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Starting the US College Application

Finally making the decision to start applying to US colleges was truly one of the scariest decisions I’ve made in my life. I had no idea where to start. If you’re in the same boat, don’t worry. Confusion, fear, anxiety is part of the process and you now have access to resources like these that can be a guiding light.

In this blog post, I’ll start with some quick context on my personal experience in starting the college application process. I’ll use dates to be succinct, but by no means does that mean your timeline should look similar to mine in any way (except the deadlines of course).

Next, I’ll go into exactly how one ‘starts’ the college application process. I put starts in quotation marks because it’s not linear. You’ve probably been thinking about this for a while and that in itself can be considered a starting point.

Finally, we’ll round out the article with some action items you can get started on to help you as you work through your application.

My experience was as follows:

  • Started SAT prep in August 2019, for context I graduated high school in December 2018.

  • Took the SAT in October 2019.

  • Took SAT 2 (Math 2 and Physics) in November 2019.

  • Started writing my common application personal statement essay in October.

  • Decided on an Early Action school in mid-October (I changed my EA school 3 times).

  • Wrote my Early Action supplementary essays in October.

  • Submitted my Early Action application in November.

Ok, so that's a quick overview of how I started the college application process. The first four points can be started as early as 12 months before the December deadline.

I started much later than most of my peers, so if like me you feel a bit behind, don’t worry. We have a Swahili saying that says “Kutangulia sio kufika” which roughly translates to “To be ahead is not to get to the destination first.” With good time management, some organization skills, and a few late nights, you’ll be fine.

So how exactly does one ‘start’ college applications? It’s actually quite simple. I know it doesn’t seem like it (trust me, I know), but hear me out. In two simple steps, I’ll show you exactly how to start the application process. Keyword being 'start', finishing the applications is the hard part.

Are you ready? Yes? Let’s start.

Step 1: Open a common application account

If you’re new to this your first question should be, “What is the common application?”

The common application is a nonprofit membership organization with over 900 institutions in 50 US States and 20 countries that connects applicants to these institutions. How it works: each applicant opens an account, fills out a profile, and sends it to the school(s) of their choice.

The common application centralized and streamlined applications, allowing students to apply to multiple schools at the same time instead of submitting directly to each school (thank God for technology).

Essentially, your common app profile is your main application that will be sent out to schools.

Some things you should know about the Common App:

The application officially opens on August 1 for each application cycle. There is no need to waste your time filling it in before it opens for your application cycle.

Don’t aim to finish filling it out in one sitting. Start familiarizing yourself with it and fill out the application little by little.

Where to find the Common App?

Step 2: Open a college board account

If you plan on taking the SAT, you will need a college board account to register for the test. The SAT is administered only by the college board so there is no way around this.

Additionally, you will need a college board account later in the process if you are applying for financial aid because of the CSS profile.

What you’ll use the College Board for:

  • Register to take the SATs

  • Register to take the SAT Subject Tests

  • View your SAT scores and send them to colleges.

  • Apply for financial aid through the CSS profile

  • Submit your financial and tax documents through IDOC

  • Renew your financial aid throughout college by submitting the annual CSS and submitting annual tax returns.

Where to find the college board:

Voila! In two simple steps, you have officially started the college application process. That was the easy part, you now have to complete your applications- write essays, fill out the common app, apply for financial aid, have interviews, etc.

It is overwhelming at first, so take it step by step. Break down each step into actionable items and tasks you can do bit by bit. Have a plan and know the deadlines. Be organized.

As promised, here are some action items to get you going with the applications.

Action items:

Start brainstorming ideas for your personal statement. Once you have a common application account, you have access to the personal statement prompts. Read through them and start thinking about possible essay ideas you can explore

Start looking at which schools you will eventually apply to. You don’t need to have a set list anytime soon but it is good to look at your prospective schools and do the necessary research for essays etc.

Reach out to current students or graduates of these schools. International students always have each other’s back. Some Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram stalking skills will come in handy here. Send them a message (be respectful, of course), most people are happy to help.

Sandra Mwangi,

F-1Careers Team, godspeed!

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