I’m not gonna lie to you. As much as I like to play up the positives of learning more about yourself than you ever have, and using the admissions journey as an opportunity to really get in tune with who you are and what you want out of life, the truth is, the college admissions journey can be long and arduous. But during my time helping kids like you get into college, I’ve come across lots of great resources that will guide you along the way and make everything easier. I’m all about relieving stress during the admissions process, and doing that while dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ‘t’ requires outside help. Below are AdmissionsMom’s favorite resources for everything in college admissions from essay writing, test prep, and application websites to visiting colleges, affording college, making a list of schools, mental health and wellness, and mindfulness. I hope you find these resources to be helpful and as always, feel free to reach out to me here on the AdmissionsMom webpage or on Reddit, Twitter, and Instagram.
College Board: The College Board administers the SAT, SAT II, PSAT, and AP tests. It’s a lot, I know. As providers of these tests, the College Board provides extensive free tests, test-taking tips, and contains exam policies on their website. The best way to study is by taking as many practice tests as possible. Questions on these sorts of tests are generally predictable, and the highest scoring kids are generally the ones who are most familiar with the test. Additionally, you should read any important test day information from the College Board so that you have all the right test-taking materials on test day and so that you are not surprised when you show up the test location.
ACT : The ACT website provides free test questions in addition to paid test preparation resources. The ACT is notorious for leaving students with very little time to answer many questions. It is important to take practice tests so that you are familiar with the tests time constraints. While the ACT website does not offer as many free tests as the College Board, a simple google search can you lead you to free ACT practice exams.
Princeton Review: Princeton Review offers tutoring services and administers free practice tests. Princeton Review tutors are very good, but also very expensive. However, the Princeton Review’s practice tests are completely free of charge. They offer free practice ACT and SAT tests at sites across the United States and likely offer one near you. Taking a practice test with the Princeton Review is a really good idea for a number of reasons. Taking a test at a mock site ensures you will be unbothered from distractions, simulates the real test experience, and provides immediate score feedback. The Princeton Review also sells really good book for test preparation. Inside their books are practice tests, answer keys, and helpful lessons. Taking practice tests and completing the lessons from a Princeton book is often a sufficient way to study.
Khan Academy: Khan Academy has been one of my favorite YouTube channels for a while now. Khan Academy offers helpful videos to prepare for the ACT and SAT, in addition to practice tests. If you are having trouble on a particular section, or just want to improve your scores generally, Khan Academy is a valuable resource. I would advise watching their videos and then applying their lessons after you take your first practice test.
Applerouth Testing : Applerouth is another great test prep resource. In addition to offering tutors and free practice tests, Applerouth offers free online seminars to help with test prep, financial aid applications, and admissions timelines. These seminars are a great resource. One cool thing about Applerouth is that it is an international company so they also offer help for international students who want to go to school in the United States.
FairTest.org: Fact is some people just don’t test well. It has nothing to do with how smart they are or if they are hard workers or not, and colleges are starting to recognize this. Check out FairTest.org for the list of over 1000 colleges and universities that are now test optional.
COLLEGE LISTS AND COLLEGE SEARCH
The Fiske Guide: The Fiske Guide is my #1 go-to college guide. Fiske covers over 400 colleges and is the perfect book to read or skim to start your search. The book offers a college self-quiz to help you start making a list of colleges.
Colleges that Change Lives: CTCL is a website and book about 40 unique colleges that often fly under the radar, but focus on their students’ development. CTCL colleges have small student bodies, professors that are mentors more than just teachers, and are liberal arts schools. If you are having trouble searching for the right school for you and don’t mind a small campus, I recommend at least venturing to CTCL’s website or picking up a copy of their book.
The College Finder: Most college guidebooks are thick books that offer “snapshots” of hundreds of colleges. Instead, The College Finder by Dr. Steven Antonoff is composed of hundreds of lists that cover areas such as Great College Cities, The Most Underrated Colleges, Colleges That Go the Extra Mile to Make It Financially Possible to Attend, Colleges Where Sports Rule, and more. Antonoff’s book will point you toward colleges that are a good fit for you and point you toward hidden college gems.
Princeton Review’s Best 384: The Princeton Review’s annual book on the “best” 384 colleges is a good place to start if you are have trouble making a college list. The book boasts an expansive, but still in-depth look at close to 400 colleges. The book organizes colleges by best academics, administration, campus life, financial aid, college character, and social scene to help you better compare colleges.
College Admissions Websites: Honestly, this should be your first stop for any questions you have about a specific college’s admissions process. Check here for any admissions information about deadlines, required or recommended courses and testing, and testing deadlines. Additionally, if you read carefully, most college admissions websites pretty much describe the student they are looking for. Do you see yourself in that description? Also, some of them have some pretty amazing admissions help in general, along with fantastic blogs about admissions and essay writing. Some of my faves are MIT Admissions, Tufts Admissions, Tulane Admissions, Georgia Tech Admissions, Harvard Admissions, USC Admissions, and Lawrence Admissions. Also, be sure to sign up to “Receive Info” or “Get on the Mailing List” — even if you’re already getting stuff from them!
College Publications: Many of the best insights into a college come from colleges themselves. Student newspapers, admissions pages, and college social media accounts provide info on college campus culture, happenings, and student life. Follow all the colleges on your list on social media, and browse their websites. Colleges often give away student magazines or newspapers at college fairs. If you cannot access one at a college fair, look online for any student publications. Just reading one student newspaper can give you a much better idea of what life is like on campus. Also, read those emails they send you and click on the links — you might learn something about the college you hadn’t known before.
Department Course Offerings: Each academic department (ex. Sociology, Biology, English, etc.) at a college or university posts a public course offering, essentially a list of all the classes offered each semester. It is a good idea to glance at the course offerings of the schools you are interested in. See if there a lot of courses you would be interested in taking. Additionally, each department will list a brief bio for every professor on staff. If you are interested in comparing departments across colleges, professors who are doing leading research, have tenure, and have taught at the school a long time are good signs of a healthy departments. RateMyProfessors provides student reviews of professors, but take these reviews with a grain of salt.
Common Data Set: According to their website, “the Common Data Set (CDS) initiative is a collaborative effort among data providers in the higher education community and publishers as represented by the College Board, Peterson’s, and U.S. News & World Report.” To find out all sorts of information about a college like average financial aid, admissions rates, or what they emphasize in their admissions offices, you can google the name of the college and “common data set.”
College Match Self Survey: This survey is similar to a personality test for choosing a college. If you have a free half-hour, you should take the test and see what is important to consider as you search for a college. Remember to take the test results in consideration, but also keep in mind that they can be interpreted in a variety of ways.
Corsava Cards: Corsava Cards are a unique approach to building a college list and a good tool for students who do not have access to a reliable college counselor. Corsava asks students to sort 125 college characteristics into the categories, important, neutral, and not important. Corsava then uses your geographic location preferences and produces a list of six colleges and asks your impression of them. If you are stumped or need help starting a list, Corsava is a great tool.
Niche.com: Niche is essentially the Yelp of colleges. The site has many college reviews from students and alumni. Additionally, Niche has tools to help you calculate your chances of applying to college and an informative section that details where most graduate of a college end up after graduating. Take each college review with a grain of salt but even the most cynical reviews can contain helpful information.
Diversity Fly-Ins: Increasingly, colleges offer free fly-in programs, travel scholarships, or overnight-stay programs for students who are accepted to their schools. Some colleges even offer these programs to students who are simply thinking of applying. College Greenlight has compiled a list of colleges that offer financial assistance for students to visit and Get Me to College also has a list of diversity fly ins (and much more!). Even if a school on your list is not listed there, do not get discouraged. Email an admissions officer and ask if their college has a program that can be of help. Admissions officers are always willing to assist students who are interested in their college.
Get Me to College: Get Me to College is a premier resource for first-generation and low-income students who have dreams of going to college. This is one of my favorite websites and offers free advice on getting ready for college, college application timelines, visiting campus for little or no cost at all, and paying for college. Get Me to College is great at getting students to campus using free diversity fly-in programs. Additionally, the site has academic and standardized test readiness tips, even scholarship resources for students and undocumented students.
Net Price Calculator: Every college is required to have a Net Price Calculator on their website, but sometimes it can be hidden or hard to find. Before you apply to a school, google “name of college” and “net price calculator” and then sit down with your parents and fill out the info. Never assume that you will get more money than the net price calculator says you will. That’s a dangerous game, and can either lead you with loads of student loan debt or a school you’ve been accepted to but unable to attend.
FAFSA: FAFSA is the first stop you make after the net price calculators to receive financial aid. You will need to gather all the materials they say and sit down with your parents to fill these forms out. They will open on October 1, and each college will have differing dates for deadlines, so be sure to check out your college’s admissions and financial aid webpages.
CSS PROFILE: Many private colleges require the CSS Profile in addition to the FAFSA. Be sure to check your college’s admissions and financial aid websites to see whether they require it or not, and what the deadlines are.
The Common App: The Common App is the most popular college application site and contains applications to over 700 different colleges of all shapes and sizes. To start your app, you will need to fill out some basic biographical information and eventually be ready to select a group of colleges to apply to. For every application you will need a copy of your high school transcript, list of extracurricular activities, official test scores, and information about your parents or legal guardian. The Common App goes live August 1st and depending on where you want to apply, most application deadlines are in the fall or early January. The Common App has a mobile app to help you manage your deadlines. It is a good idea to start thinking about your Common App essays as soon as you can.
The Coalition App: The Coalition App is a useful tool to help students and families get through college with little to no debt. The goal of the Coalition App is to help make college affordable to guide first generation students through the college application process. While fewer schools are on the Coalition App than the Common App, the Coalition App offers free online college prep and you may be able to submit your application without paying a single dollar. Colleges on both the Common App and Coalition App do not prefer one site to the other, and the Coalition App offers more flexible essay options.
QuestBridge: QuestBridge is a non-profit organization that connects high-achieving but low-income students to selective colleges. The goal of Questbridge is to make sure smart low-income students can still afford to attend the best colleges. Questbridge is connected with over 40 of the top schools in America and has helped thousands of students gain admission with full scholarships or generous financial aid to top colleges. If affording college is something your family will struggle with, you should definitely apply to one of Questbridge’s several programs, regardless of your citizenship status. Additionally, even if you aren’t admitted as a Quest Scholar, Questbridge has great resources to help you prepare for college.
ApplyTexas: ApplyTexas is the application site for all public and many private Texas colleges. This includes four-year universities, as well as public liberal arts colleges and community colleges. ApplyTexas is particularly useful if you want to go to school in Texas because it is easy to copy your application and apply to multiple Texas schools without filling out additional essays or applications. That being said, most Texas universities have rolling admission, so the sooner you apply, the better your chances.
UC App: The UC App is essentially ApplyTexas but for California schools. The California higher education system is the largest of any state. The UC App also allows you to submit applications to different schools with one application.
The Most Dangerous Writing App: The most difficult part of writing is often just getting started. The Most Dangerous Writing App deletes all your progress if you stop writing for too long. This gimmick doesn’t make it a serious writing app, but it can be a really useful tool to complete a first draft. If you are having trouble starting a college essay, TMDWA is a good place to start.
College Essay Guy: Ethan Sawyer, aka College Essay Guy, is one of the leading experts on college essays and applications. College Essay Guy has free video resources, webinars, blog posts, and guides to help you write the best essay possible. Additionally, he offers several online courses and e-books. If you are willing to shell out for a college essay course, his videos and sample essay are hard to beat. Sawyer is the real deal, and an incredibly nice guy.
ThisIBelieve.org: The best writers are also the best readers. Similarly, reading good personal essays will help you write your own quality personal essays. ThisIBelieve.org is filled with quality essays that are fun, moving, and easy to read. Before you start writing, I recommend reading their essays and picking up on the rhetorical techniques that strong writers use. There are also tons of them that you can listen to if you prefer.
ADMISSIONS MOM’S BOOK CLUB
You Are A Badass: Jen Sincero’s self-help book, You are a Badass is one of my favorite motivational books. Sincero is no-nonsense and takes a blunt, feisty, real approach to changing your life around. She uses insightful stories, helpful exercises, and delightful humor to help you take control of your life, not just the admissions process. If you have any more questions about the tone of the book, two of the chapter names are “Your Brain is Your Bitch” and “Fear is for Suckers.”
10% Happier: Throw away all your preconceived notions of meditation. 10 Percent Happier by Dan Harris is a book that has an accompanying app that offers an amazing crash course on meditation. The app is easy-to-use, and the first week is free. Meditation changed the way I think and greatly increased my happiness and productivity.
Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics: Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics by Dan Harris and Jeff Warren is a book from the 10% Happier people. The book is especially useful for anyone wants to improve their lifestyle but has trouble maintaining healthy life habits. Meditation has been proven to improve conditions such as depression, anxiety, and even high blood pressure.
Going on a Bear Hunt: Going on a Bear Hunt is a British children’s story and chant; it’s also a metaphor for overcoming challenges while keeping a mindful outlook on life and understanding that in order to reach our goals, there is no avoiding the challenges, pain, and struggles that we might meet as we go on our journey through life. We can’t go over them. We can’t go under them. We can’t go around them. We have to go through them. A simple story, nevertheless the book holds an important and valuable lesson about overcoming adversity.
The Mindful Teen: The Mindful Teen offers a unique program based in mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) to teach teens and adolescents how to deal with stress. Increasingly young people are asked to make important life decisions while dealing with the stress of growing into an adult. The Mindful Teen, real easy to remember therapy tips to help adolescents deal with stressful situations such as tests, talking to parents, and relationships.
Wild: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is an inspirational true story about a 22 year-old woman, Cheryl Strayed, who loses her mother and marriage in the same year. Strayed, on her own, hikes over one thousand miles–from Arizona to Washington state. Her journey heals and strengthens her, and she tells it with remarkable wit and perspective.
Tiny Beautiful Things: Another Cheryl Strayed book, Tiny Beautiful Things, collects a litany of Strayed’s online advice columns and pairs them with never-before published pieces. Tiny Beautiful Things, is a great collection of honest advice to help you navigate the ups and downs of life.
Year of Yes: Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, is also an introvert. Her book, Year of Yes, details how saying yes helped her overcome social anxiety, panic attacks, and lead her to a better life.
Big Magic: From the author of Eat, Pray, Love, this book focuses on helping readers embrace their creative spirit and live a creative lifestyle. There are often pressures to embrace conformity over creativity, but Big Magic encourages readers to embrace their creative spirit within.
Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be: This amazing book by Frank Bruni profiles the college experience of many successful people who went to schools you may not have ever heard of, but perhaps you should. Bruni details the many amazing attributes of schools throughout the nation, both small and large and everything in between and the contributions those schools gave toward the successes of their alums.
Do you have a favorite resource you’d like to tell me about? Leave it in the comments!