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Private schools and elite college consultants typically begin guiding students by 8th grade. Starting early doesn’t just result in better college outcomes. It allows students to have a more fulfilling high school experience with less stress. In the past, year-by-year guidance has been available almost exclusively to the very wealthy. With hourly rates of $200 to $2,000+, the cost of private consultants over 4+ years can be astronomical. Since the answer to the question, “When should I start college prep?” is as soon as possible, we want to give students of all incomes the same access to early support and expert information.
Since the SAT and ACT are huge sources of stress, we really wish we could recommend applying test optional. But as things currently stand in admissions, we believe it is still in your best interest to test. As you’re aware, many colleges since COVID have been accepting applications without scores. This brings in more applications, lowers a college’s acceptance rate, and ultimately boosts its ranking. But few colleges have disclosed how many students without scores are actually admitted. The numbers that have been released from a handful of colleges aren’t encouraging. Students without scores appear to be at a disadvantage. Students who apply test optional also put themselves at risk for more debt. Many colleges use generous aid to attract students with high scores. We believe the answer to the question, “Is test optional really optional” is no, unfortunately. That’s why we guide students through a low-stress test prep plan starting in 10th grade.
Many colleges track every contact that students make with their school, and the data they collect helps them decide who gets accepted—and in some cases, who gets extra financial aid. Why do colleges value demonstrated interest so much that it’s been compared to having an additional 100+ points on the SAT? It comes down to yield rate, which is the percentage of accepted students who choose to enroll. Yield is a priority for colleges because it can impact everything from their ranking to their bond rating. One way colleges can increase their yield rate is to accept students who they predict will accept them back. To make this prediction, colleges check to see if you’ve visited, interviewed, spent time on their website, attended info sessions, interacted with their social media, written a convincing “Why Us?” essay, and more. It’s a daunting undertaking—and it can feel nearly impossible for students if they’re lukewarm about the colleges on their list. That’s one of the reasons we put a lot of effort into guiding students towards excellent-fit schools that excite them. Once students find schools they are genuinely into, demonstrating interest can even feel like a game…and less like Squid Game.
Gone are the days when the #1 college worry was not getting into first-choice schools. Debt has been the biggest stressor for over fifteen years according to the Princeton Review’s annual survey. At HeyCollege, we scour schools’ financial aid data to help students find financial-fit colleges and avoid debt. The government website College Navigator is another great way to find out which colleges are affordable for your family. Search for the college you’re interested in, and then expand its “Net Price” tab to determine the average cost for your family’s income range. You can also open the tab called “Retention and Graduation Rates” to see if a school is graduating its students on time, which will reduce debt as well. To check how much merit aid a college provides, you’ll need to google the college’s name and the phrase “Common Data Set.” Scroll down most of the way to reach section H2A, “Number of Enrolled Students Awarded Non-Need-Based Scholarships and Grants.” Rows N and O list how many non-athletes receive merit aid and what the average award is.

Besides determining which colleges offer significant discounts, you can maximize financial aid and scholarship offers by demonstrating interest, submitting strong applications and scores, closely evaluating and comparing financial aid offers, and appealing for additional aid. More information about comparing financial aid offers is available on our blog.
While college websites project racial diversity and opponents of affirmative action claim that white applicants face discrimination, the reality is that America’s top universities admit fewer Black and Latinx students than they did in 1980. Admissions policies typically favor white students—legacy preference, suspected quotas against Asian American students, rural recruiting, and athletics all exclude students of color (at many highly selective colleges, 65–79% of athletes are white due to “country club sports” such as water polo, golf, etc.). Race-conscious admission policies can offset some of that harm. Affirmative action allows admission officers to look at candidates’ life experiences in order to more accurately compare the achievements of similarly qualified applicants. Due to factors such as race, gender, disability, or LGBTQ+ identity, some students will have had to work harder to overcome obstacles (race-based obstacles include educator bias, disciplinary disparities, discriminatory testing policies,* racial stress, the ongoing impact of redlining on school funding, and so on). Our college search factors in race and ethnicity in order to provide students with the most accurate admission odds.

*For instance, when Black students outperform white students on experimental SAT questions, the algorithm removes those questions to avoid disrupting the SAT’s normed bell curve (“The Scandal of Standardized Tests” by Wake Forest University Professor Joseph Soares).
With all the conflicting advice out there, it might seem impossible to work out what colleges are actually looking for. Students who don’t have help often vacillate all summer and fall. It’s a bad situation since the personal essay is just the first of many essays that students have to crank out. In fact, supplemental essays are often weighed more heavily by colleges since they’re used as a form of demonstrated interest. So that students can focus on these supplemental essays and their fall coursework—and take advantage of any Early Action or Early Decision deadlines—we aim for rising seniors to get their personal essay out of the way in June or July. So, what do we encourage HeyCollege students write about? Year after year, we’ve seen how much colleges love hearing about a challenging experience that has led to a student’s personal growth. It makes sense—in books and movies, audiences want to see the main character react to challenges. A classic example is Harry Potter—we can’t help but root for him as he faces problems, struggles, and grows by getting in touch with his values and capabilities. But students don’t have to have navigated Voldemort-level adversity or big “C” challenges—little “c” challenges make great essays, too! Maybe a student has dealt with disappointment in an activity or project that’s important to them, or maybe they’ve discovered an interest that’s helped them overcome a perceived weakness. We use brainstorming questions like these to help students quickly identify their most promising challenge, and then they write their essay using a “paint by numbers” outline that guides them through the details that will make up most of their essay: what they did and how they grew. We find this approach makes it easier to write an effective essay, but even better, we believe it can positively shape students’ lives beyond college, as it’s inspired by psychologist Dr. David Denborough’s research (“Retelling the Stories of Our Lives: Everyday Narrative Therapy to Draw Inspiration and Transform Experience”) and former writing professor Louise Desalvo (“Writing As a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives”).