There's a saying in college admissions. "If you smell the turkey in the oven, your college applications ought to be in before you sit down at the table," says Robert Spatig, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of South Florida. So it's getting late. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
• USF (usfweb2.usf.edu/admissions) — USF has rolling admissions, meaning it reviews applications as they come in and makes decisions throughout the admission cycle. Priority deadline for those seeking merit scholarships is Jan. 2. After March 1, it will consider applications on a space-available basis. So sooner is better.
• University of Florida (admissions.ufl.edu) — The preferred application deadline has passed. Applications submitted by March 1 will be considered on a space-available basis.
• Florida State University (admissions.fsu.edu) — Jan. 20, with decision sent by March 17.
• University of Central Florida (ucf.edu/admissions) — UCF has rolling admissions and recommends applying by December of your senior year. Deadlines are March 1 for summer, May 1 for fall.
• University of Tampa (ut.edu/freshman) — Early action: Nov. 15 (notifications out by Dec. 15) or Jan. 15 (notifications out by Feb. 15). For applications completed after Jan. 15, notifications go out by April 1.
• Eckerd College (eckerd.edu/admissions) — Eckerd has rolling admissions, with the bulk of applications coming by Feb. 15. Once an application is complete, a decision is made within four weeks.
Apply early. This can give you time to submit new, better test scores.
Submit your application and keep in touch with the college yourself. Letting a parent do too much raises questions.
Proofread carefully. Admissions officers "get a little turned off when the essay says, 'I think I'll do really well at the University of Delaware,' " says UT vice president of enrollment management Dennis Nostrand.
Go to fafsa.ed.gov as soon as possible after Jan. 1 and complete the free application for federal student aid. (You can use your family's tax return from last year to get the FAFSA in and update it later.) Do this even if you don't expect to qualify for aid, just in case a parent loses a job. And learn your schools' deadlines for the financial aid they offer. (At USF, for example, it's March 1.) Apply early for that, too.
Forget to have test scores sent where you apply. Talk to your guidance counselor to make sure your transcripts are sent, too.
Pay to apply for a scholarship or to search for scholarships. "There are lots of scams out there," Spatig says. (The College Scholarship Service financial aid profile, which is legitimate and used by private schools, does charge a processing fee.)
Fail to include enough information in your application. If you had a weak year, explain why. "It's always important for us to understand the whole experience a student had," says Maria Furtado, Eckerd's director of admission.
Slack off after you get in. If you do, many universities will rescind their offers of admission. "The student who tanks in their senior year is most at risk of failing out in their freshman year," Spatig said.