If you're in high school, you've likely heard the term "prospective student" used before in relation to colleges and applications. But what is a prospective student exactly? Is it someone who is applying to college? Or is it someone who’s already been accepted to a particular college? (Or is it both?)
Read on for an in-depth look at the prospective student meaning and for helpful tips on what you can do as a prospective student yourself.
What Is a Prospective Student?
What’s the prospective student meaning? It’s simple really: a prospective student is anyone who is considering attending a specific college or university.
The term "prospective student" most often refers to high school students who are in the process of applying to college or who have been accepted but haven't made their final decision on whether to go just yet; however, the term can also refer to the following:
- Adults who want to go back and get their undergraduate degree
- College students or adults applying to graduate school
- Students looking to transfer from a different college
- Juniors in high school or younger who are starting their college search early
Basically, the "student" part of "prospective student" doesn’t mean that you have to be a student right now—just that you might become a student (whether undergrad or graduate) at a particular school.
You are considered a prospective student for a school as soon as you express interest in attending it, even if you haven’t officially applied or don’t plan on applying for a while. You're also considered a prospective student all the way up until you accept (or decline) your offer of enrollment (assuming you've been admitted to that school).
For example, Lila is a high school senior who is interested in applying to Brown, the University of Chicago, and Boston University. Simply because of her interest in these three schools, she would already be called a prospective student by each of them, even if she hasn’t applied yet.
Now, say Lila goes ahead and applies to these three schools. After a few months, she finds out that she's been rejected from UChicago and accepted at both Brown and Boston U. In this case, she'd no longer be considered a prospective student at UChicago, as there’s no way for her to enroll now that she's been rejected; however, she would still be a prospective student at Brown and Boston U because she can choose to enroll at either school.
What to Do as a Prospective Student: 8 Essential Tips
As a prospective student, or "prospie," you have several steps you can take to help you figure out whether a certain college is worth applying to and what your chances of becoming a student there actually are.
Here are eight essential tips for utilizing your time as a prospective student.
#1: Research the School More
Even if you think you know enough about a school, it’s always smart to do some more research, if possible—you never know what you might find out!
Look for answers to the following questions for each school you’re considering:
- Is there a required curriculum?
- Does the school offer your desired program of study?
- What kinds of amenities and activities are available on/near campus?
- How selective is the school?
- How much does the school cost, and does it offer financial aid?
Most college websites have a section that is specifically for prospective students, with basic answers to these questions as well as details on the history and mission of the school and how to apply.
Here are some links to prospective student sections on a few college websites to help give you an idea of what kinds of information they usually have:
#2: Visit the Campus
If at all possible, try to visit the campuses of the schools you're considering. This way you can get a better feel for the student life and overall atmosphere.
Some campuses are extremely residential, with lots of students living there, while others are more commuter-style, with students constantly coming and going.
You should also think about what kind of setting you'd prefer to have around campus: do you want to live in an urban community in a large city? Or would you rather be far out in the country or in a suburb, away from all the hustle and bustle?
Lastly, be sure to spend time walking around the campus and seeing what it’s got to offer students. Doing a guided tour is a great idea, too, as it could show you things you might've missed on your initial walk-through and answer any questions you might have about the lifestyle and community.
#3: Attend a College Class
Many colleges and universities allow prospective students to attend a real class to help them better gauge whether the school is a good fit for them. For instance, both Georgetown and Tulane allow prospective students to sit in on classes.
You’ll usually be asked to do the following should you attend a class as a prospective student:
- Arrive five to 10 minutes early to introduce yourself to the professor
- Come by yourself (no family members allowed)
- Stay for the duration of the class
- Silence your cell phone and be an active listener and participant
Note that some colleges might only allow prospective students to attend specific classes, so be sure to check ahead of time with the university or professor about whether and when you may attend a particular class.
#4: Shadow a Current Student
Another option many colleges offer prospective students is the ability to shadow a current student. What this means is that you’ll follow a student around for one day to get a look at their day-to-day college life.
At Northwestern, for example, you can shadow a student from 9 am to 3 pm; this process includes attending classes, exploring the campus, grabbing lunch, and touring a residence hall. Purdue also allows prospective students to shadow current students.
You’ll normally have to contact the school ahead of time to arrange a shadowing session.
#5: Meet With a Faculty Member
If you have a clear idea of what you want to major in, then meeting with a faculty member in that field can be an excellent way to learn more about how this major works, what types of classes you'll need to take, and what the professors can do to help and support you.
You can also ask about what types of students this professor has seen do well in the major and/or the classes they teach.
#6: Calculate Your Admission Chances
As a prospective student, you shouldn’t apply to college without first figuring out your likelihood of getting in. Doing this allows you to determine whether that school is a safety (one you’re very likely to get into), a match (one you could get into), or a reach (one you’re least likely to get into).
It’s best to come up with a list of around six to eight colleges, consisting of two to three safeties, two to three matches, and two to three reach schools.
While admissions decisions are based on several factors, including your personal essay and letters of recommendation, you can get a rough idea of your chances of getting in by comparing your GPA and SAT/ACT scores with those of admitted students. Our college acceptance calculator is the easiest way to do this.
Once you've calculated your (very rough) admission chances for every college on your list, you can then decide whether you want to remain a prospective student for each school or remove a school from your list (and possibly replace it with a different one).
#7: Apply for Scholarships
This is the time to apply for as many scholarships as you can, especially if you’re worried about being able to afford a college education.
It’s OK if you have no idea where you’re going to school yet—you’re still just a prospie after all! As long as you look for scholarships that can be used at any college, you'll be good to go. Check out these lists of the best scholarships for high school juniors and seniors.
#8: Decide Whether You Will Enroll
The final task you’ll have as a prospective student is to decide which college you will attend (and which colleges you will not attend). This step comes later in the school year, around March/April, once you get all your admissions decisions from the colleges you've applied to.
If you get rejected from a college, you are no longer considered a prospective student there. But if you get accepted, you’re still a prospie—now, one who could actually be enrolling there very soon!
You’ll need to submit your intent to enroll at one college by the national deadline of May 1. At this time, you’ll also need to officially turn down any other acceptances you have received from colleges you’ve decided not to attend.
As soon as you accept one offer and decline the others, you are no longer a prospective student—you’re an incoming freshman!
But what if you get waitlisted at a school? In this case, you’ll essentially straddle the boundary between prospective student and incoming freshman. This happens if you’ve agreed to remain on the waitlist for a college while also accepting an offer from another school in the meantime.
Regardless, in the end, you’ll be committed to just one college and officially no longer a prospective student.
Recap: What Is a Prospective Student?
So what does prospective student mean again? Basically, it’s any person—current student or not—who is thinking about attending a particular college or university.
The term "prospective student" is normally used to describe a high school student who is applying to college or who's already been accepted but hasn't chosen where to enroll just yet; however, the term can also be used for an adult planning to go back and get their bachelor’s degree or a college grad getting ready to apply to graduate school.
The "prospective student" phase encompasses a large time frame, from when you initially think about applying to a college to when you officially accept or decline the offer of admission (if admitted—if you’re rejected, your "prospie" status ends immediately for that school).
There are many things you can do as a prospective student, both before you apply and as you wait for your admission decisions: you can visit the campus to get a feel for the community, shadow a student, meet with a professor, and calculate your chances of getting in based on the average GPA and SAT/ACT scores of admitted applicants.
The point is to use your time as a prospie wisely!
Figuring out which colleges you should apply to can be difficult. Let us help with our guide to making a college list.
Now that you know the prospective student definition, how can you ensure you're impressing admissions committees? Find out here in our guide to what looks great on a college application. We also offer expert tips on building a versatile app.
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Hannah received her MA in Japanese Studies from the University of Michigan and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California. From 2013 to 2015, she taught English in Japan via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.