Simple Tips for Applying to College From an Expert

October 24th 2015

Diana Crandall

Applying to college is hard. It can be overwhelming to search for the right school and the right scholarships. But it is possible to navigate through college applications without having a meltdown.

Mark Kantrowitz is the founder of and helped start Kantrowitz is also an expert on planning and paying for college and spoke to ATTN: about a few, simple tips for students who are applying to college.

College Money Bag

ATTN: What's the most common mistake students make when they begin applying to college?

MK: One mistake that people make is to apply early decision as opposed to early action. Early decision commits you to attending the school if you are admitted, whereas early action is non-binding. The problem with applying early decision is you do not know when you're applying for admission how generous the financial aid package is going to be. And it's possible that you’ll get in, but the college's net price will be too high, and you'll be unable to afford to attend.

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ATTN: What's net price?

MK: Net price is the [combined] amount of money you're going to have to pay from your savings, income and loans.

ATTN: What advice do you have for students who think school might be too expensive for them?

MK: The first thing is, don’t get scared off by the sticker price. Focus on the net price. Some of the colleges that have the $70,000 dollar sticker price may also have very generous financial aid that reduces the net price to an affordable level.

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ATTN: Do extracurricular activities really matter? Should they be included in the application?

MK: For college admission, extracurriculars do matter. Colleges focus more on depth than breadth. So rather than see someone who's only participated in an athletic team for a year and maybe the math team or science club for a year, what they'd like to see is students who have many years of service to a few.

ATTN: Is there any single thing that stands out in your mind that sets apart a good application from a great one?

MK: In the application essays, make it personal. Write about how you had an impact on other students and other people had an impact on you. Make it interesting. The worst thing you can do is have a boring essay. It pays to take a little bit of a risk. You want them to be able to refer to you as the student who did "fill in the blank" so you are distinct enough to be memorable.

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ATTN: Do you have any essay writing tips?

MK: Stay clear of humor. Humor is very difficult to exercise well. And controversial topics like the death penalty, politics, religion. Those topics, even if you execute it well — even if you represent both sides accurately — there's a good chance that the reader is going to react to part of your essay in a negative manner, and you don't want them thinking negatively when they're evaluating your essay.

Other ways to prep for college costs

If you're feeling stressed about applying for school, know that you're not alone. According to The Princeton Review’s 2015 College Hopes & Worries Survey, concerns about college costs are very high. Seventy-three percent of respondents reported that stress about college applications is “higher than ever.” But 99 percent of the 12,062 people polled said that college will be “worth it.”

If you need fast facts about college costs and admission prospects, head over to College Navigator, a tool developed by the Institute of Education Sciences at the National Center for Education Statistics.

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It's most important to know that there are other resources available to you that can help you through some of the more confusing parts of applying for school. Whether it's a technical program, a two-year community college or a four-year university, there is a place for you.

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