The College Application Survival Guide

If you’re about to apply to college, you might already have a knot in your stomach, and it’s tightening. Maybe you feel like everything depends on nailing your applications. (No pressure, am I right?) Don’t worry! As a UC Davis Aggie, I’ve been through this process before, and I’m going to give you the help you need to survive.

Find the right fit for you

First, figure out where you want to apply. You don’t want to limit yourself, but each application costs you time — and maybe money. Begin by gathering a list of colleges you are interested in. Make a spreadsheet of the schools’ acceptance rates, cost of attendance and programs that interest you. 

You should also include the schools’ GPA expectations (and SAT or ACT score ranges, if required to apply) and compare this to your statistics. If you are above the grade point average for a particular school, categorize it as a safety. If you are below, list it as a reach. Many schools provide a GPA range, which shows you GPAs for the middle 50 percent of admitted students. This means that 25 percent of admitted students were above that range and 25 percent below that range. Grades aren’t everything, and schools like UC Davis seek students with passion and values. 

If you are applying as a freshman, don’t omit community colleges from your spreadsheet. With an average acceptance rate of 79 percent for first-year students, they can be both a safety net and a stepping stone (but more on that later).   

Your preliminary research does not need to be intense. Start by looking at whether or not the school has any majors that interest you. If they don’t, drop them off your list. Once you have some front-runners, look at their class catalogs and the paths for each major. This will allow you to discover the different concentrations available. 

Of course, classes are not the only thing you’ll be doing at college. Take some time to think about the extracurriculars you did and didn’t like in high school. Did you adore speech and debate? Check if any schools on your list have a team or mock trial. Many colleges have lists of clubs or advocacy groups online, so take some time to skim through.

Cost is a biggie. It includes many factors such as tuition, fees, cost of living and financial aid. Many colleges have financial aid calculators, so plug in your numbers and compare the estimates. If you really don’t know if a school fits within your budget but you still love it, you should still apply. Most colleges show your financial aid package when they accept you, so you will be able to compare the aid offered by different colleges and make your decision then. (Unless you are applying for early decision — more on that in a bit, too!)

Think about location

Location is important enough that it deserves its own paragraph. What food do you truly need in your life? If it gets cold enough to snow, would you know how to drive on the slippery roads? Do you crave sunshine? Would you like to live where you can get everything and go everywhere you need without a car? Your location is your life, so dig into each possible environment. College vlogs or housing Q&As are a great way to learn about location, and of course about student life, too.

But do I actually want to attend this college—or any?

Before you start applying, you should take a step back. What is your motivation for applying to these schools? Are you applying because you believe they are genuinely the right fit for you? Are you responding to family pressure?  The way I see it, you shouldn’t apply to colleges because you think you ought to, do it because you want to. Besides, going straight into a four-year university isn’t your only option. 

You could go to a community college for two years then transfer to a four-year college or university. This would allow you to save a ton of money and still have access to a wide range of classes. If you are not entirely sure if college is right for you, you  can also test the waters without significant investment.  And if you don’t get into your dream college, then you have the ability to transfer in.

UC Davis is incredibly accommodating to transfer students because of its Transfer Admission Guarantee (TAG). Check it out!  You can also learn what you need for a successful transfer to UC Davis, with or without a TAG.

Or, you might consider taking a gap year. It would give you more time to think about where you want to go, get job experience and save up some money for college.

Seek affirmation

You should start looking for people who will write you a letter of recommendation. Teachers and counselors are great options, just as long as they know you and can attest to your (good) character. Different colleges have different policies regarding letters of recommendation, so be sure to double-check. For example, the UC system does not take letters of recommendation. You can also use these letters to apply for scholarships, though, so they are important to have on hand.

Walk the walk and write the right (essays)

Each college application has different essay prompts. Most usually fall in the category of, “Explain a hardship you faced and its impact,” or “How have you displayed problem-solving skills?” Go through the prompts and set up a separate document (Google Docs or a Word document work well) for each school, since online applications can shut down without saving your work. Focus on knocking out each school one by one. I recommend that you do not switch between different college applications during this process, as you will likely feel frazzled and overwhelmed.

For more help, search for tips online and ask family to give feedback. Websites like Grammarly are fine for proofreading, but your English teacher or guidance counselor can attest to whether or not the essay reflects your character and if it is worth submitting. 

Finally, be yourself with a bit of flair. Show off your achievements and prove that you are the perfect student for their school. You can do it!

Application time!

Many colleges do not just have one application deadline. Some allow you to apply through a process called early decision, in which you apply by an earlier deadline and receive an early decision letter from that college. This is under the condition that if you are accepted, you must attend. Early decision locks you in, which is great if it is your dream school, but bad if you want to compare financial aid packages from other schools.

Some schools offer early action, which is similar to the early decision as you apply and hear back early, but it is not binding. Regular admissions are what people most commonly refer to when discussing deadlines, and you will usually apply from late November to early January. (The UC application must be submitted in November.) All this varies greatly from school to school, as do the actual dates themselves, so keep track of the deadlines.

Once you have finished your essays and uploaded any supporting documents, do a quick once-over, pray to whatever higher power you believe in and press submit. 

Congrats! You just applied to college.

Two college students laugh as they look at a laptop computer.


Abigail Loomis is a Political Science major from Placerville, California, who applied to 10+ colleges and 9+ scholarships in her senior year of high school. She now happily spends her time hanging out with the Eggheads on the UCD campus.

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