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Applying to American Public Universities

April 17, 2016

Parents and students both worry about the college admissions process.

Relax. For American public universities, the admissions process is neither complicated nor overly challenging.

The first thing to understand is what is required, and what is not.

Most public universities have streamlined, electronic applications. The process is not complex. They want limited information, and their websites state clearly that they will not review materials beyond those requested.

So what do they want? Public schools generally request four things: a student’s grades, one standardized test (SAT or ACT), a list of the student’s activities, and one essay. They seldom request additional essays or tests, and they don’t want or need teacher recommendations or interviews.

During the junior year and the fall of the senior year, high school students will take the SAT or ACT. They can and usually should take the tests more than once; most colleges will evaluate applicants using only their highest scores. Although these standardized tests are not entrance exams, they are perhaps the most important consideration in the application review by major universities. Therefore, it is wise for students to study diligently for these tests, utilizing whatever resources may be available, including practice tests and private or group tutoring. Students and parents must remember to have the company administering the test (College Board or ACT, Inc.) provide the test scores to the colleges where applications will be filed.

The application itself is not complicated. The first section merely asks for a student’s personal information, such as name, high school, e-mail, parent information, ethnicity, and the like.

The second section asks applicants to self-report their high school grades, as well as their test scores. In other words, students list each class and final grade in the application. Even though the high school will (upon a student’s request) send an official transcript to the colleges, the admissions departments want the information loaded into their systems via the application. A transcript from the high school is extremely helpful in completing this section.

Third, applications require that students insert a list of their activities and academic honors during the four years of high school, whether the activities are school-sponsored or off-campus. Many applications allow for a limited (50-word) explanation of each activity. It is a good idea for younger high school students to start a log or diary of their activities immediately; young minds – like older ones – forget things they have done.

Finally, most public universities ask applicants to write one essay, usually limited to 500 words. Although the application is likely to list prompts from which students choose an essay topic, the essays are largely personal statements. Students need to be able to write about themselves, or else the opportunity to “sell” oneself is lost. To make essays memorable, students should provide details about their lives. Details, rather than adjectives or adverbs, provide the kind of information that human minds absorb naturally. A trusted friend, parent or professional should review the essay to ensure that what is intended is well-communicated.

It is strongly recommended that you submit all application materials by the schools’ “priority” deadlines, which are usually mid-October or November 1 (note that a different strategy applies to private, highly-selective colleges). Because of the rigors and distractions of the final year of high school, students should use the summer before senior year to get as much done on their essays as possible.

Robert LeVine is the CEO of University Consultants of America. An internationally-acclaimed speaker and author, Robert served for Harvard admissions for three decades and is an expert in college and graduate school admissions processes, essays, interview preparation, and personal marketing.

Learn more at


From → College Tips

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