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College Application Tips For High School Seniors — Interview With Adam Warren, Program Director, College Advising Corps At App State

TUN sits down with Adam Warren, program director at Appalachian State University’s branch of College Advising Corps, to offer some tips to help high school seniors apply to college.

TUN: Adam, thanks so much for joining us. 

WARREN: Thank you, Jackson, for having me. I appreciate it. 

TUN: What are some of the important college admissions deadlines that seniors should be aware of?

WARREN: If you think about the college application timeline, it really starts a lot earlier than your senior year. So, a lot of those college list-making opportunities, figuring out where you’re planning on going, a lot of those conversations happen in your junior year. 

By senior year, you really want to know some of the colleges that you’ve decided on. You can still make some of those decisions during the first couple of months of senior year, but you want to get yourself ready to have your applications good to go.

So, what I would do is, pay attention to the month of October and the month of November as the months when you need to have your application materials ready to go. 

A lot of institutions have early action or early decision, and we’ll discuss those a little bit more in-depth in a second, but some of those deadlines are a little bit earlier in the process. 

Here in the state of North Carolina, the earliest deadline we have for college is October 15. Most of our institutions — to be in that first run of applications — you’re looking at November 1 or November 15. So, those two months are really important in terms of getting all your materials ready to go and out to the colleges. 

Keep in mind that the admissions process is much more than just the application. You also want to consider who would be your references — all of that lovely stuff.

You might even want to map out — in the month of August or the month of September — “Who do I need to ask to do those types of things? What does my resume need to look like?” 

For most colleges, January 1 is the deadline for regular decision applications. 

For students who are considering two-year institutions at the community-college level, you don’t want to just wait and then sign up for classes in the fall, even though you may have that opportunity. By going through an admission process or letting them know you want to apply there, you may have more opportunity to make connections to the school and have more opportunity for financial aid. 

TUN: So, you just brought up financial aid. Are there any important FAFSA deadlines that students should be aware of?

WARREN: Most definitely. So, the FAFSA opens up on October 1. You don’t have to have it done by October 1, but the way financial aid works is, you have this giant pot of money that the federal government has. And each state has a pot of money as well. 

If you qualify for federal funds, they’re not really going to run out of that money. 

But the money that each state has is limited. For example, here in the state of North Carolina, we have 16 public institutions. if you apply to one of those public institutions, they can tap into the state grant pot of money. So, if I put my application in and I’ve done my FAFSA early enough, UNC Chapel Hill or NC State, for example, may be able to pull some money out of that state grant pot that can come to me. That pot is going to start getting smaller and smaller and smaller, depending on when you have filled out your FAFSA. So if I wait until March to fill out my FAFSA, that state grant pot of money might be empty. So, the earlier, the better. October 1 is when it opens. 

FAFSA, for those who are unaware, is the Free Application For Federal and State Aid. FAFSA is something that looks like a lot to do. But, at the end of the day, it is one of the quickest things that you can do to help set yourself up for financial success in college and make sure that you have access to federal and state funds. 

Many institutions require you to have a FAFSA on file before they can build a financial aid package as well. So definitely, the earlier you can get that in, the better. 

TUN: If students aren’t sure about a deadline, if there’s some uncertainty, who can they reach out to for clarification? Can they reach out to officers at universities?

WARREN: If you have an adviser in your school, reach out to them to help you make that connection with your college. If you don’t have an adviser in your school, reach out to a counselor or a trusted teacher and see if they can help you make that connection. 

College admissions counselors (at universities) are there for students. They want to talk with you. They want you to be calling them. 

I like the phrase “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” You want to be squeaky. If you’re squeaky and you call them, they’re going to call you back. They’re going to communicate with you. That’s their job. 

We’re in a COVID year right now. In this year, admissions counselors can’t travel as much as they’d like. So, they want to be interacting with students more than anything else right now. They want to have students call them, email them and communicate with them. 

I know it’s difficult, sometimes, for folks to pick up the phone and make a phone call. But, there’s a lot of value in calling up the admissions counselor, asking those direct questions. There are no dumb questions that you can ask an admissions counselor. 

They’ve heard all the questions. And if you are thinking, “I don’t know if I should ask this. It’s probably somewhere on the website,” ask the admissions counselor anyway.  Sometimes websites are easy to use; sometimes they’re not. But definitely reach out. 

You can typically find who your admissions counselor is. If you go to the admissions website for an institution, you just look it up and they’ll have a specific county-by-county breakdown. If you’re looking at in-state schools, they might have just a general regional breakdown as well. But, anyone you call in that office can connect you to the right person. 

TUN: Now let’s speak about the specific application. Oftentimes, what students put on their applications is what separates them from other equally qualified candidates. So, do you have any advice to help students improve their applications?

WARREN: I would say, give a lot of credence to the essay. They do get read. They are a big part of the review process. So, you want to make sure that you’ve given some thought to your essay and that it’s not a cookie-cutter essay. 

So, pay as much attention to the questions that are being asked as you do to the way you’re writing it. Most institutions want to hear the context of what you’re saying. Grammar and punctuation are important, but I would focus even more so on what it is that you’re saying. 

Pull in several folks into that conversation with you. Have a parent or guardian read it. Have your guidance counselor read it. Have your senior English teacher read it. They would love to do that. You pull them into that conversation. They wrote a college essay at some point — many years ago, maybe recently —- but they would love to be a part of that process with you. So, give a lot of credence to the essay. 

Also, your resume. Most institutions are asking you to build out a resume. You might be thinking, “I’m 18. I maybe have had one job, or maybe I’ve just been on the football team.” 

You’ve just been on a team — there’s a lot that you can say there. So, go connect back with your counselor. Think about how you can reformulate those ways of saying, “I was involved in this.”

Do a quick Google search for power words on a resume. There’s a whole list of words that you can use. 

You want it so that the admissions team — when they review your essay and they review your resume — can say, (this student) put a lot of time and effort into this. This is going to be the type of student we want. 

Colleges are looking for students who are going to be successful when they’re there and who are also going to be involved. So, they want to see more than just your grades. They want to see a picture of you, the student, who’s going to come to the campus and either create a legacy, make something that lasts or generally just be involved. 

Colleges are heavily invested in the regions in which they live. So, if you have had service opportunities through a church organization, a community service organization or something like that, definitely list that and make that a theme so they can see that you’re not going to sit in your dorm all day, that you’re to be involved, that you’re going to get out, that you’re going to be fully invested at whatever institution you decide to go to. 

TUN: You brought up early action and early decision earlier. Can you explain what those are, and can you explain the potential benefits of both paths?

WARREN: Sure! So, early action and early decision are two ways that you can make the college application process happen faster. 

Early decision would be where I say to an institution — I’ll use Appalachian State as an example — I’m going to say to Appalachian State, “I want to apply here through early decision. If you let me know by December that I’m admitted to App state, then I’m good.” The decision is already there for you. 

Early action indicates that the institution is going to take action on your application early in the process. So, instead of getting your acceptance letter or a deferral letter later, you would get that letter much earlier in the process. So, that would help you drive your personal decision so that you can see where you might want to go. 

So, early action means you still have choice. Early decision means you’re applying to one institution and if you get in, you’re going to go to that institution.

TUN: Thanks again, Adam, for joining us today.

WARREN: Of course. Thank you so much. I appreciate it!

This interview has been edited for clarity. Watch the full video here.