche.”

While you are going on college tours, it is important to have a feel for what campus is like and test the feeling of belongingness. While you are going on college tours, it’s important to ask your tour guide and admissions counselor what the requirements are if you are looking into a specific program of study to see what you need to complete outside of academics to be successful.

“Some programs require an internship, while some programs require volunteer experience – it’s not only just the academics but also outside of that,” Landry said.

Inquiring about the financial aid on how you will pay for the institution you will be attending is an important conversation to have with your family, tour guides, and your admissions counselor, as well.

“For some students, you have to live in the dorms for two years in some schools, and some schools it’s only one year. That’s also a financial obligation or something that can be complicated for some people,” Landry said.

“Financial difficulties can be constricting,” Landry said. “Obviously you need to take the steps to apply for financial aid and look into scholarships. This is something to consider, but there are opportunities to receive financial alleviation.”

“A lot of students I work with, out of state schools aren’t an option because of the pricing, so that will bind you, and in state schools or Minnesota schools that provide reciprocity are more realistic for a family because [college] is typically a family expense, especially linked with financial aid,” Landry said.  

In continuation with determining how to pay for college, another valuable application to fill out is the FAFSA. According to fafsa.ed.gov, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) “gives you access to the largest source of financial aid to pay for college. If you plan to apply for federal student aid like loans, work-studies, and federal grants, then it’s necessary for you to fill out the FAFSA.

In speaking on this, Landry said that “some of the financial aid you receive from your FAFSA will be subsidized and some of it will be unsubsidized.”

The difference between the two, according to studentaid.ed.gov, the U.S. Department of Education pays the interest (additional funds onto a loan) on a subsidized loan while you are still attending school and during the six months after you graduate from that institution. For an unsubsidized loan, though, it is your responsibility to pay for the interest on the loan. If you don’t pay for the interest while you are in school and during grace periods, the interest will then add to the starting amount of the loan you took out to begin with.

“It’s really important to have the loan without interest rather than the other one because it will become a larger amount while you’re in school,” Landry said. “It’s a great opportunity to see what’s out there and worth filling out because you can receive grants which will require no interest,” Landry said.

“Even in college, there’s a lot of opportunities to be identified for a scholarship and I think there’s a lot of students who forget that, so scholarships are one-hundred percent important,” Landry said. You can spend an hour on an essay and receive x amount of money, so it is worth it,” Landry said.

Deciding what career you would like to pursue in the future, researching the different schools that match your interests, distance preference, size preference, admissions requirements, and taking the time to tour schools are all great time crunchers.

This is why Landry recommends starting the college applications process at the beginning of your junior year of high school.

“The second month of your junior year you are taking the practice ACT, so that’s already getting you in the mindset that the importance of this test is basically admittance into your post-secondary experience. This is the start of the college applications process and the reason why counselors hold junior conferences during this time to start getting juniors to research and plan what classes they are going to take their senior year.”

“But by spring break of your junior year, I suggest touring the schools that you’ve researched and that interest you. Then in the summer of going into your senior year, I would move on to looking at applications, practicing essays, and asking for letters of recommendation,” Landry said.

In talking about the importance of ACT score and GPA in terms of getting accepted into a college, Landry said, “we attend a UW Help Conference every year and every UW college said that they take a holistic approach which means that they look at GPA, ACT, the coursework you’ve taken, how challenging those courses were (rigor), and the activities that you’ve been involved in outside of school and within school such as volunteer experience and commitment to working.”

“This is why the essay [on your college application] is very important because you can work in aspects about yourself that may not be emphasized within your transcript as well as letters of recommendation,” Landry said.

In discussing GPA and when grades are most important in high school, Landry said, “all four years of high school are important in getting accepted into college. It’s important to keep those grades high no matter what and consistent throughout the four years; however, senior year does matter,” Landry said.

On an ending note, “college is one of the best investments – you’re investing in yourself, your education, and your future so you have to weigh the pros and cons of finding the right program for you because it’s very personalized and individualized,” Landry said.

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