One major reason to attend a competitive college is that its reputation can help open doors for career and other opportunities.
The US News college rankings are far from perfect. But they give you a rough sense of a college’s academic reputation. It ranks national universities (large institutions, with graduate programs in most majors) and liberal arts colleges (smaller colleges that focus primarily on undergraduates and typically do not have graduate programs).
Does the school have the major you want?
It’s important to make sure the school has a major in the field you want to study. If you want to study mathematics, literature or biology this is not a problem, as almost every school has majors in these areas. But if you want to study something more nuanced, like journalism, archaeology, or gender studies, make sure the school has a major in that area.
What is the school’s reputation in the field you’d like to major in? You can get a very rough sense of which schools have good reputations in particular majors on U.S. News' Best Graduate Schools. This is a ranking of graduate programs, but a school’s ranking for a particular graduate program roughly tracks its reputation for the undergraduate major in that same subject.
Where do you want to live?
For some students, it is important to live in a certain place. That will obviously affect your choice of colleges.
Can I get in?
Are your GPA and test scores (if you’ve taken them) at or above the school’s medians? You can usually find this information by just googling the name of the school and “GPA SAT.”
If your GPA and test scores are lower than their average, do you have a special talent or skill that might make up for that? For example, are you an exceptional athlete or musician? Or is there a life event that might explain lower grades and test scores? For example, a death in the family, an illness, reserve-duty call-up, etc.
It is usually best to apply to some schools that would be difficult to get into (“reach schools”), some where your grades and test scores are about at the median, and some where your numbers are comfortably above the median (“safety schools”).
Can I afford it?
Most colleges have a tab on their websites that tells you what the total cost of attendance is: tuition, fees, and room & board if you are going to live there.
But don’t give up on a school just because the cost seems daunting. Most colleges offer substantial financial aid.
When you fill out the FAFSA, the government determines how much you can afford to pay for college. The difference between the total cost of attendance, and what you can afford to pay, is your financial need. Most top colleges offer a combination of loans, grants, and work-study to help meet your financial need.
Some of the very top schools promise to meet all of your financial need with grants alone. No-Loan Colleges: What They Are and a Complete List is a list of “no loan” colleges, which, with some qualifications, meet a student’s financial need with only grants.
Does your target school have a special relationship with MDC?
College requirements – Once you choose a college, it is crucial that you identify which courses you are required to complete at MDC in order to qualify as a transfer. This obviously bears on which courses you will end up taking at MDC, and so you should look into this as early as possible in the process, when there is still time to adjust your MDC schedule. For example, here is the general statement of transfer requirements at the University of Florida.
Major requirements – Note that at most colleges, each major will have its own course requirements in addition to the college’s general requirements. So it’s crucial that you determine what, if any, course requirements exist for your intended major, in addition to the general requirements to transfer into the college itself. Make sure also that the college you plan to transfer to will accept credit for those courses taken at MDC. This may require reaching out to the college and/or the department you plan to major in. You should also save a copy of the syllabus from every course you take at MDC, as sometimes colleges require a syllabus in order to give you credit for taking a course.
Take the hardest courses at MDC – you should look into whether there are any courses in your intended major at your transfer college that are notoriously difficult, i.e. that have a very low student success rate. These are sometimes called “weed out” courses. For example, Calculus 1 and 2, and Discrete Math, at some schools have low success rates. If that’s the case, you should consider taking those classes at MDC, where success rates may well be higher. (Although first be sure that your transfer school will accept credit in those courses from MDC).
Most colleges accept what is called the Common Application. This is a centralized site online where you can fill out application materials that will then be sent to each one of the colleges you apply to. There are forms where you enter your basic personal and academic information.
The first step in completing the Common Application is to create an account on the website. Then there are prompts for you to indicate which colleges you would like to apply to. Some colleges ask for extra materials, beyond the standard ones that are part of the Common Application. The site will notify you of this, and provide you with those materials. Make sure to note the deadlines for each school you plan to apply to. Make sure also that you note the deadlines for transfer applicants (unless you’re at MDC as a dual-enrolled high school student, in which case you would enter as a freshman, not a transfer).
Not every school uses the common application. Once you’ve registered on the Common App site, you’ll see a list of schools that use it. If you want to take a brief look, SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips has a list of schools that use the common application organized by state.
Fees – Most colleges charge a fee to apply, which is typically between $70-$90. So applying to multiple colleges can get very expensive. Indeed, if you apply to 10 colleges, that’s almost $1000. The good news is that many students will qualify for a fee waiver. The Common Application has a fee waiver tab in the “My Personal Information” portion. There are a number of ways to qualify. But the simplest is if you received a Pell Grant to attend MDC. In that case, you will not have to pay a fee for any of the applications you submit using the Common Application.
The essay portion of the application often gives students the most anxiety. But it shouldn’t. As long as you understand what the essay is asking for, and as long as you put in the time, it is a great opportunity to give a college a richer sense of who you are.
You should start thinking of what you will write about many months before the application deadline. Talk to an advisor about the topics you’re considering writing about.
After you settle on a topic, you should outline your essay – introduction, body, conclusion. Talk to an advisor and get their feedback. Then write a draft. Then show it to your advisor for additional feedback. Then write another draft. A good essay will usually take at least 10 drafts.
Here are a couple of websites with some nice sample essays:
Sample essays from accepted students - Pay particular attention to Essay #3 (from Duke – I think this one is the best), Essay #4 (from Stanford), Essay #9 (from Harvard – excellent, vulnerable, at times harrowing), Essay #10 (from Yale).
SAT / ACT
All colleges used to require applicants take either the SAT or ACT standardized tests. These days, many colleges – although not all – are “test optional.” You should check the admissions website of the colleges you’ve chosen to apply to see if they require SAT or ACT scores.
Whether or not your target schools require test scores, it may be a good idea to take them, especially if you’re a good test taker. The first thing to do is go online and take a practice test and see how you do. If you score highly, then it may be worth taking the test and submitting your scores, even if the school is test optional.
SAT Practice and Preparation is a great website from the College Board (the company that makes the SAT) with lots of SAT practice materials.