College Application Reality Check
by Christine A. Shelly

Congratulations! You’ve made the decision to apply to college!

So, now what? What is the #collegeapplicationprocess like for members of U.S. Armed Forces?

If you’re like most prospective students, you have a lot of questions.
Questions like:
How many application forms do I really have to fill out? 
What kind of information am I expected to provide to schools?

And if you’re a member of the #USArmedForces, Reserves, or a #militaryspouse, you’re probably wondering what other surprises are lurking in the application process for you.  

This post will bring a little dose of reality to what can become a very surreal process for many people.

First of all, the average complete college application is usually made up of about seven components. I say “about” seven because not every college requires every component. We’ll talk about each of these seven categories, because they’re the ones that most schools require. 

— Forms/Fees 
— Transcripts (High School, any transfer credit, military experience/training) 
— Test scores (SAT/ACT/unique tests)
— Recommendations
— Essays 
— Portfolio/Auditions – for performing arts majors 
— Interviews

About 500 colleges use an online application form called the Common Application. This is exceptionally helpful if you’re applying to half a dozen different schools and they all use the Common Application – you enter your information once, select the schools you want, and you’ve completed one step for all six of your schools at once.  Time saved. 
Before you fill out your application form(s) you’ll want to review them to determine what (if any) information you’ll need to collect from your parents. You’ll also want to find out what your high school or service branch will send directly to your potential colleges – if they won’t send transcripts or records on your behalf, you’ll want to make arrangements to send them yourself. 

Also good to know: the admission application is not the same thing as the financial aid application (or application for military education benefits). Those are two very distinct application processes.
Lastly, even when you use the Common Application, you will need to send each school their individual app fee, which can be anywhere from $35 – 100 each. Military students, military spouses and veterans may qualify for fee waivers or reimbursement through their education benefits, so if you fall into either of those categories be sure to double-check. Sometimes a school may not come out and say they’ll waive veterans’ applications fees – you have to contact the admissions office directly and ask.

The people who record your high school transcript or military service are hard-working human beings, and at times make mistakes. Be sure to get allow yourself time to get a copy of your academic and military records to review them before you or your school or service branch send them. 

Even if you’ve been out of school for a little while, typically the process of getting your records sent starts with providing your high school counselor a list of the colleges or universities you want to apply to.  The school usually sends official transcripts directly to your potential university. 

If you’re military, you’ll have to request your high school transcript from your school and your military transcript from your service branch. Plus, you may be able to earn college credit for some of your military or professional training courses – so be sure to contact the American Council on Education for their official ACE transcript too. The ACE makes recommendations to colleges on the number of credit hours earned by completing military/professional training, and if your school follows these recommendations, those credits can help speed your degree along and save you some money in the process.

Test Scores
Entrance exams like the ACT or SAT apply a common, measurable standard to students, and can be used to help admissions officers predict which students are likely to be successful in a college program. Some schools place a lot of importance on these tests; others don’t.  But you have to take them.

Schools only accept scores that are sent directly to them by the test administrator. If you’re military, the DANTES program provides you with the ability to take the test at one of more than 500 installation testing centers. They’ll send you and your selected colleges a copy of the test scores.  Plus, if it’s been a while since you’ve been in school, DANTES offers prep materials and support to help you get ready.

One way for admissions officers to get a more realistic picture of applicants is through third-party recommendations. That’s why they usually ask for three unique references to help them to get a more holistic view of the prospective student. Your recommendations cannot come from family members.

You’ll want to ask for a recommendation from people who know you well enough to have seen first-hand how you respond to challenges and stress as well as success.  Make sure you give them enough time to work through a first draft and a revision or two – don’t put them in a position where they’re forced to rush.  You also might want to offer your referral-writer a personal statement that summarizes your experiences, achievements and goals. A personal statement can serve as both a writing prompt and a memory booster, so you can either write one statement for all of your references to use, or customize a statement for each reference. 

Make sure you thank the people who take time to write you a recommendation. 

Next to paying fees, writing an essay is probably the most dreaded component of the application process, but it’s also the best opportunity you’ll have to highlight your personality, talents, and what you will bring to the school if you’re accepted.

Before you sit down at the keyboard, give the writing prompts a good look. Do you have to write an essay, or will your school accept more creative offerings like a video or poetry?  If there’s a chance you can do something that will make you stand out (in a good way) – take it.
There’s a growing trend among schools to provide vague, open-ended prompts. For example, Tufts University asked this puzzler: “Kermit has lamented that it’s not easy being green. Do you agree? Why?” Notre Dame issued this challenge to prospective students: “You have 150 words. Take a risk.”

Whether you write an essay or create a video montage, it’s a good idea to ask someone you trust to review it and offer suggestions before you submit your application. If your main message or idea doesn’t come across to them or doesn’t ring true, you’ll want to make adjustments.

For most students, the portfolio or audition process won’t be part of the application package. But for students who intend to major in a visual or performing art, it will be critically important. If you haven’t already been working with a private instructor or coach, now’s the time to enlist their help. 

Performing arts programs typically announce their auditions well in advance – make sure you put those dates on your calendar in case they are on a separate timeline than the rest of the application. If the schools accept videotaped audition performances or online portfolios, take good care to use top quality production values. Good lighting, audio, and video quality is important when you’re showcasing your talent. Check all your online portfolio links to make sure they’re working.  

Even if interviews are not an official part of your school’s application process, you might want to go ahead and ask for one. Why? Because asking for an opportunity to learn about the school is a great way to show you’re serious about attending. 

The best approach to interviews is to think of it as a reconnaissance mission: you’re out to learn about the school, not sell yourself.  Relax, be (the best version of) yourself, and ask questions about anything you’re curious about – study groups, faculty/staff, experience with military students or veterans, career services. 

And if you’re worried that travel is too expensive to conduct “recon”, you’re not alone. Fortunately, many schools offer alumni interviews via Skype or chat for interested students. 

If the application process seems like a big deal, that’s because it is. Admissions officers take great pride in their schools and their alumni – for good reason. So it’s no wonder that they go to great effort to get as thorough an idea of their incoming classes as possible. Just like the hiring process, good college admissions officers take the whole person into consideration. The good news is that if you’ve spent time building a strong foundation for success, you will be in good shape. 

Are you a veteran or military spouse looking for the right school? Check out the #MilitaryAuthority  School Finder. If you’ve already found your top schools, have you started the application process? What’s the strangest question you’ve ever encountered on a college application?

Tell us about it in the comments. 

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