College is said to be the best time in a young person’s life. Yet, as many would argue, it is preceded by one of the worst times in a young person’s life: the college application process.
After years of working hard in school, filling up my free time with extracurriculars, researching college admissions, and, finally, going through the application process, I’m out of the thick of it. But even in retrospect, I can’t make sense of the college system. Rather than achieving a broad understanding of the process, I find that I only have a random assortment of knowledge that doesn’t nearly add up to the full picture.
So, instead of attempting to explain the multifaceted, messed-up college application process, I will simply share a few insights I gained along the way in hopes that what I learned can help another student feel a bit less confused about it all (or at least feel a little less alone in their confusion).
Note: the advice below is based solely on my personal experiences and my observations of how the college process has played out for some of the people around me.
Don’t count on your likely and target schools.
The general rule of the college application process for the last couple decades (preceding Covid) has been as follows: apply to a couple likely/safety schools (places where you are definitely qualified), a couple target schools (places where you are on par with the average student or a teensy bit overqualified), and a couple reach schools (places where it’s a long shot for you to get in, or any school with an acceptance rate of less than 20%).
It used to be that you could pretty much count on acceptances to all of your likely schools, and some of your target schools. That’s why I was shocked, and extremely concerned, when I started receiving waitlist notifications from several of my likely and target schools (I had applied to several of them, hoping to have a lot of options). I figured that if these schools were waitlisting me, then there would be no way that my reach schools would accept me at all. But in the end, while I did receive my fair share of waitlists and rejections from my reach schools, I also received several acceptances. Basically, the college decisions I received were all across the board.
So I did some investigating and found that this year, the practice of “yield protection” has seemed to become more prevalent than ever before. If you don’t know what yield protection is (I certainly didn’t, until a few months ago), it’s when colleges waitlist or deny students who they believe are overqualified (yes, believe it or not, that’s a thing!) for their institution and would turn them down if accepted. By turning down their most qualified applicants, colleges can extend more invitations to students who would be more likely to accept their invitation, which can increase the ratio of students who choose to attend out of those who were accepted. This allows them to look more desirable as a school, and can help their national rankings.
I can’t say with certainty that I was a victim of this practice, but it’s certainly possible. Long story short, I’d recommend applying to an extra reach school or two, as well as some outright safety schools (places where you know you’ll get in unless there’s some sort of apocalypse), because targets and likelies may not be as likely as you think.
The most expensive schools may not be the most expensive schools for you.
Google can tell you the sticker price of any college. At first glance, of course, the school with a $40,000 price tag looks more affordable than the one with the $80,000 price tag. Basic math, right? And not even high school algebra…I’m talking 2nd grade math. However, for many students, this isn’t quite the case.
I won’t get too much into the financial aid application process, but if you plan to apply for aid at any college, you’ll probably have to fill out two forms: the FAFSA and the CSS.
For the FAFSA, which is run by the federal government, you’ll plug your family’s annual income into a calculator with zero context, and they’ll give you an estimate of how much money your family can afford to spend on college (from a parent’s perspective, the amount they should contribute is reasonable assuming they sell their house, move into your grandparent’s basement, and pick up an additional job).
For the CSS, you’ll be able to provide a more detailed explanation of your family’s financial situation, including savings, medical bills, etc. You’ll send both of these forms to the colleges where you apply, and they will consider both of them and potentially provide you with grant money, loans, or work study to help you pay for their tuition, room, board, and other expenses.
Almost all schools have some sort of financial aid plan for their students, but some are better than others. I intentionally applied to schools which I figured from my research would give the most generous need-based aid (aid that is determined by your family’s ability to afford college, as opposed to merit-based aid, which is awarded based for student accomplishments, such as sports).
The key thing to look for when you are researching potential college financial aid websites is a statement that they will cover 100% of demonstrated need. This means they won’t make you pay more than what the FAFSA says you can afford (however, they can give you work-study and loans that amount to more than the FAFSA estimate).
What’s even better is if you can find a school that will cover 100% of demonstrated need without loans. The only problem is that the schools which offer the best need-based financial aid packages are also some of the most selective colleges in the country, so the hard part will be getting in.
My two cheapest options ended up being a state school, where I would qualify for the state-funded Zell Miller Scholarship (which covers tuition but not the pricier part which is room, board, and other expenses), and a top-ranked, out-of-state, private school. In terms of sticker price, the private school costs $50,000 more than the public school, but because of the financial aid I received, they ended up both being about the same price (in fact, the private school was slightly cheaper, even with travel expenses factored in). Moral of the story is to not let the sticker price of any college deter you from applying as long as they seem to be generous with their financial aid.
Outside scholarships go into somebody’s pocket, but not necessarily yours.
Affording college has always been a concern for me, and I figured outside scholarships could be part of the solution. While simultaneously going through the college application process, I applied to a plethora of scholarships, and I was very fortunate to receive several of them. I did not realize, however, until I got back my college acceptances and started reviewing their financial aid offers, that I, personally, would not be the one receiving most of my scholarship funds.
As it turns out, there is some federal law stipulating that outside scholarship awards cannot go towards reducing parental contributions, which at least in my case, is still a substantial amount since my family qualifies for some financial aid, but not enough to cover the full bill. For me, this meant that the outside organizations who awarded me scholarships will send a check to whatever college I decide to attend. For me personally, the college will accept the money, but it only reduces the grant amount they already agreed to give me. It does not reduce my family’s bill. I’m sure I’m not explaining this correctly, but even if I could, it still doesn’t make sense.
The point is, you can certainly try for outside scholarships, but do some research first, because you may not be able to count on them to help you out too much if you qualify for any financial aid. If you do want to apply for scholarships, I recommend looking for ones who send the funding directly towards the recipient, not their college. I received a couple of these, and while they were smaller scholarships (under $3000 each), and may be taxable, at least the money can be used towards reducing my family’s out-of-pocket total cost. Every bit helps, and I’m very grateful to the scholarship sponsors who made it happen.
All college advice is fleeting.
All college guidance that you will read, hear, and research is based on the data of how the college process played out in prior years. That means that it’s always at least a year outdated. Meanwhile, the college process is changing constantly. The past two years of admissions cycles (for the college classes of 2025 and 2026) have been especially unpredictable.
The pandemic has completely restructured how colleges are evaluating their prospective students. From the implementation of test-optional policies to the economic strain of the pandemic on institutional endowments (many colleges are rumored to be increasingly wary of admitting certain students who would rely on financial aid), the colleges themselves are still trying to figure out how to function in an ever-changing world.
They are a mess, and so are their admissions and financial aid departments. The one thing you do have going for you is our Lovett college counselors. They are incredible. They spend their time trying to make sense of what is happening out there. I am extremely grateful to my counselor who worked tirelessly to assist me through this crazy process, but even their magic was challenged as the proven statistics from prior years turned into unpredictable March Madness results. Just be prepared to have a lot of “dream schools.”
Research all you want about the college application process, but you won’t be able to pin it down to a science. The system is broken in countless ways. From my experience, the actual people in the system like the admissions deans and administrative folks in the financial aid office are really good people who want to help. However, it’s the system that needs a major overhaul.
Sports recruitment (I know this is controversial), early decision (which favors the wealthy) and legacy (which favors the favored) all need to be reviewed as it gives unfair advantage to select students.
The FAFSA system also needs to be reviewed as the estimated family contribution for most families is simply outrageous. While there is some discussion in Washington and the state level about “free” college, I think most people agree that it is ok for there to be a cost as long as the cost is reasonable.
Rules pertaining to things like “outside scholarships” also have to be analyzed. It is a lot of work to compete for most of the scholarships, and how they are applied by federal law is confusing and makes most of them worthless when a student already qualifies for a grant from an institution.
In addition, practices like “yield protection” which are done to protect statistics need to be curtailed. There are a lot of great students who wanted their target or likely school and languish each year on a “waitlist” since it appeared they really weren’t interested when they really were.
Making these changes would allow the colleges to focus on being what they are: colleges that are there to educate individuals who, in turn, will hopefully advance the society.
I’m fortunate that I was chosen to be a member of the class of 2026 at an amazing institution where I hoped to gain admission. I am looking forward to spending the next four years of my life exploring what the school has to offer. It was a reach school for me but I’m happy to say it’s now in my grasp.