Real Talk with Caitlin Plummer: What you should know about applying for college

Caitlin PlummerBy Caitlin Plummer

March, as many of you know, is the month that most colleges finally send out responses to their applicants. Seniors sit in anticipation, tracking each of their applications and waiting to see if they will receive that desired information in an email or even an old-fashioned letter.

All of this waiting has gotten me thinking about the things I wish I knew about applying to college one year ago. (I’ve organized my points into different sections, so if you want to jump around to the things that apply to you, feel welcome.) Based on the things I did right and the mistakes I made, here is my advice to the Class of 2014:

Establish what general field you want to pursue and what you don’t. No, you don’t have to know what you want to do for the rest of your life right now, but you should at least have an idea of what your favorite subject is. For example, I knew that I would never want to go into science, so schools that had good medical or research programs were not high on my radar.

I was lucky to know that I wanted to pursue journalism, which definitely shortened my list of prospective colleges. If I received mail from a college, I would look them up on the College Board website to see if they had a journalism major or any the other qualities I wanted in a college… which brings me to my second point.

Make an account on the College Board “Big Future” website. This website made finding information about colleges so much easier. Not only is it the same website that lets you sign up for the SAT and reports your scores, but it lets you fill out your needs and wants in a college. Then it spits out a list of colleges that have a majority of the qualities you asked for.

However, it also comes in handy because a green sidebar appears on the left side of each college profile page when you’re logged in. The sidebar lets you know what the college has and doesn’t have out of your stated wants and needs. Every time a school contacted me and it didn’t have a journalism major, I put less weight on it as an option. Each college profile also has easy tabs that let you see application deadlines, costs, and even information about the campus environment.

Take the SAT early and more than once. By taking your SAT in the spring of your junior year, you have an idea of what you need to work on before you take it again. It’s also less pressure because you’re not taking the SAT in the midst of the college application chaos that is the fall of your senior year. Plus, less people take it in the early spring (March, April and May) than in June and October, which means you are competing against less people and have a better chance at getting a higher score.

Yes, a little studying will help; and no, I don’t believe taking a class will vastly change your score. I know people who took a class or had a tutor and I still scored higher than they did with less than an hour of last minute studying. The best preparation you can get is reading a lot, because it will help you read faster on the test, which, of course, is timed. You will also be able to pick out the errors in the Writing section with little trouble. My Writing score improved by 70 points the second time I took the test, without deliberate studying, because I had been editing so many articles for Meadowdale’s newspaper.

I would also suggest you brush up on your Geometry concepts and (shocker!) number theory. I kid you not, the middle school math is what tripped me up on the test day. I’d recommend buying an SAT book, because they cover all the math concepts that will appear on the test. If you study more than the meager amount I did, you’ll probably do better than me, too.

Yep, take your Subject Tests, too; before the end of this year. Sure, you’re right. You don’t need to take the Subject Tests, like no schools require them. Right? Wrong. My best friend had been working on her application to a school in New York for weeks before she figured out they required two SAT Subject Tests. She hadn’t taken them, didn’t have time before the deadline, and ended up unable to apply to her top choice school. If you are considering any selective schools at all, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
Plus, if you’re taking AP classes this year, you’ll be adequately brushed up on your subjects before the test. The company that distributes AP tests is the same company that makes the SAT Subject Tests: College Board. I didn’t study for any of mine, and my highest score was US History because I had taken the AP test a month before.

And speaking of studying, I really should have. Learn from my mistake. I took three Subject Tests last June without so much as glancing at the curriculum and had a panic attack when I was given pounds of pre-1700s poetry to analyze. Then, unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to take them again before applications were due, so I was stuck with my low to average scores. Buy a prep book (try to get it used on Amazon) so you can at least know what areas will be covered on the test.

Narrow down your college applications to a number you and your parents agree on. A method I’ve heard frequently is to have two safety schools, two matches, and two reaches. Of course, there are students that only apply to one or two schools, and there are students who apply to over ten. It’s all up to you and how much money your parents are willing to spend. Each application fee costs at least $50, and soon it begins to add up. (If you qualify for fee waivers, however, go ahead and go on your own little application “shopping spree”.) Once you’ve decided on a list, put all the important deadlines on a calendar. Personally, I would use my phone’s calendar because it’s easily accessible and can set alarms for you.

The sooner you know which colleges you are considering, the better, because the SAT only lets you send free score reports before you take the test. If you send your score reports early, the schools hold onto them and then you don’t have to pay $11 later per score report to send them with your applications. (It’s all about saving money, people.)

Keep a notebook in the back of your mind for interesting essay ideas. You are unique; you each have your own pet peeves and passions. The smallest, most insignificant habit you have could make for a great anecdote leading into a bigger image of you.

I, unfortunately, wrote my Common App essay first and didn’t realize that I could write essays for other colleges’ prompts (like the University of Washington or the UC schools, which aren’t on the Common App) and then use that same essay for the Common App’s “Topic of Your Choice” option. Be smarter than I was. Reusing essays is nothing to be ashamed of, only saving your sanity.

Ask your teachers for your recommendation letters quickly after school starts. Remember, the teacher you’re asking to write you a letter probably has at least ten other kids asking at the same time. If you let them know that you want their letter a few weeks after school starts, you’ll be one of their first customers, and you’ll give them plenty of time to write it by the deadline.
I applied Early Decision, so I had all of my teacher recommendations written and uploaded to the Common App by November, but many of my friends waited until December to ask for their recommendations. The teachers agreed to write them over winter break and upload them before January 1 (a common regular decision deadline). However, my boyfriend’s teacher never uploaded his recommendation at all and he had to email the college he was applying to, tell them the trouble, and then find a new teacher to write one for him. Doesn’t sound like a fun winter break, right? So try to make sure everything is ready to go and uploaded before you leave for break.

Consider Early Decision or Early Action. Only some colleges offer these application programs. Early Decision is binding, meaning that if you apply and get in, you have to attend that college. It’s easier to get into most colleges applying Early Decision, because less students apply; therefore, you’re only competing against a few thousand applicants rather than tens of thousands. Early Action, however, just means that you find out if you were accepted earlier than the typical spring notification date. Most of these application deadlines are November 1, which sounds incredibly early, and it is – but it also means you get your Common App out of the way early, when senior year is still coasting from the start line. Colleges generally notify you by the end of December of your status.

Search out merit scholarship and priority application deadlines. Applying by the priority application deadline means you hear back earlier than other students if you apply by a certain date. Merit scholarship deadlines, however, determine whether you will be considered for merit scholarships. They’re hard to find, too, almost as if the colleges don’t want you to know when you have to apply for them to consider you. In my experience, the merit scholarship deadlines have always been December 1. Not every school has merit scholarship deadlines; many just review every applicant as eligible. However, selective schools with a large application pool generally have a specific deadline you need to submit by to be considered. Missing the deadline can mean making it more difficult to pay for your dream college.

Utilize your teachers’ skill in editing essays. At first, I was weary about asking my English teacher for help with my college essays, but it turns out, many are willing to help if you are willing to wait. I know the line will look long, but that expert eye and honest opinion will either help you develop a worthy essay or give you confidence about the one you already have.
Teachers aren’t the only ones that can help either. Ask a friend who you know is a good writer to give you feedback and makes edits. I sent at least ten of my essays out to my friends, and edited more than ten in return. But above all, remember: all of the content suggestions are just that, suggestions. You don’t have to make any of the changes your teachers or friends propose. Stay true to yourself and your writing style… but I’d recommend taking their grammar suggestions to heart. (Really, colleges are sticklers on grammar.)

Contact the schools that conduct interviews about interviewing as soon as possible. I only got to interview for one school, because when I looked into interviewing for my other applications, they were all booked or the interviewing period had closed. The colleges that don’t require interviews generally conduct them during the fall of your senior year into December. Most colleges do alumni interviews, and they are not as scary as they sound. Mine was in a Starbucks and the woman was even as nice as to offer to try and find me a summer internship with her journalism connections! If you’re a strong interviewer, you want to make sure to strengthen your application with a good review. Most colleges say the absence of an interview won’t hurt you, and it won’t, but it certainly can help you.

If you’re going the Ivy League route, the colleges contact you to set up an interview after you turn in your application, generally in January. I’ve heard these are generally alumni interviews in casual settings as well. The best thing you can do in an interview is be honest. If they admit based on something you’re not, you may find out the school wasn’t a good match for you anyways.

Sign up for scholarship-finding websites and write all scholarship deadlines on your phone calendar to remind you. I made accounts on and last summer, and the return has been worth it. I filled out a resume and now I receive emails about approaching scholarships that may apply to me.

However, these scholarships are generally national and much more competitive than local scholarships. Make sure to check in with the counseling office for local scholarships that will have less applicants. Above all, make sure you keep the deadlines on your phone calendar. My calendar is the only way I ever know what scholarships are due anymore; otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have applied for any yet. Even though most scholarships are due in March and April, the earliest scholarship I applied for was due Dec. 7, so be on the lookout early.

Bug your parents about the FAFSA and CSS Profile. It’s a pain, but it’s their job in this whole college application mess. Just keep reminding them: once it’s done, they’ll never have to do it again (until next year, but they don’t have to know that right away).
Either way, it’s the CSS Profile that they should be scared about. Only some colleges, generally private schools, require this financial aid document, but it’s brutal and it delves deep into your financial history. If you apply Early Decision, it’ll be due December 1, so make sure to start it early. The FAFSA, however, you can’t start until January.

Remember: plenty of colleges have rolling applications. It’s March right now, and there are still colleges accepting applications. Say you didn’t get into any schools that really interest you; look again! It may not be as big of a pool, but you’re sure to find at least one more fish you want to consider.

Most of all, find something to distract you while you wait for the results. It isn’t hard to wait the first few months after you turned your application in, but once March hits, every senior is on edge. Colleges generally have to let you know of their decision by April 1, to give you time to decide your choice by May 1. But, of course, by March senioritis is in full swing and school is no longer an adequate distraction, so it’s essential to find something else to focus on. Which of course, if what writing this column is for me.

College applications are the definition of a juggling act. There are so many different aspects, multiple of time-consuming sections, and no grade for any of it besides a letter that comes in the mail months later (talk about delayed gratification). Face it head on and don’t be afraid to ask your counselor about any questions you have. It’s much better to harass your counselor than to fill out an application incorrectly; a statement I’m sure my own counselor would laugh at after all of the questions I put her though.
The bottom line is if you’re organized and aware, everything will go as smoothly as it can. I prided myself on being on top of college applications and I still missed a few merit scholarship deadlines and such. There will be bumps in the process, I assure you. What matters is if you take a Dramamine and fall asleep or if you take them with grace.

(Don’t fall asleep. You’ll regret it in the spring.)

Caitlin Plummer, a senior at Meadowdale High School and co-editor of Meadowdale’s newspaper, The Maverick, enjoys writing about a broad range of topics that are on her mind. She was born in Lynnwood and lives there with her parents, her younger brother and her golden retriever, Cinnamon. Her future aspirations include earning a degree in journalism and writing for a major news source.

  1. Bravo and Thank you! This marvelous article is about as succinct and helpful as I’ve seen – fun and right to the point. Especially thanks for not only including “things” to do, but specific resources and links to refer to. Our family will put this to great use.

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