The 5 Pillars of College Planning: #3 - The College Application Process

Damian Winther, CFP® CSRIC®
May 30, 2024 8:30:00 AM

Welcome back to the 5 Pillars of College Planning. This blog will shift our focus to Pillar #3 — the College Application Process. With technological advancements and information sharing, this step has become much more straightforward and streamlined than my own experience roughly 30 years ago.

Read more of the Pillars of College Planning: 

By now, you may have been saving for several years to build up your child’s 529 plan balance to help reduce the level of debt you or your student will need to rely on during the next four years. In addition, you’ve worked diligently with your student to narrow down the list of colleges and universities that check all of the boxes regarding academic fit, social aspects and considerations, location and size, and public vs. private.

Submitting Applications

It's now time to make a shortlist of schools and begin the application process. Most colleges and universities open their application windows in September of your student’s senior year of high school. Pay close attention to whether the schools on your shortlist encourage early applications or if there are financial reasons to apply in one month versus another.

For many schools across the country, students can choose to apply using one of two methods:

  1. The Common Application: This is an undergraduate college admission application that can be used to apply to more than 1,000 colleges and universities across the United States, Europe and Asia. Once the Common Application is completed, it can be submitted to multiple schools simultaneously. This can be very efficient, especially if several colleges and universities are being considered.
  2. Specific College Online Application: These applications can be found directly on the college website. This can be a great option if your student is only looking at a few schools. However, if multiple schools are being considered, you may want to consider using the Common Application.

Writing Essays

It has become commonplace for many schools across the country to require college applicants to write an essay. My experience working through this with my oldest daughter has taught me that not all essays are created equally! Some schools require one essay, while others may require three to five different essays.

Essay topics tend to vary from one school to another, and it became increasingly clear to me throughout this process that today’s college and university admissions counselors are looking for students who can:

  1. Write clearly and intelligently, highlighting their unique strengths.
  2. Articulate who they are and why they are an ideal student for this college.
  3. Differentiate themselves from their peers and other applicants.
  4. Give examples of how they excel outside the classroom.
  5. Highlight academic, athletic, volunteer and extracurricular activities.

Completing the FAFSA

Now that the applications and essays have all been submitted, we don’t just get to sit back and relax. Instead, families (i.e., the student and at least one parent) need to begin work on completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

The FAFSA underwent significant changes in 2024. Generally, it opens to the public on October 1st, but the process was pushed back to late December 2024 as a result of several hiccups due to the changes. Ultimately, the delays in going “live” created a major issue for both families and schools.

From my personal experience and what I’ve heard from clients over the years, completing the FAFSA as early as possible is in the best interests of all those involved in the college application process.

The sooner you complete the FAFSA, the sooner you will know what level of need-based financial aid you may be entitled to. Also, some colleges base their merit-based aid and scholarships on information contained in the FAFSA.

Even if you are fairly certain that your student won’t qualify for financial aid, completing the FAFSA is still recommended, as it opens the door to additional funding opportunities for you and your student.

Stay Tuned for Pillar #4 – Navigating College Scholarships & Loans

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