5 Helpful Tips When Applying for College

(4 minute read) — You’ve made the decision to attend college. What happens next? For real-life insights on best practices when applying for college, we spoke with Portland State University (PSU) student, Portia Perkins, and her mother, Lori Williams.

(Photo: Pictured left to right, Lori Williams, Portia Perkins, Unitus President/CEO Steve Stapp)

1. When should I start college planning?

It’s never too early to start thinking about your future. There are so many ways to be proactive about making a plan, starting in high school.

“I know for me as a parent, your guidance counselors at the high schools are so important!” said Lori Williams. “Students, you have so many resources within the school, make sure that you’re taking advantage of these opportunities.”

Talking to your high school guidance counselor is a great way to start.

2. What steps can I take to prepare when applying for college?

“In high school, I used College Possible, which is an after-school extracurricular that helps students apply for scholarships, get letters of recommendation, build resumes, pretty much anything you need for applying to colleges,” said Portia Perkins.

The program provides high school programming with a near-peer coach who just graduated college themselves to guide students through the process.

“97.4% of College Possible Oregon students were accepted into a college or university last year.”

The program is open to juniors who attend one of their 15 partner high schools, commit to participating in the program, qualify as low-income (which generally means students who qualify for free and reduced lunch), and have a GPA of 2.0 or higher.

“Amidst the current pandemic, national college enrollment rates have dropped 20% from 2019 to 2020 and enrollment for students in high poverty schools fell over 30%,” according to Emielle Nischik, Executive Director at College Possible. “But our enrollment rates have held steady year-over-year proving that even during a pandemic, our supports are helping students stay on track toward earning their degrees.”

Perkins pointed out the complexities of the college application process and how daunting it can seem without support from programs like College Possible. Her mother, Lori, is a single parent of two girls, working full time. She needed Portia to educate herself. “There was not a lot of energy or time left over for me to do all this research,” said Williams. “Her choices helped our family really grow.”

(Watch the full mother-daughter interview, and make sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel to catch the latest videos of our Financial Literacy 101 series.)

3. How can I get ahead of my upcoming student loans?

During her junior and senior years of high school, Portia attended the Center for Advanced Learning (CAL) in Gresham, Oregon. “At CAL I was taking dual-credit classes where I was not only getting my high school credits, but I was also earning college credits. I was able to graduate with credits that could be transferred to my college, which has allowed me to be able to graduate with my degree in 3 years instead of 4.”

The family estimated that Perkins earned over 39 college credits when she started PSU, saving her about $7,000. Perkins is now considering going to graduate school and the savings will impact her next steps. It’s important to note that earning credits for multiple schools at the same time may be cost efficient, but it is not easy to juggle amongst the other commitments of high school (including having a social life!).

For students embarking on the loan application process, do your research. Find the best fit and rate for you. Explore the Unitus Student Choice hub for tools to help guide you, including FAQs, webinars, repayment counseling, and more.

4. Any advice for scholarship applicants?

Perkins received several scholarships toward her undergraduate education, including a Unitus Scholarship. “Scholarships made it possible that and I didn’t have to pay anything out of pocket other than my first year of college,” said Perkins. “If there’s one thing that you can take away, it’s the importance of applying for scholarships.”

Perkins also advises applicants to be persistent. “It hurts your pride when you don’t get accepted, but I promise if you just keep applying and pushing through that, eventually something good will happen,” she said.

Explained Williams, “She applied for scholarships all her senior year. I will share with all of you as parents: it’s like a full-time job applying for these scholarships.”

In 2020, Unitus gifted more than $17,500 to Pacific Northwest students. Applications open online each March.

5. How do I decide which college is right for me?

“College Possible suggested she apply to five colleges,” said Williams. “Her ideal situation was to move away. She wanted to attend the University of Montana, which is an out-of-state school. But Portland State offered the best financial package for her.”

The average cost of college in the United States has tripled in the past 20 years, with an annual growth rate of 6.8%. In-state tuition alone is $9,580, while out-of-state tuition averages an astounding $27,437. (See more at

“When we looked at the out-of-state school, she would have been in debt graduating with between $50,000 and $80,000. She had never had any debt on her own,” said Williams. “So, I asked her if she wanted to live with me for the next 10 years while she paid off those student loans. Her response was, ‘No offense mom, but I don’t want to live with you out of college,’” Williams laughed. “And no offense was taken.”

We can’t stress enough the importance of parent/guardians working closely with their children to make these decisions together.

“I just want to thank you for being so supportive. You have been such a great help throughout this entire process,” said Perkins to her mother.

About the author: Marissa Frost

Marissa joined the Unitus Marketing team in 2017. A native Northern Californian, brief Coloradan, and now a self-proclaimed Oregonian, she spends her time travelling whenever she can and soaking up the great outdoors with her partner and pup – rain or shine!

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