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7 Things All Teens Should Know About Applying to College

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Let’s face it: whether you’re just starting to look at colleges or racing to finish your personal essay before the deadline, college applications can be intimidating. The good news? They don’t have to be. With a little guidance, any teen can navigate the college application process like a pro.

As a content fellow at Khan Academy, I’ve spent the last year and a half talking to admissions officers, financial aid professionals, and students who’ve been through the college application process themselves. They all had a ton of wisdom to share – things I wish I’d known back when I was applying to college!

#1: Your phone is your friend.

Phones aren’t just for texting – they’re also a great way to get homework help on the go. With more and more free learning apps available every day, the information you need is literally at your fingertips. Khan Academy, for example, has practice problems, video lessons, and articles on math, science, history, and much more on its Android and iPhone apps.

By using the resources on your phone, you can take charge of your own learning. That’s important, because your high school grades are a big part of your college application. In fact, most colleges say that your high school transcript is the most important part – they want to see that you’ve taken challenging classes and done well in them.

Student story: High school classes:

#2: Don’t be discouraged by the sticker price.

Some teens avoid applying to specific colleges – or applying to college at all – because they worry they can’t afford it. There’s no denying that college can be expensive. On average, it costs almost $20,000 per year to attend a four-year public college, including tuition, meals, and housing. The average cost of attending a private college is even higher: over $40,000 a year.

Fortunately, financial aid can make college much more affordable. Financial aid includes scholarships, grants (which don’t have to be paid back), and loans (which do). You can apply for financial aid from the federal government, private organizations, and colleges themselves. In fact, the schools with the highest sticker prices often provide the most financial aid.

Perhaps you’ve heard back from your first-choice school about your financial aid application, and they didn’t offer you as much aid as you’d hoped. The conversation doesn’t have to stop there – it’s perfectly acceptable to appeal the school’s decision. For example, if you’ve received a more generous offer from your second-choice school, you can share that info with school #1.

Student story: Overcoming financial obstacles to college

#3: You don’t have to pay big bucks to do well on the SAT.

For many students, taking standardized test like the SAT and ACT is the most intimidating part of applying to college. Fortunately – since the SAT and ACT test what you’ve learned in high school – you’ve been preparing for them since freshman year, even if you didn’t realize it at the time. Better yet, you can find free resources online to help you study.

For the SAT in particular, check out Khan Academy’s Official SAT Practice. It includes information about the test, personalized practice recommendations, and tons of practice questions. These are all free, and all developed in partnership with the College Board, the non-profit organization that writes the SAT.

Student story: Standardized tests:

#4: Ordinary events can inspire extraordinary essays.

Many teens think that their college application essay needs to about something epic – curing cancer or starring on Broadway or competing in the Olympics. I haven’t done anything like that, they worry, so how can I write a good essay?

The truth is that some of the best essays are about everyday events. In fact, one of the admissions officers I interviewed – someone who’s read thousands of essays – said that his favorite essay of all time was about working at a fast food restaurant!

Your personal essay is the most personal part of your application. It’s a chance for admissions officers to get to know you – how you reflect on your experiences and what makes you unique. So don’t worry about whether your topic is important enough – write about something that’s important to you, and let your thoughts and feelings shine through.

Writing a strong college admissions essay:

#5: Do your homework.

There’s no better way to gauge whether or not a school’s a good fit than the gut feeling you get from actually stepping foot on a college campus. Visiting campuses is one of the most enjoyable parts of the application process and arguably the best way to get a sense of what attending that college is really like. For many colleges, an interview is also part of the application process. Before your interview, get to know the school – what makes it different from other colleges? Exploring the school website is a great way to start your research.

You can use what you learn as a starting point for your interview, but make sure to ask questions that can’t be answered just by reading the college’s website. For example, you might ask about the school culture, or what it’s like to participate in one of the programs you discovered in your research..

Doing your homework shows that you’re really interested in the school, and that you’ve thought about why it might be a good fit for you. You’ll also learn more and get more out of the interview if you can ask specific questions about specific programs.

Student story: Admissions interview:

#6: There’s another reason to schedule a campus visit or interview at a school.

If you already know that you want to attend a particular school, you might think there’s no need to visit it. But visiting isn’t just a way to learn more about the school – it’s also a way to show admissions officers that you’re interested.

Also, if the college’s admissions website “recommends” an interview, you should view the interview as required. Visiting a campus and scheduling an interview, tour, and/or overnight stay are all great ways of demonstrating that you’re especially interested in a school.

If you’re worried about the cost, you can always ask the school whether they have any programs to help lower-income students visit, or whether they hold virtual interviews for students who can’t make it to the campus. More and more schools are offering these options, and It never hurts to check!

Visiting campus: Campus Visit Alternative: Online Tour

#7: Get excited!

There’s no doubt that applying to college is a big job, but it’s also the start of a big adventure. College isn’t just a continuation of high school. It’s a chance to explore, make new friends from around the world, and choose what you want to learn.

College is what you make of it – so dream big, and enjoy the ride!

Student story: College brings new friends, learning, and freedom:

For more college application tips, check out Khan Academy college admissions site. And if you have your own tip to share, let us know below!

Madeleine Traver is the College Admissions Content Fellow at Khan Academy – a nonprofit with a mission to provide a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere. Having recently graduated from the University of Southern California, she now helps other students achieve their college dreams.

Need a Scholarship? There’s an App for That! Interview with Scholly Founder Christopher Gray


College application season is in full swing.  One of the biggest questions on students’ (and parents’) minds besides where they’ll be enrolled this time next year is how they’re going to pay for it all.  Unfortunately, many families cannot afford to pay for college out of pocket and their institution of choice can’t provide adequate aid. The ultimate question becomes: How do you avoid the staggering student loan debt that follows graduates well into their careers?

The good news is, there are millions of dollars in scholarships (both need and merit-based) to be had and they can all be found on Scholly (  Scholly is a web and app platform that quickly matches students to the scholarships they personally qualify for.  Scholly’s patented matching engine uses 8 parameters (such as gender, state, GPA, race, etc.) to quickly filter and deliver a targeted list of appropriate scholarships along with links and deadlines.  The app is just $3 which covers both web and phone access.

(In addition to buying Scholly on an individual basis, the Buy 2 Give program allows companies, government agencies and other entities to buy the app in bulk to provide to their constituents.  Many cities and companies have been giving back to their community by offering Scholly to local high school and college students.)


Describe the environment you were brought up in. 

I grew up in Birmingham, AL with a single mom and two baby siblings. My mother lost her job in 2008 when the recession hit. In fact, many people lost their jobs. Also, the fact that I was in an under funded, inner city school system didn’t help. There was violence, gangs, and a culture filled with anti-intellectualism. Students who were bright and motivated were often overshadowed and smothered, and that coupled with a lack of economic opportunity made it even harder to succeed no matter how hard you worked. If you were interested in things outside of the entertainment industry and sports, the chances of you finding like-minded peers were slim to none. Despite that, I worked hard and started my own organizations to create my own opportunities. I refused to allow that environment to define me and stagnate my intellectual potential.


How did you find the self-motivation to extricate yourself from those circumstances when so many others around you were not motivated?

At the end of the day, many would call me an outlier and an exception to the rule. I had never had any real desire to “fit in” and remained intellectually driven despite the culture I grew up in. While I didn’t have like minded peers, I did have great mentors who were from outside of Birmingham who helped me, supported me, and provided me with opportunities that I would not have had otherwise. It was still tough being an oddball and being so different than those around you. However, having successful mentors were somewhat of a North Star to me, directing me toward my freedom even if it was just intellectually.

Did you have any help or mentoring in terms of applying for colleges? If so, who were your mentors?

Since my high school guidance counselor didn’t have much time to help, I actually relied on websites and even added random people on Facebook who got into the schools I was applying to. It was pretty effective and some jumped on the phone with me to help. It was amazing how kind people were. These were people from schools like NYU, Drexel, Penn, and more. In my mind, what better way to find out how to get in a school than to ask the people that got in. I’m sure they thought I was weird, but I was a 17-year-old boy trying to get into college so I didn’t care. I also had a teacher who helped me with my essays so that was helpful. In fact, she was the same teacher who helped me with my scholarship essays.

Describe how you began searching for scholarships on your phone.   How did you know how to search – to put in the right terms, etc. that eventually led to you getting 1.3 million in scholarship money to fund your education at Drexel?  What particular talents did you use, and how can others learn from your example?

When I had to search for scholarships, I used sites like Fast Web and They were really the only thing out there at the time. It would take you about 20 minutes to put in all of your personal information and then the sites would give hundreds of matches that you had to sort through in order to see if you qualified for them. The process took me months.

To add to the frustration, I was only able to use computers at local libraries and at school for a very short period of time. The forced me to have to apply for some scholarships via my cell phone. For some scholarships I would literally have to write my essays down and then type them into fields on my small phone screen. The process was agonizing and tedious, but I knew I had to do it.

I started looking for scholarships during my junior year of high school, allowing me to spend that time searching in order to use my senior year to actually apply for everything. In hindsight, this was an effective strategy considering my lack of resources at the time.

How did you get the idea to turn your knack for scholarship “findology” into a business?

I found that the hardest part about getting money for college was actually finding the funds. There is money out there, but students do not know where to find it. The search process took me months and that was with an ungodly amount of grit and persistence. It can take some students even longer and most just give up altogether. There had to be an easier way. There have to be certain things each scholarship looks for that makes students qualify for them.

That’s how I came up with our “eight parameters system” for Scholly. I looked through a lot of scholarships to find out what criteria made a student eligible for a scholarship. That’s the core of the Scholly search. The goal of Scholly is remove the search process and to give students access to funds to pay for college.

Scholly App High Res ImageTalk about starting Scholly while you were still in college.

Starting a company in college has both its advantages and disadvantages. The upside is that you are in college and with entrepreneurship at the top of everyone’s minds, you have access to mentors and a lot of free capital through competitions. Between Drexel and other competitions, I won around $130,000 dollars for Scholly. Similar to scholarships, I became pretty good at raising “free money” for Scholly Also, as a student you have access to lots of mentors and programs that can assist you in starting and growing your company.

The downside is of your course that you are a student and you have to take these annoying things called classes.  As one could imagine, it was incredibly difficult trying to take five classes each term while running a growing company. The choice between being a good student and a great entrepreneur was a daily struggle. It’s really tough to strike the balance.

What was the turning point where you knew this could be a real business?

Starting Scholly was all around the notion of helping other people. In order to do that, I had to create a sustainable and growing business. We hit a turning point when my team and I realized that we couldn’t simply rely on press to keep us afloat. We had to commit full time to the company in order to push things forward.

What has been your greatest challenge getting your business off the ground?

My greatest challenge was definitely trying to balance being a student and running a company.

How many millions of dollars in scholarships have been awarded to students using Scholly?  

Currently, we have helped students raise over $15 million. We have tracked that through self reporting. When our new app comes out next month, we will be able to track other metrics. [The app is now live]

Besides leading students to potential scholarship matches for them, do you also offer advice on how to apply successfully? 

Our new app will provide tips on the application process.

Do you worry that by raising awareness of all that “hidden money” that the competition will get tougher and make scholarships harder, not easier, to obtain?

Our goal right now is make the scholarship search process as easiest as possible. By doing so, we will make scholarships more competitive. However, our goal is to eventually create a market place where more scholarships can be created and promoted to students to increase the supply side of the scholarship space to help meet the increase in demand.

Do you have any statistics on the amount of student debt that currently exists in the U.S.?

How do you see the future of Scholly?   How will the concept and the company evolve?

Scholly’s mission to provide access to opportunity. While we are starting with scholarships, we plan to begin to match students with and promote other educational opportunities as well. Our slogan is, “opportunity for all” and we plan to provide that access through our platform.

Benjamin & Matthew Royer Twin Telepathy Challenge

We had a quick chat with the hilarious and talented twin brothers Benjamin and Matthew Royer from Disney Channel’s Best Friends Whenever, who reveal the surprising way they were discovered for the role, the dumbest twin question they were ever asked, and more. They also participated in our first (and probably only) Twin Telepathy Challenge. How do you think they did?

Follow them on Instagram and Twitter! @thematthewroyer @thebenroyer

Dove Cameron Talks Barely Lethal, Disney Descendants & Liv and Maddie

Our host Michael Pena got to spend a few minutes of one-on-one quality time with Dove Cameron who chatted about her new film Barely Lethal plus the upcoming Disney Descendants, the challenges of her role on Liv and Maddie, and something her fans would be surprised to know about her!