52 Weeks to College: Week 26

Here's how to research your colleges' admissions & financial aid policies
June 28, 2021

Have you already made your application plan? Are you close to finalizing your college list? Have you done your pre-work? If so, you are ready to go!

If not, you’ll be much more successful (and spend less time overall!) if you go back to the previous weeks of this series and get these things done before diving into this week’s to-dos.

As always, we are focused on helping you work smarter, not harder. One of the best ways to work smarter is to work strategically. You discovered your fundamental application strategy when you crafted your story last week. That story contains what YOU want admissions officers to know about you, because it highlights what matters most to admissions officers.



  • Continue working on finalizing your college list.
  • Research the application process at each college on your list. You want to find answers to the four questions below in order to tailor your strategy. You’ll find advice about how to do this research in the Tips and Tricks section below.

  • What application platform do they use? Common App? Coalition App? Something else?

  • Do they offer any early application options? Which ones? Early Action, Restricted or Single Choice Early Action, Early Decision? What are the deadlines for submitting an early application?

  • What is their standardized testing policy? Most colleges are either making tests optional or not considering the tests at all.

  • What aspects of your story and your credentials matter most to the admissions officers at this particular college?

  • Create a specific application strategy for each college on your list. While your overall application strategy is to tell your story (see last week’s post), you want to tailor that strategy for each college on your list.

  • Research the financial aid available at each college on your list. Add the financial aid applications aid deadlines to your calendar.


  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.
  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.



Even though all college applications are available online these days (your parents probably still applied on paper), EVERY COLLEGE STILL HAS ITS OWN APPLICATION.

What? Isn’t there a Common App that is accepted by over 900 colleges?

Yes, there is, but the Common App is not what it sounds like. The Common App is NOT a single online application. Instead, it is an application platform that allows you to enter some basic information and answer some questions once, and then have that information transmitted to any college that uses the Common App as its application platform.

The first big mistake many people make in the college application process is assuming that the Common App is in fact one application. It is not. Don’t let the name fool you. Many colleges also have some specific questions that you answer only if you are applying to that college. Those college-specific questions and essays show up in what are called the college supplements on the Common App platform.

And just to make things more complicated, the Common App isn’t the only application platform out there. Basically, colleges have these choices for application platforms:

  • Common App. The biggest platform used by over 900 colleges. You can get a list of the colleges using the Common App here.

  • Coalition App. A newcomer used by a few hundred colleges. You can get a list of the colleges using the Coalition App here.

  • Their own application platform. Many of the large public universities and state systems use their own applications exclusively. For example, the University of California System has its own application for its 9 campuses.

  • Other Platforms. There are some other platforms that are used by colleges for their applications. For example, the Apply Texas platform serves all public universities in Texas as well as some private universities in Texas. The QuestBridge platform serves a group of colleges interested in recruiting students from low-income families.

And there is one more wrinkle! Some colleges use more than one application platform. For example, you can apply to Wake Forest University through the Common App, the Coalition App, their own application platform, or even by paper.

So how do you figure out which platform the colleges on your list use? Go to their websites and they should list your options.


While you are on a college’s website finding out which application platforms they use, check out what early application options are offered by the college. Take your time here and read all the fine print, especially when it comes to Early Action options. The rules can be quite tricky.

Let’s survey just three Early Action colleges and their rules.

For example, Georgetown allows you to apply Early Action to Georgetown AND other colleges, but NOT Early Decision to other colleges.

By contrast, if you apply Early Action to Princeton, you may NOT apply to any other college early (meaning you can’t apply Early Action or Early Decision anywhere else).

Finally, if you apply Early Action to Harvard, you may not apply early (either Early Action or Early Decision) to any private university in the U.S., but you may apply early to public universities in the U.S. or to foreign universities.

In terms of deciding whether you should apply early, we say “Yes” unless any of the following reasons hold true for you and you should wait to apply during the Regular Decision:

  • You think you can meaningfully improve your admissions profile in the first half of your senior year. Applying early increases your odds for admission only if you are a competitive candidate at the time of your application. If you are not as strong as most of those admitted in past years AND you can boost your credentials in the first half of senior year, then you should wait and apply Regular Decision. For example, if you’ve had some bad grades you want to overcome or if you have a big project that will come to fruition at the beginning of your senior year, then wait.
  • Your only option for applying early is a “binding” option – binding means that if you are accepted at that school you must accept the offer – if you aren’t sure that the college is really your top choice, then apply Regular Decision rather than binding Early.
  • Your only option for applying early is a “binding” option AND you know that you will need financial aid AND they won’t make a financial aid award at the time they give you their decision - in that case, apply Regular Decision instead. (Many colleges do accelerate the financial aid award if you submit the necessary paperwork, but you need to confirm the policies at the particular college and make sure you understand what paperwork needs to be submitted.)

If none of these scenarios is true for you, then go for early. It will increase your odds for admission and shorten the agonizing waiting period between the time you submit your application and when you find out. But do not assume that early is always better, because that is not the case.


At selective U.S. colleges, admissions officers have the power; they are the decision makers. Therefore, your tailored application strategies should be developed with those admissions officers in mind.

How do you know what matters most to the admissions officers at a particular college? You do a little research on the College Board’s Big Future website. (Just search for the college name, and then the “Applying” tab.) Each year, the College Board conducts a survey and asks each college to indicate what factors they consider in admissions (from a list provided) and how important each of these factors is.


That’s exactly the information you need.

BUT… always double check that information on the colleges’ websites directly. The testing information in particular is often outdated on the College Board site, meaning it might show standardized test scores as being “very important” at a school when in fact that’s old information and the school has gone test-optional.


Now that you’ve done your research and understand what’s most important to the colleges on your list, you can tweak your application strategy for each college on your list.

Remember that your application strategy is pretty straightforward: Share your story (the one you wrote last week). Tweaking it is equally straightforward.

Let’s say that you find out that Stanford considers the “rigor of secondary school record” very important (which it does). So what aspects of your story are you going to emphasize? The aspects of your story relating to academics, and especially to your quest for rigor – all those honors or AP classes, your participation in the Robotics Club, your summer spent at Space Camp, etc.  


Financial aid is a complicated business, and each college has its own policies and resources.

If you are really going to understand what options are available to you, you will have to take the time to do your homework. At a minimum, you need to know:

  • your eligibility for financial aid (international students should pay close attention, because much of the financial aid available is restricted to U.S. citizens and permanent residents; some schools will also include DACA students for financial aid eligibility but others don’t);

  • the "net price" of the colleges on your list (the net price is the cost of attendance minus the need-based financial aid you would be likely to receive) — you can use the College Board’s Net Price Calculator; you can also use a tool called TuitionFit, which crowdsources actual financial aid awards from different colleges and shows students the prices that other students like them are being offered. Students and their families use this info to determine which schools will be in their price range, or they can use this info to negotiate their financial aid awards with some leverage.

  • what merit-based financial aid might be available to you at each college on your list, and

  • what the financial aid applications and deadlines are for each college.

You also need to know whether the ability to pay is a factor in admissions, although figuring this out is difficult because you have to be fluent in "admissions speak" to decode the information that colleges give you.

In admissions speak, colleges that consider your ability to pay as a factor in admissions will describe themselves as having "need-aware" or "need-sensitive" admissions policies, while colleges that do not consider your ability to pay as a factor in admissions will describe themselves as having "need-blind" admissions policies.

Not all colleges are transparent about their policies. If a college does not explicitly state that it is need-blind in its admissions decisions, assume that your ability to pay will be a factor in admissions.

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