How do I apply to college?

| 20 minutes | Media Contact: University Communications


How do you apply to college? And what are some tips to make the process as stress-free as possible? Get answers to some of the most asked questions surrounding the college application process. 

Guest: Patty Young, director of undergraduate recruitment at Central Michigan University 

In this episode of The Search Bar, host Adam Sparkes interviews Patty Young, director of undergraduate recruitment at Central Michigan University, about the college application process. Patty explains that the first step in applying to college is figuring out where to apply and narrowing down the list of schools. She advises against applying to too many schools, as it can be time-consuming and costly. Patty also discusses application fees and explains that some schools offer fee waivers for students with financial hardship. She recommends applying as early as possible, ideally after junior year of high school, and emphasizes the importance of maintaining good grades throughout senior year. Patty also discusses the benefits of applying early, such as knowing where you stand and potentially receiving merit scholarships. She explains that the college application process involves submitting transcripts and, in some cases, test scores. Patty mentions that more schools are becoming test-optional, especially due to the impact of COVID-19 on standardized testing availability. She also highlights the importance of visiting college campuses to get a feel for the school and its offerings. Patty concludes by emphasizing that the admissions process should not be intimidating and that there are resources available to help students navigate it.




Adam: How do you apply to college and what are some tips to make the process as stress-free as possible? Welcome to The Search Bar. You've got questions. Let's find some answers. I'm your host, Adam Sparkes, and on today's episode, we're searching for answers on the college application process with Patty Young, the Director of Undergraduate Recruitment at Central Michigan University City. Patty, thank you so much for coming in. Today we're going to do a little bit of talking about college admissions. We're going to demystify it a little bit, and I thought a great way to start doing that was for you to explain to us what you do here at Central Michigan University. How do you engage with the admissions process and with our students who are being admitted or would be admitted?

Patty: I am the Director of Undergraduate Recruitment here at Central Michigan University, so I work directly with our undergraduate admissions office, which in terms of applications at the undergraduate level, we receive the most students applying out of high school in that traditional format to come here as an incoming freshman. That's my office, that's our team. So we receive applications year-round. That's what we do. We review them, we recruit, we are out on the road. We are here ready when they want to visit our campus to see if we might be the best fit for them.

What's the first step in applying to college?

Adam: If I'm a high school student, which I'm not, so I'll talk about clearly, I'll talk about this from where I'm at, which is more as a parent of somebody who will soon be going to college, what's my first step? What's the first thing I should be doing if I feel like college is probably the right thing for me or my child?

Patty: Well, I would say figuring out maybe where you want to apply, getting that out of the way first. Usually students, on average I would say, apply to three to five schools. We're seeing this trend where students are applying to a lot more, it's like a bragging on social media thing. I got accepted to 20 schools and that sounds really cool, but that's a lot of work. I think the first thing is honing into what are your needs, what are your wants and what school might have that and start narrowing down that list and getting ready. So when you are ready to start applying for colleges, you can get at it.


Is there a cost to apply to college?

Adam: If they're applying to that many schools, 30 or 40 schools. Is there an application fee? Does that get expensive for the families?

Patty: It could. It absolutely could. Some schools will have an application fee, some don't. So here in Michigan, it's a pretty mixed bag. You'll have schools that have an application fee. CMU has an application fee. There are schools that don't. For a school, like Central Michigan University, we do waive a lot of application fees for students who have financial hardship for students who have free reduced lunch. They can apply for a waiver through their school. So the whole goal is if a student wants to apply, we want them to apply. If they can't afford it, there's usually a way to help them, but there are a lot of schools with application fees. So if you're applying to even five with an application fee and maybe you don't qualify for a waiver, well you're paying that application cost multiple times.

Adam: So be serious about where you want to apply. Yes, absolutely. Do it with intentionality. Yeah.

Patty: It takes work. It's work. It's costly.

When can you apply to college? 

Adam: How soon can you apply? So is it junior year? Is it senior year? I guess is there a hard line or when would you recommend?

Patty: Sure, yeah. The soonest you can apply, you need three years of high school complete. So that's usually after your freshman, sophomore, junior year. There are some students in a unique setting who may go to an early college or a middle college. They want to apply and they want to treat their last year sort of like their senior year. So essentially a year before you're done with your high school program, you're ready to start the application process. So right after junior year, if that school has their application open, you can get at it. Some students, they wait until your school starts senior year so that they can get back into school. Their counselors are there. Counselors usually take a summer break too.

Adam: So, does that mean that I can absolutely slack off the rest of my senior year after I apply?

Patty: No, no. For a few reasons. One, no senioritis, right? We want to keep the GPA up. The other half of the college application process is the cost. Cost of going to college and getting as many scholarships and scholarships, free money. Who doesn't want some free money? The whole goal there is that you're applying early and you're applying to the schools that you're interested in and then you're waiting on those decisions, seeing if you're admitted, and then from there you have to turn around and start applying for scholarships at those specific schools.

What are some of the benefits of applying early?

Adam: Is that part of the benefit of an early application? Then why do I want to apply? Like you were saying, August 1 or whatever it is, I'm about to start my senior year. Why is that better than waiting until Christmas to start putting the applications in?

Patty: Well, one, there's going to be schools with different processes. Some schools might have an actual hard deadline. You need to get your application in on time, and if you are interested in that school, you want to apply by that deadline, right? Don't miss those deadlines. For a school with rolling admissions, which is CMU, Central Michigan University, we are rolling admissions, so you can apply year-round. We review applications year-round, so sure you can apply. If you happen to be the student that applies around Christmas, that is okay, we will take your application, we will review it, but the perks to doing it a little sooner is absolutely that one, you will know where you stand, so one less thing off your plate, senior year, stressful enough, another, you will hopefully receive a merit scholarship, an automatic scholarship with your admissions. So there's some financial relief right there, and then there's going to be scholarships that you do have to apply for. You always hear about those scholarships that require essays and they have deadlines and they require a little bit of work like collecting letters of recommendation. Those all come next and they will have deadlines usually in late fall, moving into early winter. You're going to want to get 'em in and not miss those deadlines.

Adam: You're evaluating who's going to give you that money. Right, and you're not doing that when we're already halfway through the academic year as a senior, right?

Patty: Absolutely. Absolutely. So we could have a student, so rolling admissions, who applies to college for the next upcoming fall, let's say even in February, no problem. We'll review your application, you'll get a decision, hopefully, you're admitted, but you missed of our scholarship deadlines, those competitive ones, the ones that do require an essay that do require you to fill out an application and provide those letters of recommendation and you don't want to miss out on those opportunities. But rolling admissions is really convenient because there's a lot of flexibility there. So literally you can apply here round. Obviously, you don't want to apply really, really late right before the term. That doesn't save you a lot of time to take care of some other really important things like getting your classes, and figuring out where you're going to live. But rolling admissions does provide that flexibility. When I talk to a lot of high school seniors, I tell them kind of the best rule of thumb is to get all their college applications in before Halloween. Everyone remembers Halloween, it's the end of October. But that way you're not missing hard deadlines that are likely going to fall in November, or December at other places or at CMU, your application is still in early and if you apply in the month of October, it's free.

What are some of the typical materials you should have ready when applying to college? 

Adam: What do you want to be prepared for? So if I'm coming into the senior year, I'm going to be August 1st, I'm applying or whatever. Maybe it's September 1st because I'm going to do it in my counselor's office, but what ducks need to be in a row for me to quack, quack, quack all the way into my first fall at college?

Patty: Oh, let's see what ducks. I really encourage students to figure out where they want to apply because then that will help them realize which one they should fill out first. Does that school have its own application? Are they on the Common Application? That's something else to consider. The Common App is helpful if you're applying to numerous schools that are on the Common App, it's you fill out one application, you only have to do it once. Attach all your essays and all of those extra items and then you can apply to all the schools that are on there. So in some sense, it sounds easier for sure, and it saves you time. It might save you money depending on if those schools have application fees or whatnot. On the other hand, it might not actually save you time if the school that you're really interested in is a lot easier, and does not require all those extra steps.

So it's trying to figure out what is the best fit for you and then go from there. So transcripts are going to be across the board. Every school is going to need your transcripts. It is also going to be a mixed bag when it comes to test scores. The good old ACT, SAT, it will depend on that school. Are they test-optional? Is it test required? At CMU we are test optional for all of the 2024 terms test optional meaning that it is not needed at all for admissions, but it is highly encouraged. It will never hurt your chance of admission. It could only help. Same for scholarships. It can never hurt you, but it will absolutely help if you do provide that test score, you could receive even more money.

Why are colleges going test-optional?

Adam: I want to talk a little bit about test-optional for a second if you want. Sure. I know for me, I'm a product of the 1990s, so I remember just the peak era of standardized testing, at least here in the Midwest, right? So when I hear that, for me, I'm like, wow, that's so weird because I remember my senior year, it's like, here's the 10 tests you're going to have to take if you want to do anything. Is this a common thing in higher ed? Are we seeing more schools go test-optional?

Patty: The COVID-19 era pushed us into that more so than ever because a lot of students, so in Michigan, we are at SAT State. A lot of students take that during the day at their school, and then when covid happens and students are virtual, you saw less and less students having that opportunity. And for some students, they didn't have a chance to take it at all. And that really did, really did get a lot of schools to become test-optional permanently or figuring out what they want to do. Right now, we are playing it by ear, kind of assessing and looking at data. So for CMU right now, it's all of the 2024 terms, but beyond that, it's to be determined and I appreciate that a test score for CMU, it will never hurt a student. So they completely bomb out and still do okay in high school. And we're looking at high school because that is more reflective of the student. It's multiple years of their effort versus one test, like you said, and the 1990s or whatever you took it, that one day should not determine a student's entire fate. And it's costly. For some students, their first time may be covered, but then after that, having to pay for it, that's another thing. And you want students to be on an even playing field. So closing that gap between those who don't have the opportunity and those who do.

What happens after you apply to a college?

Adam: I want to demystify a little bit what happens here. If we're the admissions office, what do we do? What am I waiting for? How long does it take? What happens when I put that paperwork in?

Patty: Yeah. Yeah. So usually once we get up and running, we get into a routine and it's pretty quick. We tell families about two business weeks is pretty fair once everything is in. So, a lot of students will apply and say, well, it's been two weeks, but that clock starts when everything is in, when we don't really touch our application until everything is there. Okay, is that application ready to be reviewed? Do we have everything in? And for some schools that may mean a lot of things. Letters of recommendation, essays, and those take time to write or collect when you're waiting on a letter. Cool thing about here at CMU is that it's pretty basic. You apply, you fill out the application. We have our own internal application, and then we also can be found for incoming freshmen on the common app. You fill it out, you submit it, $40 application fee or fee waiver if you qualify and or are you're applying in a certain period where you may get it free.

Adam: When is that?

Patty: October. So October is college application month. The goal there is for every high school senior who wants to apply to college, and the hope is that they're at least getting at least one college application and they can and finances are not a burden. And then from there, the one required piece for an application to CMU would be your transcripts. We do take unofficial or official at the point of application, so it could be as easy as getting us a copy of your transcripts that you might have. We will eventually need those official transcripts from the school. And then of course, test optional. So if you have a test score, I highly encourage it being sent in. It will never hurt you. It can only help. So once that's in, that is considered a completed application. It is that easy. You could literally do it all in about 10 to 15 minutes, make sure that transcripts are in, and then we start the review.

What is that process? On our end? We usually have two staff members look at every application and we're looking for students who are academically ready. So, it's not about we want you, we don't. It’s are you ready now or are you going to be ready in the future? So, we're looking at the academic rigor, the courses that you took over that span of those three years so far in high school, and then we'll be looking at how you performed in those classes. Of course, your cumulative GPA is a data point that we can look at as well. So it's that holistic review, but sometimes the GPA doesn't tell the full story. Maybe you had a tough freshman year but did really good your sophomore year, even better junior year, but your GPA overall is lower because of that initial hiccup. So the GPA isn't always the full story.

Adam: Do you have extracurriculars, do you have academic-related extracurriculars? Does that come into play or no?

Patty: For us, not for admissions, but for scholarships, yes. So that's that second piece when I was noting that there's going to be competitive scholarships, so application forms that you're going to have to fill out for scholarships, providing letters of recommendation, essays, disclosing all of those involvements for CMU, that will come at the point of those additional scholarships. But for admissions, it's pretty key set on the academics and what you did in high school. If a student is nervous or a parent is nervous, just reach out. It's not supposed to be scary. You see in the movies, very intimidating. And a student stressing out and panicking and waiting at their mailbox.

Adam: Yeah, they run into the mailbox.

Patty: Yeah. I mean we still send admissions letters, but email and then we text you and we call you. We'll do every form of communication, but it's not meant to be scary. It really isn't. We definitely admit, like I said, we're rolling admissions, so we're admitting students year round and then from there it's up to the student, what's the best fit for them, and then when they're ready to make that choice.

What are common mistakes to avoid when applying to college?

Adam: What are the pitfalls when students are in the admission process, where do people stumble or you're talking about just if it's stressful or nervous, where is it? What are they doing that's making it harder for themselves?

Patty: Well, maybe parents, if you're listening, when parents are filling out their student's application, that is probably the number one thing I see in my office. They accidentally put their birthday, they put their own birthday and not their student's birthday. So if there's anything that could potentially go wrong, it's when the data doesn't match. We want to make sure that this transcript belongs to that student first and last name and date of birth. All things have to match. And when they don't match, that's where we run into a couple of issues, typos on the application, students using an email, but putting a typo in their email and then it doesn't get sent to them. So while technology can be our friend, it could also be our folk, but once we have everything in and then we're reviewing and then it takes time to then turn around and get you that decision as well because we don't want to mess it up.

Why are college visits important?

Adam: When you have a visit day as an admissions professional, what are you looking to happen or hoping it happens for the student and the family, what's the benefit of those visits? Right. I mean, everyone's putting 'em on. I see students walking around campus all the time with their mom and dad. I know what's happening there. Why should you do it?

Patty: Sure. Well, on our end, we absolutely want students to come, especially if families are taking time out of their very busy schedule to physically come here. We want them to walk away with as much information as possible, all of their questions answered, and really getting a good feel for who we are as an institution. What families typically are looking for a few things is that kind of the meat and potatoes of what are my next steps? How do I apply? How much is this going to cost me? That is obviously the top question. And then do we have what they're interested in? Some students, they are looking for a really large school. Some students are looking for a really small school, CMU. I think we're the best of both worlds. We land in the middle as a medium-sized institution with all of the opportunities of a large university.

But also that feel is more intimate. You really get to know people very friendly, so that fit. And sometimes when students come and they pick CMU and we ask them, why did you choose? Why did you choose CMU? They said, it was on my campus tour and it just felt right. So, sometimes there's that intangible too, but you can't get a vibe of a campus strictly from a website or a book. You're looking at a booklet, okay, buildings are buildings, brick buildings are going to look like a brick building somewhere else, but do you like the location of the school? Do you like the distance between where you're going to live on campus in your classes and you can get a good feel for that when you're visiting campus? We do have lots of tours and there's some key things that always happen on those, showing some examples of classrooms, showing examples of what it would look like to live on campus, seeing what that looks like. A lot of families get really excited that we do not do community bathrooms. So literally seeing, oh, there's a bathroom right next to my bedroom. That itself really takes away a lot of anxiety for families and just knowing what the community looks like and what the town has to offer. So, those visits are really key for people. It's like, would you buy a car without ever seeing it?

Adam: Right? It's a test drive, right?

Patty: It sort of, yeah, it is. Yeah, for anybody, we are happy to help. We have lots of offices on campus where we love questions. We love being able to help. That's why we do what we do. And if there is a question, there's somebody on this campus or and other places whose job it is to help you navigate that. And really it is to demystify the whole thing. It's not meant to be scary. We want students to come here and have a good time, get a great education, and obviously those outcomes are key. What are you going to do after graduation? But we want students to know that there's that support, whether it is financial questions, students will come to a visit and then make a swing over to one central on campus or maybe scholarships and financial aid or housing. "I have housing questions." - that's pretty common.

Getting a feel for what we have to offer in terms of classroom sizes and spacing, just knowing that we're friendly. We're here to help. We're not going to bite. So, just all of those things. You get a feel for that when you tour campuses and we have different types of visits. Some families, they don't want to talk one-on-one. That's not their thing. You can come in a group setting, that's totally fine. Some hate the group setting and they just want a one-on-one. We'll do that. Some are just looking for a general visit. Some are coming and they're ready to talk to faculty from the meteorology department and they're ready to have that specific conversation and we can accommodate that too.

What is the admissions process like at CMU?

Adam: Okay. I want to talk specifically about the Central Michigan University admissions process. What's it like and why is it easy?

Patty: It is easy, and we encourage students to get their application in. You can find us in the Common App or use our internal application, which is If you're using our internal application, you can knock it out in 10 minutes. 10 minutes or less. You fill it out, you submit it. There is a $40 application fee. If you qualify for a fee waiver, free or reduced lunch, please talk to your high school or guidance counselor, college advisor. They'll get us that fee waiver form or October, October college application month, free college application month. If you are filling out our application in the month of October, those 31 days, we remove the cost completely. Or if you are using the common app to apply to CMU during the month of October, our few waiver code is Fireup2024. You submit those and then the only required piece, easy peasy, you submit your transcripts, we accept official or unofficial transcripts, and we are test optional. So test scores, he ACT or SAT, not required. Highly recommended for scholarship purposes, but that is it.

Adam: Thank you, Patty. I really appreciate you coming in today. Yes. I hope this was fun for you. It was.

Patty: This is fun.

Adam: It was fun for me. This is fun. This is cool. I hope you're not too cold.

Patty: I feel fancy. I love these little headphones.

Adam: We're fancy but approachable here at CMU.

Patty: We are. We are. And we are always willing to help. Thank you for having us. Having me.

Adam: Yeah, thanks. Yeah. Don't forget to like and subscribe so that you never have to search for the next episode.

The views and opinions expressed in these episodes are strictly those of the host and guest speaker.