The College Series Pt. 1: Where to Apply


Daevan Mangalmurti

The University of Pennsylvania campus

Daevan Mangalmurti, Editor

It’s midnight on January 1st. Hunched at your computer, you look outside to trace the path of snowflakes and ice-drops through the frigid wintry air. You’ve stayed up too late to submit the last of your college applications- applications you wish you had submitted weeks ago. If only you had taken the time to read the Obama Eagle to learn more about the college applications process- especially how you should decide which colleges to apply to…  

Not to worry! With a little luck and little reading of this article, you’ll be on the road to getting your university applications in well before the Regular Decision deadline. In this segment of The College Series—exclusively on the Obama Eagle—we’re going to play matchmaker. For you and colleges, of course. 

As you figure out where you might apply, remember a couple things:

  1.  You want to like where you end up. That might sound obvious, but we have a habit of making decisions against our instincts. Trust your gut and look for a school where you think you’ll like the people, the environment, and the way you learn. 
  2. College costs money. Lots of it. Think about schools that are affordable or will offer generous financial aid. Location can play a big part in that- in-state schools are almost always cheaper for PPS students than out-of-state schools. 
  3. Apply to more safety schools than target schools, more target schools than reach schools. Keep your odds of admission high, and have more than a few places you would be happy ending up after senior year. 
  4. Try to have no more than 10 schools you apply to. The ultimate choice is yours, but make sure you’ll be able to manage all your applications and application fees. Application fees quickly add up; the average cost of a single college application is $43 in the United States. Most schools offer fee waivers to students who qualify (each school has its own rules), but they’re not guaranteed. 

Here are a few keywords to look out for while you narrow down your list of schools.

Public vs. Private

Public schools are usually big-to-huge, offer discounted tuition to in-state students, and are state-funded. Private schools can be small, medium, or large, but are mostly small or medium-sized- a few thousand students or less. They are also often more expensive, but offer more financial aid to cover costs. 

Community College vs. PASSHE vs. State-related

There are three public higher education systems in Pennsylvania. The 14 community colleges are mostly county or region-specific, and offer two-year degrees. They’re also cheap. PASSHE schools—14 schools including Slippery Rock, Edinboro, Clarion, and Indiana University of Pennsylvania in the western half of the state—are also pretty affordable, and are usually medium-sized. They’re Pennsylvania’s state four-year schools, and offer a variety of scholarships for students alongside lower in-state tuition. The state-related schools—Lincoln, Penn State, Pitt, and Temple—are private-public partnerships, meaning they offer discounted in-state tuition but are still more expensive than the average public university in other states. These are the most-competitive public universities in Pennsylvania, with huge enrollments, branch campuses, and numerous fields of study. 

College vs. University

A college can either be a 4-year institution that does not offer graduate programs—Swarthmore, Haverford, and Bryn Mawr are well-known Pennsylvania examples—or a division of a university, which is a 4-year institution that has graduate programs like medical school or masters programs. Colleges also include vocational and technical schools that may offer two-, three-, or four-year degrees in anything from healthcare to welding. 

Associate’s vs. Bachelor’s

An associate’s degree is a two- or three-year degree most often granted by community colleges, trade schools, or Pitt and Penn State branch campuses. It shows that you have expertise in an area and is sufficient for many job or further education opportunities. It is not as prestigious or intensive as a bachelor’s degree. A bachelor’s degree is a four-year degree awarded by colleges and universities upon completion of major courses of study. 

Need-blind vs. Need-aware

Need-blind schools are schools that do not consider an applicant’s ability to pay for college when reviewing applications, while need-aware schools do consider financial circumstances. Need-blind schools are likely to offer greater amounts of aid and meet more of your demonstrated need. 

Reach vs. Target vs. Safety

A reach school is a school that is at the upper limit of where you could conceivably apply, or maybe a little outside of it. There’s zero guarantee that you even have a chance, but you care enough about the school that it’s worth trying. A target school is a school that pretty much matches your academic profile. You aren’t a sure shot for admission, but you have good odds. A safety school is a school you are very likely to get into because your academic profile is higher than the school’s average. 

If all of this still seems a little confusing, don’t sweat it. Now that you know a little more about the college search process, tools like College Board’s Big Future can do the hard work of narrowing down a list based on your preferences, and then let you decide which schools you’re really interested in. 

The final step in figuring out where you want to apply is college visits. This is a totally non-mandatory step. If it’ll be impossible for you and your family to get to a school halfway across the state for a weekday visit, focus on learning about it online instead of worrying about a visit. That said, visits to local schools like Pitt and CMU can help you figure out what you like and dislike in a college campus, classes, and student body. Some schools also offer virtual tours of their campuses for students who can’t make it there in person. A number of schools still track “demonstrated interest” by seeing if you’ve visited their campus. Schools that don’t will tell you on their websites. If a school does track interest, it will either not mention it or explicitly say it tracks it. If you’re absolutely unable to visit, you can still demonstrate interest by signing up for email lists and interacting with admissions officers. 

That’s all for this week! Get ready for next week’s installation of this series, where we’ll discuss the actual process of applying to schools. Thanks for reading!