Applying to college can be a bit like putting a puzzle together — a challenge to find the right pieces and their proper places. For first-generation or low-income students, the process can feel like putting the puzzle together without the picture on the box for reference.
That’s why many students seek out free resources for college admissions assistance.
While the high school counselor’s office is a good start, students may have limited interaction with counselors who are stretched thin due to their large workloads. But a bevy of resources — offered both online and in person — can help guide prospective students down the right roads in their college admissions journey.
“We recognize that we need to make it easier for all students, but particularly first-generation and low-income students to be able to access, afford and attain higher education,” says Jenny Rickard, president and CEO of the Common Application, a popular platform that makes it easy to apply to multiple colleges. “Certainly, there were already hurdles, and then the COVID-19 pandemic created many more.”
To help students clear those various admissions hurdles, U.S. News compiled a list of free resources below, touching on topics such as standardized testing, essays, financial aid and more.
Access College Admissions Advising
The admissions process can be a lot to unpack. That’s where personal advising comes in. Independent education consultants often charge staggering sums that are out of reach for many families, but free resources are available that can serve students in a similar way.
College Possible, a nonprofit organization under the AmeriCorps umbrella, offers free college admissions assistance to students in public high schools, generally concentrated in major metro areas, in seven states: Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington and Wisconsin. College Possible functions as an after-school program, guiding students via a college access and success curriculum.
“At College Possible we aspire to close the college degree divide,” College Possible President Craig Robinson says. “We do that through our near peer mentoring program, where recent college grads, through AmeriCorps, serve as coaches in high schools to help those students complete the college application process.”
Mentors also help students navigate the enrollment and financial aid processes.
The Common App also recently entered the college advising world, partnering with College Advising Corps — a nonprofit focused on student advising — and ed-tech company AdmitHub to offer free admissions guidance to 500,000 low-income and first-generation students.
The Common App offers advising through chatbots, as well as admissions counselors who work with these students via text message and online video messaging platforms.
With the coronavirus pandemic shifting much of academic life online, Rickard says concerns around the lack of access to high school counselors prompted the creation of the Common App’s virtual advising program, which is still in the trial phase.
“They weren’t necessarily having access to their counselors, and first-generation college students and lower-income students in particular may not have had the resources to get additional counseling support,” Rickard says. “We were really concerned about them and wanted to figure out a way that we could connect them to advice about how to navigate the process.”
Common App aims to evaluate student success from the virtual advising effort in order to learn how the program may be modified to expand its availability, she adds.
Get Schooled is another free resource that provides a variety of college admissions services for prospective students, alongside other offerings such as coaching students on how to approach job interviews.
Services include advising via text message, college essay reviews and more.
“Our goal is to provide useful, engaging content where youth spend their time: texting, social media and the internet,” John Branam, executive director of Get Schooled, wrote in an email. “We also provide content directly to college advisors and educators primarily in high schools who then pass our content along to youth and encourage them to follow us on social media and engage with us via text.”
While these programs have limited capacity, prospective students should check with their high schools to see what other free admissions resources are available, experts say. Local charities and other organizations may also offer college admissions assistance.
One unofficial resource that may benefit students: college admissions forums. While the social media landscape is littered with misinformation, students can get good advice on certain forums, such as Reddit and Quora, where college admissions counselors are often active.
Find Resources to Tackle Test Prep
Though many colleges have gone test-optional due to the challenges of administering standardized tests during the pandemic, some students are still eager to take the ACT and SAT.
The good news for those students is that free resources are offered by both organizations.
The ACT Academy offers personalized practice. Students can access videos, simulations and other free practice tools through the online resource to prepare for the test.
The College Board partners with Khan Academy for its test prep offerings for the SAT. Students can visit the Khan Academy website to take full-length practice tests, set up personalized study plans and watch videos covering content on the exam.
Get Help With College Essays
Crafting a college essay is an important part of the admissions process. The top factors in admissions decisions, according to a 2019 report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling, are grades in all courses, grades in college prep courses, strength of high school curriculum, admissions test scores and then the college essay.
Since the admissions essay matters more than factors such as class rank and extracurricular activities, per NACAC, students should aim for their best effort when crafting a personal statement. Luckily, free resources can help students get started.
Robinson at College Possible nods to Story2 as an organization that can help students with their best essay efforts. According to the Story2 website, a free trial subscription includes access to a guided writing platform, interactive courses and daily practice sessions.
Free resources are also sometimes available through admissions counselors who charge for their work with private clients.
Ethan Sawyer, founder of the College Essay Guy website, offers a trove of free resources on his website to help students get started. Students can find guidance on how to brainstorm essay topics, write personal statements and tackle supplemental essays by engaging with prerecorded videos, free webinars and text-based media.
Once the essay is written, there are some free tools to get feedback such as Get Schooled, which Branam notes reviewed more than 1,000 college admissions essays in 2020.
Find Funds for College
Just getting admitted isn’t enough — students need a plan to pay for college.
The Federal Student Aid website should be one of the first stops for prospective college students and parents trying to figure out funding. The website offers guidance on how and when to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA, as well as a breakdown of how grants, work-study, student loans and scholarships all fit into the formula to pay for college.
In addition to the information available on college websites, prospective students should know that colleges’ financial aid offices are open to inquiries and are only a free call or email away.
Various scholarship websites can also get students off to a good start. For example, Scholarship Finder, a new and free tool developed by U.S. News, offers students the chance to search more than 8,500 scholarships and save their favorites.
The resources students need to help them find their way to college are likely available in one admissions program or another, and it’s just a matter of finding those services, Robinson says.
“If there’s a will, there’s a way. Be encouraged that there are programs and resources out there to help you navigate your pathway to college and a career.”
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College Admissions Assistance: How to Find Free Resources originally appeared on usnews.com