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by Paul McLeary | March 10, 2009

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Applying for college is a tough business. While you don't necessarily have to have your major mapped out by time you arrive on campus in the fall, you do have to make sure your transcripts arrive on time, your recommendations are lined up and you have the requisite patience to wait for the admissions office to send the all-important packet to your door.

Before you can even send out the applications, though, you have to figure out which schools you want to apply to. But how do you decide?

Chances are you already have at least a fuzzy idea of what you're interested in and what your prospective major might be. This leads to a decision in itself, though: should you apply to schools based on geographic region, overall prestige of the school, or perhaps schools that offer a strong program in your interest area? It's a tough one. One college administrator counsels: "I would generally recommend that if the student is very clear about their interests, they should apply to schools with the strongest programs in their area of interest." It is important to keep in mind, however, that no matter how sure you are of your prospective major, things change.

Some people are sure that they're going to major in business, only to take a psychology class that awakens an interest they never knew they had. So, if you plan on following the route of choosing a school based on its strength in a particular area, another administrator suggests "finding the right fit" on more than one level when choosing a college. This means trying to find a school that is strong in your interest area, but which also corresponds to your personality. Some people like the intimacy of a small school, while others prefer the anonymity of a large institution. Weigh the pros and cons before making a decision, and try to choose schools that offer the best of both worlds. If one institution offers an amazing program in your major, but you think you'd be miserable outside of the classroom, you might want to try and find some middle ground between the two.

All this actually leads to the process of deciding which colleges to apply to. As there are literally thousands of schools to choose from, a good starting point is to sit down and make a list of your top ten schools. After you're happy with the list, separate it into three categories; schools you're not sure you can get into, schools you think you have good shot of getting into and one or two "safety" schools - schools that you know will accept you. You can figure this out by checking their entrance requirements and studying the SAT or ACT scores for the current freshman class and the percentage of applications accepted and comparing them to your own scores. This way, even if you don't get into the school of your choice, you won't be left out in the cold come the fall.

Don't forget that SAT scores and grades, while obviously very important, are not the only measuring stick by which potential incoming freshmen are judged. Extracurricular activities, jobs and internships you may have had also factor into play. "It's essential these days for college students to gain as much practical, real-world experience as they can," one college administrator says, adding, "Many incoming first-year students have internship experience. With regard to that influencing their admission to college, I think that any real-life work experience, including volunteer work/community service, iscertainly of value in admissions." A good way to find out how heavily schools weigh these things is to go on a guided tour of the campus and ask questions. That way, while getting a feel for how comfortable you'd be on campus, you can interact with students and staff to get a real taste of what the school is all about and see if you have a shot at getting in.

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Filed Under: Education

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