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How Do I Start?

So how do you get started on your college search? Here's our advice.


Read a book


First you need to learn about the college admissions process. One of the best ways to do that is to read a book that provides an overview of what’s to come, explains terms you’ll run into, and gives you some ideas about how to proceed. Some overview books that are found helpful are:


College Admission, From Application to Acceptance, Step By Step

By Robin Mamlet and Christine VanDeVelde

This is one of the best college admissions guides we’ve seen. It’s complete, current and focuses on helping you find the colleges that fit you best. It’s also available in the San Francisco Public Library.


Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know About Getting into College (3rd edition.)

By Sally P. Springer, Jon Reider and Joyce Vining Morgan

This is another good guide that still provides a great overview of the process with a similar focus on finding the right fit. The third edition (2013) is the most up-to-date, but the older editions will still give you a clear overview. It’s available in the public libraries.


For a longer list of books we like, see here.


Some websites also provide an overview of the college admissions process. Here are a few:


NACAC, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, has written an excellent booklet that includes an overview of the entire college admissions process with specifics about financial aid, a checklist for keeping organized and much more. Their website has a section for students and families that provides additional clear information. Get a pdf version of the brochure here:


The College Data website includes excellent articles that walk you through the admissions process. Start with the College 411 section.


The author of the book adMission Possible, Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz, has created a website with good information, presented in a way that provides an overview of the process.


“College Planning Simplified” is a website created by a former high school counselor. It has an overview and much good information.


For a list of other websites we like, see here.


Make a big picture plan


Here’s a monthly calendar with suggestions of what to do when. Studying it can help you plan out when you should do things like take SAT/ACT tests, search for schools and write personal statements so you will stay on track.

College Admissions Planning Calendar


Before you get too far along in the college search process, check to be sure your email address sounds professional. If it doesn’t, create a new one based on your name, and use it for all your communications with colleges. Make sure you check it often.


You should also be sure that your Facebook and other social media identities reflect well on you. Colleges and scholarship providers may look you up. Make sure what they find will make them happy.


Think about who you are


This is one of the most important things you can do. It’s also one of the hardest. Take some time, though, to sit quietly and think about yourself and what’s important to you. If you have an honest understanding of who you are, it will be much easier to pick schools, write personal statements and end up in a place where you’ll thrive.


Many books have in-depth questionnaires to help you do this, but here are a few questions to get you started:


What are you interested in? What do you love/hate to do and study?

What kind of student are you? Serious? A self-starter? A good test taker?

How do you learn best? By reading? By doing? By listening? Alone? In small or large groups?

What do you care about? What’s important to you?

What kind of place do you want to live in? Big? Small? Urban? Rural?

What kind of people do you want to spend time with? Like you? From diverse backgrounds?


Visit some colleges


It’s hard to jump into picking colleges if you’ve never been to one. There are many different kinds of colleges. You want to find the kind that resonates with you.


Luckily, the Bay Area has nearly every kind of college, and you can get to most of them by public transportation. Take a few weekends and check them out. Do you love ivy-covered walls and lots of beautiful green lawns? Or do you prefer the big city hubbub? Do you feel at home at a women’s college? A religious school? A community college? Does it feel better at a huge school or a tiny one? Where can you picture yourself?


Local schools include: UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, UC Davis, San Francisco State University, CSU East Bay, Sonoma State University, San Jose State University, City College of San Francisco, Skyline College, College of San Mateo, Mills College, University of San Francisco, Santa Clara University, Dominican College, Notre Dame de Namur University and Stanford University.


Give yourself plenty of time


Even if you don’t spend a lot of time deciding where to apply to college, the process itself takes time. Many applications require a personal statement or essay. Many schools require that you take the SAT or ACT plus Writing and sometimes SAT Subject tests. Most private schools need letters of recommendation from teachers (who need time and information about you to do a good job.) Financial Aid and scholarship applications take time as well. The more you can get started on before your senior year, the better. It will make your senior year less stressful.


Challenge yourself and do well in school


Colleges consider many factors when they make their admissions decisions, but the ones that they give the most weight are your high school grades and the types of classes you take. So take classes that challenge you and get good grades.