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How to Apply for College: Tips from the Harlem Children’s Zone College Success Office

Harlem Children's Zone scholars sit at desk and learn how to apply to college

For many students, it’s an experience that’s equal parts stressful and exciting: applying to college! 

At Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), we help you apply for college through our College Success Office (CSO).

From applying for financial aid to filling out applications, our CSO team has plenty of useful tips on navigating the college application journey. Keep reading for advice from HCZ’s college readiness pros!

First thing’s first — meet with your academic advisor or college team

Want to know how to apply to college? Stay in contact with your high school academic advisors or college readiness team. They can help identify your career goals, major, colleges, financial aid opportunities, and more. Check in with them throughout your college application journey.

Harlem Children's Zone scholar visits college campus
Center for Higher Education and Career Support scholars on a college visit trip gather in a hall as a university representative shares information about the school

Explore college campuses 

Long before you start your first application, get a feel for different colleges. Schedule college tours (virtual or in-person). When you do, keep these questions in mind — they will help guide your future decision.

  • Do I want to go to college in the city, the suburbs, or the country? 
  • Do I want to live close to or far from home?
  • Do I see myself at a large, medium, or small campus?
  • Does the college offer my desired major(s), sports, and clubs?
  • Is the college in my price range and/or will I be able to cover the costs through financial aid and scholarships?

Attend college fairs

“Sample” different colleges by attending college fairs during your sophomore and junior years. There, you can hear directly from college representatives about their institutions, majors/minors offered, life on campus, financial aid opportunities, and more. You can also network with representatives (remember to get their names and contact info so you can ask them questions later). 

See what college fairs are like by checking out our Instagram video of CSO’s own College Fair!

Two HCZ Promise Academy High School scholars meet with a representative from a college in a gymnasium.

At CHECS College Fairs, HCZ Promise Academy High School scholars get help with their college search and network with college representatives.

Prep for and take standardized tests 

Always remember: You are more than your test scores. While scores have historically held outsized importance in admissions decisions, many college admissions offices are embracing a more holistic approach. In other words, they’re considering the entire student: your extracurricular activities, volunteer work, grades, and application essays (more on that later). 

However, we recommend that you prepare for and take either the SAT or ACT. In your sophomore year, consider signing up for the PSAT/NMSQT (Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test), which serves as a warm up for the SAT/ACT. Then, during the first half of your junior year of high school, sign up for the SAT and/or ACT. Spend a few weeks practicing (test prep books are lifesavers) and consider taking a test prep course. Additionally, create an account on College Board, a widely used platform with test prep resources, guidance on college applications, and other tools for navigating the application process. 

We know these standardized tests are… a lot. But with the right preparation, you’ll be ready to conquer them!

Make a list of colleges

In the first half of your junior year, make a list of your top colleges. Get back with your academic advisor to discuss your options and assess financial options (more on that in a minute). When compiling your list, expand on the questions you asked yourself in our “Explore College Campuses” section to further define your preferences: 

  • Does the college have my major?
  • How much can college cost and how much financial aid is available?
  • What is the average class size?
  • Does the college offer extracurricular activities I’m interested in?
  • What living options are available?
  • What are the graduation rates?
  • What are job placement rates for students in my intended major?

Your list should include colleges that are safety, reach, and match based on your ability to meet their requirements. Don’t count yourself out! Even if you fall a little short with your grades or test scores, there are other ways like extracurricular activities and volunteer work, letter of recommendations, and college essays to win over the college admissions office.

Explore Financial Aid Options

Once you choose a college, it’s time to figure out how you’ll pay for it. Tuition can be expensive (depending on whether the college you choose is public or private, out-of-state or in-state). Then there’s room, board, books, supplies, and more out of pocket costs. Fortunately, there are myriad opportunities to help pay for college, from federal financial aid to college scholarships. 

However, the options can get really confusing really quickly. The easiest way to start is by filling out a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and CSS (College Scholarship Service Profile). The FAFSA and CSS help determine your eligibility for federal financial aid and non-Federal college scholarships, respectively. Simply visit the FAFSA and CSS websites and follow the instructions.

Whatever your situation, you should always explore opportunities for financial aid. Otherwise, you may be leaving money on the table!

Harlem Children's Zone scholar visit a college library.

Students should start getting their application items together in the second half of their junior year. Be sure to have basic information (the same information you might include on a resume), recommendations from teachers, financial aid forms, and SAT/ACT scores.

Gather your application items

As you enter the second half of your junior year, start getting your application items together. Here’s a checklist: 

  • Basic information: Think of the kind of information you might include on a resume, like contact information and professional and extracurricular experience.
  • Recommendations from teachers: Ask teachers you’re close with to write letters in support of you and your applications. Don’t have the best grade in the teacher’s class? Maybe you’ve earned their respect in other ways, like working really hard or improving throughout the year. Give your teachers plenty of notice in advance of your application deadline.
  • Financial aid forms: Be sure to gather your FAFSA, scholarship, and other forms needed for financial aid.
  • SAT/ACT scores: You took the test! Now submit your scores.

Also, think about when you want to apply. Colleges may offer early decision, early action, restrictive early action, and regular decision. Speak to your academic advisor or college team about which option is best for you.

Complete your applications

With your checklist complete, the time will have finally come to complete your applications! As a first step, visit Common App, an online college application form used by over 900 colleges and universities. If the colleges you’re applying to don’t appear there, visit the Admissions section of their websites. 

We know this process can be daunting, but not if you already have all your application items prepared! There’s just one thing left to do…

Write your college essay

Love it or hate it (you might be feeling the latter!), the college essay is an essential component of your admissions package. To understand why, put yourself in the shoes of a college admissions officer: You’ve read through 100 applications. The applicants have the same or similar qualifications. You can only admit half of them. How do you decide? 

It’s what the college admissions officers learn about the applicant beyond those bullet points. It’s why the candidate wants to go to college and how it will change their life. It’s their personal story and professional aspirations. In other words: it’s what they write in their college essay.

Don’t let the college essay intimidate you! It’s important to relax and write from the heart. Here are some more tips to help you write a strong essay:

  • Plan ahead: Give yourself plenty of time to write your essay. Try scheduling blocks of uninterrupted writing time.
  • Be Yourself: Write your story, in your own voice. This will help you, and your application, stand out.
  • Write and Rewrite: If you have time, write several drafts of your essay. The more versions you draft, the better your essay will be!
  • Proofread your essay: And have someone proofread your essay too! It’s always good to have a second pair of eyes.


Ask for help when you need it

Between teachers, academic advisors, parents/guardians, and even your peers, there are plenty of people you can rely on to push through the college application process. Relying on your support system and CSO’s tips for how to apply to college! can help you complete your apps and get across the finish line.


Submit your apps and take a break

Take a break, relax, and most importantly, be patient! Remember, you put in the work and gave it your all. Now the only thing left to do is wait. Good luck — you got this!

A college student sits at a table with another student and an adult at a career networking event.

Between teachers, academic advisors, parents/guardians, and even your peers, there are plenty of people you can rely on to push through the college application process.