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4 tactics to get into your dream college (without cheating)

Alyssa Pry
Personal Finance Reporter

This story was originally published on Sept.13, 2018.

The college application process – when you have to decipher financial aid forms, search for scholarships, and take standardized tests – is stressful for families. With news of the biggest college admissions scandal breaking this week, many students and parents across the country are no doubt even more disheartened.

On average, students apply to four schools and get accepted to three, according to a study from Niche.com. This year, 19.9 million students are enrolled in a college or university.

To help, Yahoo Finance teamed up with college experts Andrew Elwell of the College Board, Brooke Hanson of Supertutor TV, and Angela Howze of Financial Aid Strategist to answer your questions about college admissions and help you tackle your applications.

Here are four questions you should think about when planning your admissions strategy:

  • How should I pick a school to apply to?

Deciding how many colleges to apply to can add to an already stressful process. According to Hanson, a tutor and founder of standardized test prep and tutoring website Supertutor TV, it’s important to have a strategy.

“Make sure you hedge your bets,” Hanson says. “College admissions are very selective, so find a backup school that has rolling admissions, where the sooner you apply, the sooner you find out and as long as you get in somewhere, you’ll be in a better position.”

Elwell recommends considering the cost of your school as a starting-off point of narrowing down your list.

“A good thing to keep in mind when you’re looking at schools is the net price: this is the difference between a college’s published price on its website and the different types of financial aid you might be eligible for,” he says.

Using a net price calculator can help you decide if a school is a good financial fit for you and your family.

  • How can I pay for it?

Actually affording college is a huge concern for many families: per year, the average yearly cost for a private school is $32,410, and $23,890 for a state school, according to the College Board. That’s why you need to fill out the FAFSA form and use a tool like FAFSA 4caster to see how much aid you’ll be eligible for, says Howze, author of “Breaking Free From Financial Aid Prison.” The more information you have ahead of time, the more knowledgeable you’ll be on what you need to contribute.

If you’re shooting for a prestigious school and hoping to get financial aid, Hanson has good news.

“The schools that are the hardest to get into typically have the highest aid packages,” she says. “If you’re in a position where you have very competitive grades and very competitive scores, don’t hold yourself back. Apply and see what you get.”

When it comes to scholarships and paying for college once you’re there, Howze recommends programs like Americorps.

“You work for 10 months and they give you a $450 stipend per month. In addition, you learn life skills and get a scholarship when you finish,” she says. The money can add up to around $20,000 over the course of two years, Howze says.

Search sites like BigFuture.org will help you find scholarships, but at the end of the day, it comes down to your effort, Elwell says.

“It’s all about hitting the pavement—there’s a ton out there, you just need to put in the work to find them,” he says.

  • How can I ace my standardized tests?

While grades and numbers aren’t the only part of a college application, doing well on your standardized tests can place you a cut above.

“Make sure you have a test-prep strategy,” Hanson says. “Some students go into this thinking it’s an IQ test and they show up the morning of and they see what happens, but take a practice test.”

Khan Academy offers a free SAT prep course and Hanson offers tips and strategies for standardized tests on her website and YouTube channel. She says students should start prepping before junior year of high school and plan to take the test multiple times.

Elwell agrees. “Don’t give up hope,” he says. “Many students score better the second time around.”

  • How can I stand out from the crowd?

Rounding out your application with extracurriculars and a stellar essay could help you shine, but it can be yet another source of stress for students wanting to stand out from the crowd. While it’s good to set your sights high, remember you have many options when it comes to getting a great education, Hanson says.

“Be realistic about where you’re applying,” Hanson says. “There are over 2,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. and we only give attention to the top ones. There are so many places where you can go and get an education and make your dreams come true.”

Elwell says when it comes to extracurriculars, only include things you are truly passionate about so your potential college can get to know you as a candidate.

“Colleges don’t want to see a laundry list of activities,” Elwell says. “They really want to see the clubs where you had a meaningful impact and those are the areas where you can stand out.”

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