By Jason Terry @uvufutures

Working as an admissions counselor is an exciting thing. Every day I get to watch students prepare for one of the most life changing experiences they will ever have–the college experience. No other time in your life will you be exposed to so many opportunities to improve yourself, meet lifelong friends, and be mentored like you will during your time in college. With this being said, anything worth doing comes with its own set of challenges– with the college selection process being no exception.

To help incoming freshmen like yourself better prepare for these experiences, here are six things I wish I knew before I applied to college, and I hope they help you.

1. Start Early. As a high school student, college can sometimes feel like a lifetime away. However, you’ll be surprised at how quickly time flies. One of the best things that you can do during the college admissions (application) process is to start early. Not only is time a valuable resource when you start organizing admissions documents (high school transcripts, ACT/SAT Scores, concurrent enrollment/Advanced Placement credit) but it is essential when it comes to writing those dreaded college essays. Believe it or not, everything scary about the admissions process can go away when you give yourself plenty of time to prepare.

TIP: During the summer between your junior and senior year, take time to research universities, organize your college admissions documents, visit campuses, and begin writing those scholarship essays. Doing your best work takes time and finding time takes preparation. Just the simple act of having a plan can mean the difference between a confident decision or feeling forced into a situation. You are approaching one of the best times of your life, have fun with it!

2. Know yourself. Choosing the right college can be difficult, but understanding who you are and how you thrive will be a giant step forward in finding the right fit. For example:

  • Do you learn best in small classes where you can stand out, or in larger classes where you can blend in?
  • Are you inspired by professors who are leading the industry on research, or inspired by professors who have lead the industry as professionals?
  • Will you grow the most by leaving home, or by staying close?
  • Can you live on a budget, or will money be an issue?

Don’t stress if you don’t have an immediate answer to all of life’s great questions. One of the most exciting aspects of college life is experiencing new opportunities and facing different situations…all of which will help you have a better understanding of yourself. Start with what you do know and move forward from there.

3. Do your research. As crazy is it may sound, not all colleges are created equally. Each one is different and offers different things. While there may not be a perfect college for everyone, be assured that everyone can find their perfect college. When on the search to find that perfect college, plan on spending a little time researching.  Talk to current students, look into specific programs, reach out to faculty, and check out their student life. It is also a great idea to take a campus tour. Not only will this help you get a lay of the land but it will also give you the chance to seriously imagine yourself as a student on that campus. Every college has a culture that is hard to see but easy to feel, so take the time to see which one feels best for you. Knowledge is power and the more you know about a college, the stronger your ability to decide will be.

4. Understand the admissions process. Let’s talk admissions.  Admission refers to the process of applying to college. It’s the process every prospective student will go through in order to become a full-fledged student at a particular college. Every college does their admissions process differently, however the general steps to apply remain the same.

Here are 3 basic steps to applying to college:

  1. Create a user account at the colleges you’re applying to and complete their admissions application
  2. Pay application/admission fees
  3. Submit documents the college asks for such as your high school transcripts, previous college transcripts, and your ACT score

It’s that simple. Pay attention to deadlines and reach out to the admissions office at the college you’re applying to if you run into any trouble. Once your application is in, sit back and wait for the acceptance letter to arrive.

5. People want to help. Deciding your future can be stressful, but the good news is you don’t have to do it alone. Colleges have lots of people who are more than willing to help guide you along your collegiate path.  Some of these individuals include: college admissions counselors, financial aid advisors, academic advisors, student association representatives, scholarship offices, and residential life coordinators. Colleges know that applying to college can be a daunting task and want to help…all you need to do is ask!

6. Different types of help for different types of people. If you’re like most students, when you think about scholarships and financial aid, your mind quickly jumps to test scores and athletic programs. While many scholarships that focus on these areas, colleges realize that you are more than just a test score.When it comes to scholarships, colleges offer many of them for a wide variety of circumstances, such as: leadership experience, community involvement, family situations, belonging to a certain program or department, services rendered to the school, and of course, academic or athletic scholarships. After all is said and done, don’t forget to check into federal financial aid which includes grants, work-study, and student loans. In order to see if you qualify for this, you must file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Colleges also have lots of FREE resources for students with different needs. For example, most colleges provide math and English labs to students free of charge. They also help meet student needs through resource centers such as: Veterans offices, women’s success, multicultural offices, daycare, LGBT centers, wellness centers, mental health clinics, and accessibility services. Colleges want to see you to succeed, so check with them to see what services they provide.

College will be here before you know it. As you consider these six tips, remember one last thing–You’re the boss. You make your decisions and you’re calling the shots. It’s your dream and it’s your future, so make the most of it.

Jason is an admissions counselor at the Utah Valley University. Connect with him on Instagram at @uvufuture.