Navigating the college application process

November 26, 2013 | Posted in: High School

Recently, and with the help of a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call, my son and I finalized his college applications. While a pre-dawn send-off is not a filing requirement, we had not been able to convince the Common App’s new and improved (but, sadly, not yet bug-free) online college application filing service to complete the deal for us during daylight hours.

After months of planning and prepping to hit send well in advance of the deadlines, this snag could have sent us over the edge. Instead, we decided to try sneaking up on the system at a time when other anxious-to-apply high school seniors – and their computers – were sound asleep.

Fate smiled on us and, by 5 a.m., the applications were filed and our son was one step closer to his educational future.

While we’ve learned many things about navigating the college application process this past year, the one that this experience drove home, and seems most important for families to remember, is to keep it light. With so many details and deadlines to keep straight – and the stress that this process can stir up for parents and teens – a healthy sense of humor and ability to roll with the unanticipated can make things a lot more enjoyable and ultimately successful for you and your teen.

Although each student’s path is unique, there are a number of things we learned about navigating the college application process that are sure to help other families of college-bound teens.

Relax. Your “just right” school is out there.

With more than 4,000 two-year community and junior colleges, four-year colleges and universities and technical schools in the U.S. to choose from, if higher education is in your teen’s future, you can find one that fits your teen’s goals and personality.

Lean on the experts.

The high school guidance/counseling center is waiting to help you. They are very experienced when it comes to helping teens navigate the college search and application process. Know that no question is ridiculous – they understand that this is a brand new process for many families. Often the guidance/counseling center web page features a Q and A section about the college application process, lists of important dates and deadlines, and resources available on related topics – registration and preparation, searching for and applying to college, financial aid, career readiness and more.

Take advantage of workshops offered by the guidance staff on the college search/application process.

Attending these informational sessions will help teens and parents understand what the college application process is all about and what they will need to do. Make sure your teen takes an active role; it’s his or her education. These sessions are especially helpful for families going through the process for the very first time because of the chance to talk and ask questions of a real person. Those who are veterans of the college application process can also benefit, since the application process – and other important details ‐ can change from year to year.

Pick a college and visit the school.

Being on campus gives teens an experience that they can use to understand what college “feels like” and to begin to make their decision about the type of environment they’d like (large university center vs. compact 2,000-plus college campus, urban vs. rural, etc.). Keep it local if significant traveling is not an option for your family – early in the game, it matters less where you visit than taking the time to do so. Once the choices narrow, visits to the schools they’re dreaming of can help teens see whether the web- and glossy-paper versions of the school live up to the reality.

If travelling to the school isn’t possible, many colleges offer virtual tours on their websites. Or, contact the college or university to arrange for a meeting near your home with a regional representative.

Take part in college fairs and visits from college reps.

Check with the high school’s guidance/counseling staff and visit their webpage for up-to-date listings of these events.

Narrow your options.

Application fees and deadlines for a long list of schools will add up and stress you out. Pare it down to a short list of favorites – good fits academically and financially – that will give your teen a solid pool of possibilities to choose from once acceptance letters start rolling in.

Understand the application options.

Early decision is not the same as early action. Applying early decision is binding, meaning that a student must attend the college if he or she is accepted there, unless the financial package offered is too low and makes paying for the education impossible. In general, students can only apply to one college early decision, but may apply to others on the regular decision timeline.

Applying early action does not commit a student to the school(s) applied to this way, but does mean that students will receive word about acceptance earlier in the school year, allowing them to weigh the benefits of each school and the financial aid packages being offered before making a final decision in early spring.

Regular decision applies to State University of New York (SUNY) schools and is an option at most others, too. In general, students will hear whether they have been accepted to college with this application method by March 1.

Instant admission is offered by many 2-year/community colleges and happens through the school year. Students receive word of acceptance at the conclusion of an interview with a college representative.

Keep track of important dates and deadlines for standardized tests, requirements for supplemental essays and college interviews, requirements for sport recruitment and other details specific to your teen and the schools he or she hopes to attend. Online organizers, such as Naviance are found on many Guidance Center web pages, and are great tools for keeping it all straight.


  • In addition to tons of helpful college information, this site contains SAT and SAT II sample questions and registration.
  • This site offers a searchable database of colleges and scholarship opportunities. It allows students to apply over the net to different colleges and universities. Financial aid information is also available.
  • This site allows students to research colleges and financial aid options.
  • Search colleges by name and state.
  • This site includes information on New York ‘s private colleges including open houses, academic programs, campus profiles and financial aid.
  • This site contains practice SAT and ACT (college entrance exam) questions, as well as information on financial aid. This site allows users to search colleges by location or by program.
  • This site allows teens to register for the ACT test.

Christine Carpenter has been a communications specialist with the Capital Region BOCES’ Communications Service since September 1996, and has worked for past seven years as a member of BOCES’ combined communications team. She holds a master’s degree in elementary education from the College of Saint Rose and an undergraduate degree in journalism. Christine is an avid supporter of her teens’ educational pursuits and their many extracurricular activities and sports teams. She is an active community volunteer, yoga instructor and loves reading, gardening and preparing tasty meals for her family and friends.

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