First, you need to find colleges you would like to attend. The Internet, high school college counselors and college guides (e.g. U.S. News) are great ways to find schools that meet your criteria. Are you looking for a particular major? A large student body? Small class sizes? Urban campus or college town? Religious affiliation? Conservative or liberal?
™¦Second, go to the college Web sites and explore. Eventually you should find a tab that reads "admissions" or "prospective students." From there, you will be able to find out what tests and forms you must complete to apply to the schools in which you are interested. Though some still use their own, many colleges now use the common application (www.commonapp.org). In addition to the common app, some may require a university supplement. You will also find what standardized tests schools require. Most require either the SAT or the ACT, and some will require one to three SAT subject tests (you can take three subject tests on a single test date). These are not offered during the summer - May and June are the last months to take the SAT before it is offered in October. You should allow yourself at least two tries for each test you will take. If you have to take the SAT and SAT subject tests, plan to take tests in May, June, October and November.
™¦Third, use the summer to visit the schools that interest you. Certainly you will learn more about the schools, but also having visited them will make your applications stronger. Some schools specifically ask whether you have taken a campus tour. Most colleges offer free organized tours, which will help you identify what specifically makes those colleges perfect for you. This information should be incorporated into your admissions essays. Admissions committees appreciate prospective students demonstrating an educated interest in their universities.
™¦Fourth, begin preparing your essays. For those colleges that have their own applications, the essay prompts may change from year to year. Search for old versions of their applications on the Internet to see past essay questions. The common application, which becomes available online after Labor Day, always asks you to do the following: Write one long essay (single page, single-spaced) responding to six possible prompts, and one short response (maximum 150 words) elaborating on an extracurricular activity or work experience. You also have the opportunity to attach an additional sheet if "there is any additional information you'd like to provide regarding special circumstance, additional qualifications, etc."
Some simple advice for writing your essays: Be honest, personal and specific. This is the only opportunity you have to communicate to the admissions committee who you are outside your extracurricular activities, grades and test scores. Ask those who know you well to read your essays, and be ready to edit until you have shown the admissions committee why you and their college are a unique fit.
Daniel Brown, international college admissions adviser and test preparation instructor, is the son of City Councilwoman Liz Brown.