College & Career

University of Chicago campus. PHOTO/TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO

By Jessenia Martinez
DePaul University

As senior year approaches, the pressure to apply to colleges and find scholarships increases. To assure you get accepted and win scholarship money to finance going to your dream school, it’s a good idea to look over the school’s requirements as well as scholarships the college and outside sources may offer. Here are some helpful hints to lessen the overwhelming application process.


Look up information online about campus size, class sizes, tuition and anything else that might have you wondering. Most schools have all the information you’ll want to know in the admissions section of its website. Do your homework first by exploring all the materials that are already available, and if you still have a question, call or send the admissions office an email.

Look up what is required to attend the college and what information is needed to apply. Test scores, essays and GPA are only a few of the things schools look at when deciding which students to accept. Make sure if there are other criteria that you have to submit on the application, you have everything organized.

“When I looked into (my school’s) requirements, I knew that my application was going to be reviewed on my academics as well as activities that I was involved,” says Aileen Nolan, a sophomore at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “My test scores and GPA were also a factor in my admission, and I made sure to check what (were) the other requirements, such as (high school course) requirements, I needed to enter.”

Save every essay you write. Many college applications ask similar questions, so it’s a good idea to have copies of all the essays you’ve written in case you need to repurpose it later for another application. Your essay should speak to who you are aside from the numbers and letters on your transcripts.

“The essay is an opportunity to show a piece of who you are that can’t be found anywhere else on the transcript,” says Keith Hebert, a college counselor at Northtown Academy. “If you really want to stand out, take a good chunk of time developing your essay to paint a picture of the type of person you are.”

Be prepared to ask your teachers for some help. It’s always good to build up student-teacher relationships so that any teacher you approach for a recommendation will be able to speak to not only the quality of work you do as a student, but also be able to talk about your strengths and character. Also, if you have a part-time job, get to know your boss. He or she can help with professional recommendations as well.

John Joe Friedmann, a 2012 Whitney Young graduate who will be attending Brown University this fall, says, “Ask teachers for letters of recommendation as early as possible because they will write you a better recommendation if they have more time to work on it and it’s not just one of the 50 they have to type up the night before they are due.”

It’s better to start an application early and set a pre-deadline before the application is actually due so you’ll have time to go over all the components and make sure you have everything you need to submit. It helps to double check and also keeps the stress bar to a minimum so you’re not panicking the night before your application’s due because you’re missing one piece.

The best way to get to know a school and get a feel for if you’ll fit in there is by visiting in person if you can. If you’re still unsure about a school, a visit can help you visualize what it’ll be like to be a student there and give you the opportunity to meet professors and students, and chat in person with an admissions counselor. If you can’t make it for a visit in person, a virtual visit or a phone call with an admissions counselor is the next best thing to make sure you get all your questions answered from everything about filling out the application to campus life to specifics about scholarships and courses.

“I wanted to make sure I went to the perfect college for me, so I did some research online,” says Anderson Tien, a 2012 Naperville North graduate who will attend the University of Pennsylvania in the fall. “Even though the Web has many sources, I didn’t feel it was enough information to win me over.” Tien says a visit to the campus sealed the deal for him. “Sometimes you need to be on campus to really know if you want to attend.”

Start as early as possible. You can apply to scholarship websites as early as your sophomore year. The more advanced start you have, the better chances you’ll receive scholarships. Build up your profile and make yourself stand out.
“The sooner you begin the college process the more opportunities you will have to find scholarships that will be a good match for your academic profile and interests,” says Sarah Whittemore, assistant director of admissions at DePaul University.


To apply for certain scholarships, there are requirements just like with college applications. One important factor is race. Being eligible for ethnicity-related awards can also help you narrow down your scholarship search.
“Make sure to speak to your counselor about scholarships for minorities—there are plenty out there,” says Erick Ontivarios, a 2012 graduate of Mooseheart in Batavia and an incoming freshman at U. of I.

Is there a sport you love to play? There are plenty of athletic scholarships out there as well, even if you aren’t being heavily recruited. You can win a scholarship for being the fastest runner or even for your good sportsmanship. Visit for more info.

If you have a special talent, search and see if there’s a scholarship for it. There are wacky scholarships available for thing you may not even know are a talent—such as making clothing out of duct tape. Your interesting hobbies can help you get scholarships. At least one college offers a scholarship for being left-handed. If you like skateboarding, apply for the Patrick Kerr Skateboard Scholarship. You can still have fun while earning money for college!

Activities give you experiences that will help make you stand out from the crowd. If you’re part of the glee club, there could be a scholarship for that. Racked up 300 community service hours? There’s sure to be a service scholarship for that! Make a list of all your activities inside and outside of school and start searching for related scholarships. The Alliant Energy Community Service Scholarship provides 25 students with $1,000 who have outstanding community leadership and help students achieve their goals.

Make sure scholarship websites aren’t scams before you apply. No one should have to pay for applying for financial aid. Ask your counselor for help if you’re not sure if a scholarship website is legitimate. Also, ask the college you want to attend if they have scholarships to award towards your tuition.

“Beware of scholarship scams – you should never have to pay to apply for a scholarship. The benefit of these sites is that they all offer external scholarships which, if awarded, can be applied toward any college or university a student chooses to attend.”


Websites to help you learn about the college process and make a decision:

Websites to help you find scholarships:

>> Jessenia Martinez is a 2012 graduate of Benito Juarez.

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About The Mash

The Mash is the Chicago Tribune's newspaper and website written for teens, by teens. The paper is distributed for free every other Thursday at Chicago-area high schools and is written largely by high school students.

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