11/21/2012 08:46 am ET | Updated Jan 21, 2013

The Blind Leading the Blind

I feel like I'm sliding down a torrential water slide. Senior year is here. College prep/application season is here. I feel I have some wisdom to share. I'm selling myself as omniscient by calling it wisdom, so let's call it... hopeful, sort-of lived-out advice:

1. The SAT: SAT classes are expensive. The field of test preparation is an opportunistic monetary game. For example, the Princeton Review charges about $1,499 for a small group course. Granted, SAT prep companies also produce great prep books for reasonable prices. And so, I arrive at my point. You don't need expensive classes to do well on the SAT. Economically-accessible resources, coupled with an unyielding determination, can produce an excellent score. My SAT experience has been a particularly good one, born out of much hard work on my part. Knowing that I wouldn't be able to afford prep classes, I bought a Kaplan SAT prep book for $20 in February. I took about six practice tests before the big day in May. I would go to the study area of my local library on a Saturday morning and time myself, a task that required MUCH self-discipline. I would be lying if I said I didn't go on multiple muffin runs during my breaks to re-fuel my spirits. I also would be lying if I said I never thought about giving up. To make my goals tangible, I wrote down my reasons for studying on a piece of paper. When I grew lazy, I would look at it to keep me going. My May SAT score: 1990! I was personally content, but I knew I could do better. During the summer, I took three practice tests, this time from the prep book sanctioned by College Board. I also read a lot, but for leisure (being a book nerd helps immensely, plus it's fun -- I mean, if you're a book nerd, that is).

Throughout the month of September, I focused on the weaknesses I experienced on my last SAT test, specifically the math portion. I didn't take full practice tests, but rather the math sections of the practice tests. I took the SAT for a second time in October: 2210! It was amazing to see all of my hard work pay off. YOUR hard work can pay off as well. I suggest studying on your own (WITHOUT a ridiculously expensive class) before taking the test for the first time. This doesn't mean doing it completely alone. I sometimes sought out my teachers in order to understand questions I found difficult. Although I didn't utilize it, I've also heard the free SAT prep blog, PWN the SAT, helps. In fact, there are tons of free internet tools and phone apps that are free, or at least cheap, that could help you. Remember one thing: dreams get you nowhere if you're unwilling to work for them.

2. The College List: My parents don't have the time or the money to help me visit colleges. So, how did I make my college list? I have had a college list compiled since the beginning of my junior year. At that time, it was not a serious list -- just a group of schools that peaked my interest. My school conveniently holds a college fair every year, as does the local college. College fairs are excellent opportunities to learn about all types of schools. I succumbed to the habit of carrying around a list of questions to every college fair. This helped me organize my thoughts and interests when conversing with admissions reps. This past summer, I pulled up my list (which initially boasted 30 names) and narrowed it to 10 schools. To narrow it down further, I made a college profile for each school. I researched each school on Unigo and College Prowler, recording the positive and negative reactions of student reviewers. For more technical and official information (financial aid policies, test score ranges, academic departments, etc.), I analyzed the college profiles on College Board's Big Future section, as well as the websites of the colleges themselves. In my makeshift profiles, I would write down significant pieces of information concerning a school.

As I obtained more information, I found some schools didn't appeal to me at all, so I didn't even finish all 10 profiles. For example, I eliminated one school from my list because it didn't have an organized newspaper. A school doesn't have to have everything you want, but it does have to have the things that matter the most to you. Although I don't plan on pursuing journalism professionally, I love writing for my school paper. I know journalism is an activity I want to continue well into college. In the end, I settled for eight colleges. While researching, I also found an incredible opportunity for students like me: students who cannot visit colleges because of a lack of money or time. Certain schools offer programs in which they invite a prospective student on campus for overnight stays and class visitations -- all expenses paid! These programs are usually competitive, so an application is required. I had the pleasure of being admitted to the Amherst College DIVOH program. The college paid for my travel expenses and allowed to learn about its campus life from a close-knit perspective. Not many students know about this resource, so I encourage prospective students to be thorough in their college searches.

3. The Finances: It's important to look into as many local scholarships as possible. Local scholarships are easier to get than national/regional scholarships, as the applicant pool in the latter is larger and more competitive (which is not to say they are not attainable). Organizations like the Rotary and the YMCA are excellent sources for scholarships. Your high school might also have scholarship funds, so speak to your guidance counselor to get the scoop. If you go to a huge school, like me, it's also helpful to seek out your favorite teacher for individualistic college admissions advice. My school hosts a senior scholarship night each year, allowing students to win scholarships funded by alumni and school officials. It is a beautiful local event and I hope to win some at the end of the school year, God willing. Additionally, seeing as how my parents cannot contribute to my education (even though they'd love to), all of the schools on my list guarantee to meet 100 percent of my financial need (with the exception of my state school).

4. The Actual Applications: Don't leave them all for the last minute if you can help it! Try to space your time out accordingly. I'm talking college apps AND scholarship apps.

5. The Stress: It's a stressful time. I'm speaking as if I'm an expert, but I'm still trying to figure things out and I still haven't been admitted to college. It's important to make time for rest, family and friends. In the midst of your academic endeavors, you're going to need them to stay sane. And chocolate. Lots and lots of chocolate. And running. Running endlessly and lovingly. Yes, I am a chocolate-loving runner.

For now, that is all I have to say, or really, that is all my pile of homework will allow me to say. Have fun riding the water slide!

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