A Complete Guide to the College Application Process
Find answers to common questions prospective college students have about deadlines, essays and more.
Students should generally begin working on applications the summer between their junior and senior year of high school, experts say. (Getty Images)
The college application process can seem intimidating, especially if students don't have parents or siblings who have already been through it and can offer advice.
Since there are several steps, such as writing an essay and obtaining letters of recommendation , experts say a good way for students to get started is to create a to-do list during their junior year of high school.
"Once you can see it visually, the number of tasks and a schedule to do them, it simplifies a lot of things," says Christine Chu, a premier college admissions counselor at IvyWise, a New York-based education consulting company. "It will take away a lot of the anxiety."
Though there is often prep work, students generally begin working on college application tasks the summer between their junior and senior years of high school, experts say.
Here's what prospective undergraduates need to know about completing a college application.
What Are the Important College Application Deadlines?
High school seniors have multiple deadlines to choose from when applying to colleges.
The Step-by-Step Guide to Applying to College
Applying to college.
- Complete the FAFSA
- Fill Out the Common App
- Write a Standout College Essay
- Ask for Recommendation Letters
- Learn the Ins and Outs of Financial Aid
- Decipher College Tuition Costs
- Find Scholarships to Pay for College
First are early decision deadlines, usually in November. Students who apply via early decision, or ED, hear back from a college sooner than their peers who turn in applications later. ED admissions decisions often come out by December.
However, students should be aware that ED acceptances are binding, meaning an applicant must enroll if offered admission.
Some schools also have a second early decision deadline, ED II, which is also binding. The difference is in the timelines. ED II deadlines are usually in January, and admissions decisions often come out in February.
Early action is another type of application deadline that tends to be in November or December, though some schools set deadlines as early as Oct. 15. Similar to early decision, students who apply via early action hear back from schools sooner. The difference is EA acceptances aren't binding.
Restrictive early action , which is uncommon, allows students to apply early but only to a single school (though there are exceptions). It's also nonbinding.
Students can also choose to apply by a school's regular decision deadline, which is typically Jan. 1. Students who apply regular decision generally hear back from schools in mid-to-late March or early April. This is the most common way students apply to schools.
One other admissions policy to be aware of is rolling admissions . Schools with rolling admissions evaluate applications as they receive them and release admissions decisions on an ongoing basis. These schools may have a priority filing date, but they generally don't have a hard cutoff date for applications. The institutions continue accepting them until all spots in the incoming class are filled.
Regardless of the type of decision students pursue, it's important to start the application process early, says Denard Jones, lead college counselor at Empowerly, a college admissions consulting company. Jones previously worked in college admissions at Elon University in North Carolina and Saint Joseph's University in Pennsylvania.
“If you chunk it up and break down these tasks and can get ahead and start early, you’re not stifling your creativity because you’re trying to rush through to get everything done by October or November deadlines," he says. “Time management is something you’re going to have to deal with the rest of your life, regardless of what you go into.”
In deciding when to apply, as well as how many colleges to apply to, students should consider financial aid implications . Experts say if money is a concern, as it is for most families of college-bound students, applicants should choose nonbinding deadlines – EA and regular decision. This will enable families to compare financial aid offers from multiple schools.
Experts also suggest students research applicable scholarships, like those related to their hobbies , to help offset costs.
For regular decision deadlines, students typically have until May 1 to decide which school they will attend and pay an enrollment deposit.
Which College Application Platform Should I Use?
Students have several options when it comes to college application platforms.
The Common Application
One popular choice is The Common Application , which is accepted by more than 1,000 colleges, including some outside the U.S. Students fill out the Common App once and can then submit it to multiple colleges.
However, in addition to the main application, Common App schools often have a supplemental section, Chu says. The supplement sometimes includes additional essay questions, so students may need to budget time for more writing.
Some schools do not accept the Common App, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Students have to fill out separate applications for these schools, generally through the school's website.
Coalition Application and Common Black College Application
Other application options include the Coalition Application, a newer platform accepted by 130 schools, and the Common Black College Application , accepted by most historically Black colleges and universities.
Additionally, some colleges have school-specific or university system-specific applications. For example, the University of California system has its own application – the only platform used by UC schools – and students can apply to multiple campuses with one application.
Students can visit a college's website to find out which application platforms are accepted. Also, the Common App , Coalition Application and CBCA websites list their partner schools.
What Do I Need to Know About the College Application Essay?
As part of the application process, most colleges require students to submit at least one writing sample: the college essay . This is sometimes referred to as a personal statement.
There's usually a word limit of around several hundred words for a personal statement. The main essay on the Common App should be around 650 words. The Coalition Application website says its essays should be between 500 and 650 words. Institution-specific supplemental essays typically have a word count of around 250 words.
Regardless of which application platform they use, students have multiple essay prompts from which to choose.
"The application essay prompts are broad and open-ended, and I think that's sometimes what challenges students the most," says Niki Barron, associate dean of admission at Hamilton College in New York. "But they're open-ended for a reason, and that's because we do really want to see what students choose to write about, what students feel is important."
Experts say students should try to tell a story about themselves in the essay, which doesn't necessarily mean writing about a big, impressive accomplishment.
Barron says the most memorable essays for her focus on more ordinary topics. "But they're done in such a self-reflective way that it gives me so much insight into who a student is as a person and gives me such a sense of the student's voice," she adds.
What Are the Other Key Components of a College Application?
Here are other parts of the college application that prospective students should be ready for.
In the first portion of a college application, students have to provide basic information about themselves, their school and their family.
High School Transcript
Colleges also ask for an official high school transcript, which is a record of the courses students have taken and the grades they have earned.
Admissions offices typically ask that a transcript be sent directly from the high school rather than from the student, says Geoff Heckman, school counselor and department chair at Platte County High School in Missouri. Students usually submit a transcript request to their high school's counseling office, but some schools use an online service, such as Parchment or SENDedu, that allows students to request the transcript be sent through a secure online provider, Heckman says.
Students can also send their transcript via a registrar if their school has one rather than through the counseling office.
Standardized Test Scores
Many schools require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores, which are usually sent by the testing companies. The number of schools requiring standardized test scores has dropped dramatically as the coronavirus pandemic upended these exams.
Prospective students should know, however, that testing policies vary even when such exams are not required. Key terms to pay attention to include test-blind and test-optional . Test-blind means that scores will not be considered if submitted. By contrast, test-optional colleges do not require ACT or SAT scores but will consider them if submitted as part of an application.
Chu notes that "admissions officers still want to see test scores if possible" and that high marks will only help. Strong scores can lead to scholarships, in some cases, experts say. A good ACT or SAT score varies by college, and Chu encourages students to look at a college's first-year student profile to determine admission goals.
SAT-takers are allowed four free score reports each time they register for the exam. Students can select which schools they'd like their scores sent to before or up to nine days after the test, according to the College Board, which administers the standardized test. The fee for each additional score report is $12.
Similarly, students who sit for the ACT can send their score to up to four colleges at no cost, according to the ACT website . Additional score reports are $18 each. However, some students may qualify for a fee waiver , which allows test-takers to send additional score reports for free to colleges and scholarship agencies at any time during the college search process, according to the ACT website.
Letters of Recommendation
Colleges often ask students to submit two to three letters of recommendation .
Students should seek out recommenders – often they have to be teachers or counselors – who know them well and can comment not just on their academic abilities but also their personal qualities and achievements, Chu says.
It's a good idea for students to provide recommenders with a copy of their resume to help them cover all these bases, Heckman says.
Students should request letters of recommendation well before the application deadline. Chu advises at least two months in advance.
"The more time students can give the authors of those recommendations, I think the more thorough and helpful those recommendations are going to be for us," Barron says.
Information on Extracurricular Activities
College applications give students the chance to provide information on the extracurricular activities they participated in while in high school. In this section, students should detail all of the ways they spend their time outside of class, Barron says. This includes structured activities like sports or clubs, as well as family obligations such as caring for siblings or part-time employment, she says.
Some admissions officers spend significant time evaluating this section, Jones says, but he adds this is often the most overlooked part of the application. Many students rush through it and don't thoroughly explain the extent to which they were involved in an activity. Be sure to explain any leadership roles or accomplishments, he says.
"The extracurriculars are the things that they spend their entire high school career doing that lead up to these wonderful moments and accolades over time," he says. "So take the time and be detailed."
Do I Need to Submit a Resume?
On some college applications, it may be optional for students to upload a resume .
But much of the information generally contained in a resume – such as awards, work experience and extracurricular activities – is asked for in other parts of a college application, often in the activities section.
How Much Do College Application Fees Cost?
There's no set price for college application fees, which experts say typically range from $50 to $90 per application, though costs can stretch upward of $100 in some instances. Prospective students should check college websites to determine these individual fees.
How Can I Get a College Application Fee Waiver?
There are several ways students from low-income families can submit college applications for free .
Students who received SAT or ACT test fee waivers are eligible for college application fee waivers from the testing companies. The College Board sends such waivers automatically to students. Not all schools accept these waivers, but many do.
Similarly, the ACT has a fee waiver request form students and school counselors can fill out and send to colleges. The National Association for College Admission Counseling also offers a fee waiver request form .
In addition, eligible students can request a fee waiver within the body of some college applications, including the Common App.
There are other times schools waive application fees , and not just for low-income students. Students can sometimes get an application fee waived by participating in instant decision day events at their high school or on a college's campus. Applicants should also keep an eye out for free application periods in some states, when some colleges waive fees to apply.
Using a College Visit to Decide Where to Apply
A common piece of advice offered by admissions consultants and college officials alike is to tour a campus. Visiting a college can help prospective students get a sense of the culture and community and understand how they may or may not fit in. While it's not part of the formal application process, exploring a college can help students determine which schools to apply to.
Such visits, Chu says, offer a "glimpse into a day in the life" of students living and learning on those campuses. But in the absence of the opportunity to visit – say, due to cost restrictions or other travel limitations – students should consider virtual tours , which emerged as a popular option for applicants after the coronavirus pandemic began.
While virtual tours may offer fewer opportunities to make personal connections, students should still attempt to forge them.
"Virtual visits can be the next best thing" to an in-person tour, Barron notes. She also encourages applicants to "check college websites for offerings and opportunities to connect virtually with current students, admission staff, professors, coaches and others."
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College Application Process
- How to Complete a College Application
- Use the Common App to Apply to College
- What Colleges Look for In An Application
- Avoid These College Application Mistakes
- Tips for Choosing a Major
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Applying to College: Your Step-by-Step Guide
Applying to college typically involves taking standardized tests, writing personal statements, collecting letters of recommendation, and filling out applications.
Applying to an undergraduate program often requires gathering a range of materials to showcase your abilities as a student and your interest in higher education. Though it can be quite involved, the process is relatively standard across most institutions in the United States.
In this article, we've broken down the process to give you a clearer picture of what you need to do—and when.
College application requirements
First, let’s take a look at the materials you'll typically need to complete and pull together in order to apply to colleges and universities in the US.
Application: You’ll likely have to fill out a general application for each school you want to attend. These tend to cover information like a list of extracurricular activities and parent or legal guardian information.
Academic transcripts: Your transcripts—from high school, and other academic institutions you might have been enrolled in like community college—show colleges what classes you’ve taken and the grades you got in them.
Letters of recommendation: Many colleges require two or three letters of recommendation from trusted adults in your life. These typically come from teachers or counselors who can speak to your academic abilities, but they can also come from club or team coaches, employers, volunteer organizers, or others who can discuss your various strengths.
Personal statements and essays: Colleges want to take into consideration who you are beyond your grades and test scores. The personal statement (or college essay ) gives you the opportunity to show a more rounded picture of who you are.
Standardized scores: Taking a college entrance exam , like the SAT or ACT , used to be standard, though a growing number of schools have stopped requiring scores. That being said, even when they're optional, submitting your scores can help detail your college readiness.
Financial information: Some schools will request information on your or your family’s financial situation to see if you qualify for scholarships. The deadline for financial information might be later than the application deadline, though it’s good to double-check. You’ll want to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) at the very least.
Read more: What is a Bachelor’s Degree? Requirements, Costs, and More
The college application process: Step-by-step
It’s a good idea to start the college application process several months before application deadlines, especially if you have other obligations like school or work. For standard admissions, many high school students start their applications in the fall of their senior year [ 1 ]. If you include standardized tests, this process can begin in your junior year.
1. Know your application deadlines.
At the very beginning of your college application process, you should start compiling a list of where you want to go, including dream schools, target schools, and safety schools.
Dream schools are those you'd attend if money or qualifications weren't a factor; target schools are those where you'd fit in well as a student; and safety schools are those you're confident you'd be admitted to. For each school, note application deadlines. Many schools have early January deadlines, but you should double-check, especially if you want to take advantage of applications like early admit or rolling admissions .
Learn more: When Are College Applications Due?
2. Sign up for standardized testing.
Many students take the SAT or ACT for the first time in the spring of their junior year, leaving them room to retake either test if they want to improve upon their results. The latest you’ll want to take standardized tests for applications due in January is the fall of senior year. The College Board recommends taking at least six to 20 hours to study for your first SAT [ 2 ].
Though many schools have stopped requiring standardized test scores for admission, others still do. And submitting your scores may help you qualify for scholarships or other merit-based aid.
3. Start your personal statements.
Colleges generally ask for one or more personal statements or essays. These are opportunities for you to convey who you are beyond your grades and test scores. Dedicate a few hours to brainstorming ideas, creating an outline, and writing a first draft. Then have trusted friends, teachers, or family members look it over for feedback.
If you’re applying through the Common App, you’ll likely be able to use one personal statement for multiple schools. Some schools may have another essay prompt you’ll have to answer in addition to the Common App prompt.
Learn more: College Essay Topics and Writing Tips
What is the Common App?
The Common Application, colloquially known as the Common App, is an organization that provides a way to apply for many different colleges using one application. The Common App reports nearly 900 member colleges.
4. Ask for letters of recommendation.
Ask for letters of recommendation a few months ahead of your application deadline. This is because teachers might be swamped with recommendation requests toward the end of the year. You’ll want to give them plenty of time to prepare the letter and collect any information they need from you.
Teachers might ask for your GPA, a copy of your transcript, or perhaps even a draft of your personal statement—information they could use to get to know your strengths and motivations. Ask them what they might require when you ask for a letter of recommendation.
Need some more tips? Read about how to ask for a letter of recommendation .
5. Submit your transcripts.
Most colleges require official school transcripts to see how you performed in academic settings. This includes your high school transcript, as well as transcripts from any other academic institutions you might have attended, like community college .
If you’re still in high school, visit your guidance counselor to request to send your high school transcript to the colleges you’re applying to. If you’ve already graduated high school, you’ll generally have to fill out a transcript request form online or in person. If you’re in community college, contact your counselor or registrar’s office to send an official transcript to the universities you’re applying to.
Schools will generally state what date you need to send them electronically or have them postmarked by.
6. Fill out your application.
Don’t forget to take some time to fill out the application itself. The application might ask for general information like your extracurricular activities, parent or legal guardian information, and any honors you have received.
The application might include some questions that require some thought, like a list of your favorite books, or a section you can take to explain any dips in your grade.
7. Double-check and submit your application.
When the application deadline is approaching—perhaps a week away—double-check the application to see if everything you need has been uploaded or submitted. If there are letters of recommendation that haven’t come through yet, gently remind your letter writer of the approaching deadline.
Submitting an application generally requires a fee, which typically ranges from $50 to $90 per application.
I don’t think I’ll be able to make the deadlines in time. What should I do?
If you don’t see yourself making the early January deadlines, don’t panic—you still have several options. Many colleges have later deadlines or offer rolling admissions; look through a list to see if you’re interested in any. Community colleges and online colleges might also offer more flexible deadlines, or allow students to start in the spring semester.
You can also consider taking a gap year and save applying to college for next year. A gap year can give you time to volunteer, work, or travel, and learn about the world in a way you can’t in a classroom.
Start exploring your options
Get started on your college application process by finding schools you’re interested in. The College Board offers a tool that can help you find colleges by location, major , type, and campus lifestyle. Reach out to school counselors, and visit campuses if you can.
Interested in online programs? There are plenty of high-quality programs to choose from, including several on Coursera. Browse through online bachelor’s degrees to find program in in-demand areas like computer science, marketing, and general business.
Learn more: Is College Worth It?
The College Board. " The College Application Process , https://parents.collegeboard.org/planning-for-college/applications-and-admission/college-application-process." Accessed October January 17, 2023.
The College Board Blog. " What is the Best Way to Prepare for the SAT? , https://blog.collegeboard.org/what-best-way-prepare-sat." Accessed January 17, 2023.
This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.
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It takes hard work to guarantee your college application stands out. Make it rise to the top of the pile by becoming familiar with the application process and getting organized. A lot of moving parts go into applying to college— tests, essays, recommendation letters, transcripts—and each element has a deadline attached. Make careful note of deadlines for each school you're applying to so you don't miss them!
Jump to Section
- How many schools to apply to
- Early decision and early action
- Completing your application
- Nailing your college interview
- Making your final decision
How Many Schools to Apply To
There are a ton of schools out there, but applying to too many colleges is a common mistake. Submitting your application to between five and eight colleges is suggested. Of that list, you should include a variety of dream schools, safety schools and possible schools:
- Dream schools are colleges you know will be a challenge to get into.
- Safety schools are colleges you know are very likely to accept you.
- Possible schools are the colleges you have a good chance of getting into.
Applying to colleges in each of these categories will increase the chance that you get accepted into at least one, or ideally more than one, giving you the ability to choose.
Early Decision and Early Action
Early Decision and Early Action are options that allow you to apply to a college early and receive the admissions department's decision in advance of traditional applicants. Many colleges now offer early admission programs because they present significant advantages; applicants can receive increased consideration since colleges tend to admit a higher percentage of early applicants than they do normal applicants. There's also the obvious benefit of advanced peace of mind if accepted and more time to plan for the move to the school. Colleges enjoy the benefit of enrolling students who really want to go to their school and meeting enrollment goals early.
In addition to the benefits of early admission, there are also restrictions that are important to understand. Early Decision, for example, is binding; if you submit Early Decision to a college and they accept, you must attend that college. You will also not be able to apply for more financial aid after this point. Early Action, on the other hand, is not binding; you can submit Early Action to a college, get accepted and have until the following spring to decide whether or not you want to attend.
Completing Your Application
The common application.
Accepted by more than 900 colleges and universities, the common application is a convenient option that allows you to complete a single application to send to a number of schools.
The Common Application (official site)
For just about every college application you submit, you'll be required to pay a nonrefundable application fee which ranges from $44 to $100. It's important to keep this in mind as it may affect the number of colleges to which you want to apply. Students from low-income families may also request application-fee waivers which are available through most college admissions offices.
A good college essay is a critical part of the application process. The essay can often be a distinguishing factor for an applicant, so you want it to be well-written. However, don't be intimidated; the most important element of a college essay is that it's about you. Even if a topic is chosen for you already, a college essay is really just a way for admissions advisors to get to know you more intimately, hear your perspective and relate to you on a personal level. This is one area you know a lot about, so just remember to infuse as much of "you" as possible into your essay.
Nailing Your College Interview
A college interview is an opportunity for you to make a personal impression on an admissions officer and increase your chances of acceptance into a college. Most colleges don't require an interview; however, having that face-to-face interaction with an admissions officer can prove invaluable come application review time. It's a way for you to differentiate yourself from others and show your personality in a way that you can't on a piece of paper. Practice and preparation will help you do well during your college interview.
Making Your Final Decision
After all the hard work that goes into the application process, receiving your admission notifications can be exciting. Most colleges start notifying students in early spring, either by email, or traditional letter, or both. Upon receiving your notifications, you only have a few weeks to decide which school you will attend, since most colleges set May 1 as the deadline for committing to a school.
The difficulty of your final decision depends on how many schools you got into and whether you were accepted to your dream school, possible schools or safety schools. If you have been accepted by ALL of the colleges you applied to, ironically, your decision could be more difficult. To help, review the research you did on each school and your priorities. By re-evaluating what's most important to you, you will find the right fit. If you have been accepted to only some of the colleges you applied to, your decision will actually be a bit easier. Use the same criteria to find the school best suited to you.
If you have not been accepted to any of the schools you applied to, you still have options. Though colleges rarely reverse an admission decision, you can try calling the admissions department to see what their policy is on an appeal. Appeals are usually only considered when you can prove there was information missing, overlooked, or that something was entered incorrectly on your application materials, such as your school counselor submitting the wrong grades.
Another option is applying to a two-year community or junior college. Such schools typically have fewer admission requirements, often have rolling admissions (applications are accepted for a longer period of time), are less expensive and can help get you into a four-year school in the future by way of a transfer.
Lastly, if you're willing to wait a little bit, you could try to improve your application by retaking the ACT/SAT for a higher score and then reapply next semester. Just make sure to check the schools' reapplication rules.
Break the process down into easy steps so you can put your best self into your work.
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Updated September 11, 2023
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Everything you need to know about the college application process..
The college application process is pretty standard at most schools. Typically, you take the required tests, write a personal statement, then submit your application. You should keep an eye on your email, in case a school requests additional information as they evaluate your materials.
Below, we'll cover the process of how and when to apply to college in more depth. We'll help you check all the right boxes and maximize your chances of getting into your dream school.
For many prospective students, visiting a college campus is a good first step in the application process. Everything you've learned in school and experienced in your life has taught you how you learn best and where you're likely to feel comfortable. You should lean on this wisdom as you evaluate your scholastic options.
First, take that knowledge for a test drive. Ninth- and tenth-graders can learn more about life on a college campus by taking a "gas-tank tour" of nearby schools. Most students in the U.S. are within a day's drive of at least a few colleges, and those schools are a good place to begin your search.
"Even if you haven't decided on a major, you probably have an idea about your interests and learning style, which is more than enough to begin a strong college search."
You should try to visit a variety of schools. Consider large and small colleges, schools that excel in subjects of interest, and campuses rural and urban. Keep a record of your feelings about each campus and school style. If you can't physically visit a target school, check out its website: There, you can often find virtual tours, campus pictures, curricula listings, and testimonials from current and former students.
As you explore your options, you'll develop a better feel for your ideal college. You may even find that you like a different kind of school than you expected; that's very normal at this stage. Finally, try not to worry if you don't know everything you want right away. Over time, your family, counselors, and advisors can help you hone in on the right school as you narrow your list.
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What Makes a Good College?
When evaluating schools, there are a number of factors to consider. The size, location, and culture of the campus are all important. Knowing what you want to study also helps, particularly if you are very passionate about a particular subject. Most larger schools offer a wide variety of majors, but some smaller colleges will have slimmer pickings, so keep that in mind.
Affordability will be important for many students. You shouldn't entirely dismiss pricier schools right away, particularly if you have a strong academic background and could earn a large scholarship. Still, if cost is of primary concern, you'll probably want to limit your search to public schools within your state and states with reciprocity agreements.
Once you have a few college visits under your belt, you should have a better idea of what kind of school you'd like to attend. From there, you can expand your college search beyond local campuses. A college search tool can provide you with all kinds of information about colleges throughout the country. These suggestions can lead you to each school's website, where some colleges offer virtual tours.
Students seeking information about distant colleges can also attend college fairs . Typically held in the spring or fall, college fairs bring together dozens (sometimes hundreds) of colleges, allowing you to shop around and ask questions about programs, campuses, and financial aid options. Be sure to ask your school counselor for a schedule of college fairs near you.
One of the best ways to learn more about colleges is to attend a high school visit , which is when an admissions officer comes to your high school to talk about their instutition. These visits allow you to ask about important issues and talk with someone from the admissions department.
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How to Apply for College
As you approach the end of your junior year of high school, you should finalize a list of schools you want to apply to. How many schools you'll want to apply to depends on your circumstances.
It's always good to have a backup school, but if you're confident that you have the right grades and test scores for your preferred choice, you may only need to apply to one college. Conversely, if you're only applying to very academically competitive schools, you may want to submit 8-10 applications. For most students, four or five schools is about the right number. Your list will grow and change over time, but it's good to have a strong starter list by February of your junior year.
When preparing to apply to these colleges in the fall of your senior year, make sure you have all of the necessary application materials. Every school requires a copy of your high school transcripts, which you can request through your high school records office. Below are a few other items to take care of as you apply.
Many colleges require a college entrance examination, although some schools have recently dropped this requirement. The two most common college tests are the ACT and the SAT , which seek to measure what you've learned in high school. While similar, they do have some important distinctions . Nearly every college that wants test scores will let you submit results from the ACT or the SAT, so it's up to you to decide — you may also take both.
Most students take the ACT and SAT early in the second semester of their junior year, which leaves room to retake the test in May, June, or later in the summer if needed, before senior year starts. Many students also take test preparation classes or use free online resources to study for the ACT or the SAT .
Some schools will also ask you to take SAT subject tests , which measure what you know in specific subjects you studied in high school. If a college asks you to take these, it's best to take them at the end of your junior year.
Letters of Recommendation
Grades and test scores tell a college what you've learned, but they don't speak to your individual experiences. To address this, many colleges ask students to obtain letters of recommendation from their teachers, which provide a more complete picture of the student. These letters allow the college to get a better sense of your character.
Most colleges want 1-2 letters of recommendation from teachers who worked with you in an academic subject in 11th or 12th grade. It is best to ask teachers for letters of recommendation at the end of 11th grade, since that allows them to compile their thoughts over the summer. Make sure you choose a teacher who knows you well; if you're just another face in the crowd, they may struggle to paint an accurate picture of your work as a student.
You can also request letters of recommendation from other adults who know you well. For example, you might request a letter from a coach; a supervisor or manager at your job; a pastor, rabbi, or other faith leader at your church; or another adult mentor from outside the school system.
Personal Statement or Essays
In addition to letters of recommendation, most colleges will also want to hear from you. They're eager to hear about your thoughts, interests, seminal experiences, perspectives, challenges you've faced, and aspirations.
Most students start working on their essays in the summer between junior and senior year. When planning your essay, be sure to consider what colleges want to know about you, and work with an adult who can offer feedback and suggestions on your writing. This can take some time, but it's well worth it. Don't forget to have someone edit your essay before you submit!
Some colleges will also have you meet with an admissions officer or talk with them over the phone about your college plans. Not all colleges require interviews, so you should make the most of interviews with those that do.
Some colleges also allow you to submit a short video or a portfolio of work. A video offers a great way to bring the college into your world, while a portfolio allows you to share examples of your professional, educational, and artistic accomplishments.
Questions & Activities
- Write down your ideal college. How big is it? Where is it located? Besides studying, what would you like to do with your free time when you're on campus? What are the other students like? Is it close to home? Which of these things matters the most to you, and why?
- Use this information to complete an online college search, and follow that up by visiting the websites of a couple of colleges that interested you. What other information would you like to know about these colleges? Where could you find that information?
- Talk to your teachers about their college experiences. Where did they go? Why did they go there? If they had it to do over again, what might they do differently?
- Ask the same questions to a couple of students when you visit a college campus. What do their answers tell you about your college search?
- And whatever you do, remember: You are the expert on your educational goals. Your perfect school might be different from what your parents or your teachers or your peers want, and that's okay. Applying to college is about finding the right fit for you.
The most important thing to remember is to set aside time to complete your applications. Ideally, candidates should aim to complete their applications in August, before senior year starts. That way, you won't have to worry about applying to college and keeping up with your homework at the same time.
Alternatively, try to set aside 1-2 hours every weekend to focus on your college applications. That way, you can focus on being a student during the week and still complete your college applications in a timely fashion.
How and When to Apply for College
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Common Questions About Applying to College
When should you start applying for college.
Students can start preparing their application materials as early as they want, but the process begins in the fall of senior year. Most deadlines fall between January and February, so learners should give themselves enough time to complete their applications.
How Many Colleges Should I Apply To?
The Common App can make applying for college easier, but the general application process can be costly and lengthy. Learners may want to start with a list of 4-6 colleges that they want to attend and then go from there.
Should I Apply to College Early?
Applying for college early offers several advantages for students. Early applicants may find the admission requirements easier to meet. They can also receive responses sooner, allowing them to apply to more schools, if needed.
What Do I Need to Apply to College?
For most college applications, candidates need to provide high school transcripts, recommendation letters, and ACT or SAT scores. They may also need to write personal statements or answer essay questions.
Is It OK to Use the Same Materials for Different College Applications?
Students often use the same materials for different applications, as applicants can send transcripts and test scores to all prospective schools with little effort. However, some colleges have unique requirements that candidates must address individually, and it's important to always double-check any personal essay prompts to ensure that your essay answers the brief.
Should I Apply to a College If My Grades Are Lower Than Their Usual Ranges?
Applying for college with lower grades than required is a risky prospect because it might mean losing out on your application fees, but it can pay off. For many schools, grade ranges are a guideline, not a rule; candidates with lower grades but extenuating circumstances, strong test scores, or a diverse resume may still earn acceptance.
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College Application Process
What Is the College Application Process?
The college application process refers to the steps that prospective students must take to apply to an institute of higher education. Although the applications differs from one school to the next, it typically includes a tour of the campus, meeting with an admission officer, and submitting a formal application.
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What Does the College Application Process Consist of
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It’s the combination of all components of your college application process that gives admissions officers an idea of who you are. Not every college requires every one of these elements. For example, some colleges don't ask for admission test scores, but this list includes the most common requirements. Be sure to find out from your school counselor or principal which items you can send, and which items your high school should send.
Parts of the College Application Process
If you want to apply to college, you’ll need to know the essential parts of the overall application process. Besides this, you need to know the admissions process (i.e., requirements) of each college you’re interested in.
To fill in all the blanks on the application form itself, you may have to dig up documents or get answers from your parents. Most students use online applications, but paper applications are usually available through the admissions office if you prefer to go that route. There are also websites that let you complete one application online and submit it to several colleges.
College application fees can vary. Some colleges charge nothing. Others charge up to $100. Fees are nonrefundable. Many colleges offer fee waivers to students who can't afford to pay. If you need application fee waivers, speak with your school counselor or principal.
Your High School Transcript
The record of the classes you've taken and your grades are important parts of the application process. Your high school should send your transcript and a school profile directly to the colleges you’re applying to. Ask your school counselor how to make this happen because this is a crucial part of the application process. Some colleges also want a mid-year transcript that shows your first-semester grades. Be sure to check the transcript for errors before it's sent.
At the end of your senior year, your high school will send a final transcript to the college you've decided to attend. This transcript informs the college about classes you’ve taken and whether you kept your grades up during your last year in high school. Ask your school counselor how to complete this process. Follow up to make sure this transaction has taken place.
Letters of Recommendation
Many colleges require letters of recommendation from teachers or school counselors. Ask whoever is writing your recommendation to write their letter well before the deadlines. Ask how much time they’ll need. It’s courteous to give them at least 10 school days. You may want to give them a summary of your achievements, such as a student résumé, to help them write their recommendation.
Your essays are a chance for you to give admissions officers a better idea of your character and strengths. Make sure that you’re answering the essay question fully. Avoid recycling a previously written essay to save time. Remember to proofread your essays carefully before you send them in.
Auditions and Portfolios
If you're applying to music, art, or theater programs, the colleges may want to see samples of your work. This means you may need to audition or send portfolios or videos showing your artistic ability as part of your application.
Read College Interviews: The Basics to prepare for the interview if one is requested. An interview isn’t always required. If a college doesn’t recommend an interview or it’s not a part of their process, you’ll still have opportunities to speak with admissions reps at college events, college fairs, or school visits. If a college is far away, you may be able to speak with a local alum.
Review a list of important tasks to complete for each college application.
When should I start the college application process?
Consider finalizing the list of colleges you are considering by the end of your junior summer so you can begin your college application process early in your senior fall. This time frame gives you enough time to explore different colleges, shortlist your choices, and work on the application requirements. Getting an early start allows you to make well-informed decisions, prepare for standardized tests, gather essential documents, and draft compelling application essays. Remember that application deadlines vary across different colleges, so check the specific deadlines of the institutions that pique your interest.
How do I decide which colleges to apply to?
When choosing between colleges, research and consider various factors. Start by researching colleges on tools like BigFuture, college websites, and attending college fairs. Prioritize your preferences and assess how well each college aligns with your academic and personal goals. Remember that the college selection process is personal, so take your time, reflect on your goals, and make a decision that feels right for you.
What are common college application forms?
Many colleges and universities accept standardized college application forms, which can simplify the application process. The two most common forms are the Common Application (Common App), which is accepted by over 900 institutions, and the Coalition Application, which more than 170 colleges accept. Both forms include sections for personal information, academic history, activities, essays, and recommendations. Remember to adhere to deadlines and complete all components accurately and on time.
Should I apply for an early decision or early action?
When considering applying to colleges, make sure you understand the difference between early decision and early action . Early decision is a binding agreement, meaning that you’re obligated to attend that college if accepted. On the other hand, early action is nonbinding. It allows you to apply to multiple colleges. Always consider your circumstances, preferences, and the policies of the colleges you’re considering before deciding which option is right for you.
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The US College Application Process
Now that you have identified which colleges and universities you would like to apply to, it’s time to start the application process! As previously stated, it can take around 2 years to complete so make sure you follow a strict timeline , start early, and stay organized. Getting everything done correctly and on time is extremely important. A late or incomplete application will not be considered and could result in a denial. With a good overview and plan created beforehand, you will have a better chance at receiving acceptance notifications.
Application Next Steps
Every college and university will have their own timeline with various deadlines which can get confusing when applying to numerous schools. To avoid missing deadlines it’s key to create your own personal timeline. Your timeline should include a compilation of each required item and deadline for each school you wish to apply. Most colleges and universities release their new applications, supplemental essay topics , and school specific questions well in advance allowing you to give yourself deadlines well before the actual due date so you can prepare for the unexpected. Whether you are applying early action, early decision, or regular admission, allow yourself as much time as you possibly can. You can’t control everything in the application process, but you can maximize your timeline.
Reference your spreadsheet for which colleges require which tests and the deadline for each. The required tests will have specific dates you must register and take them, and they might not be offered very often in your area. Be sure to register early so you can take the test again if needed- you should aim to meet and exceed the minimum score required to get into your first choice school.
The best approach to achieving the highest score possible is to know the rules of the exam and take as many practice tests as you can. The practice tests should be taken under the same conditions you would experience on the actual testing day. Use a timer and try different techniques of answering questions until you achieve the practice score that you want. Study your score and determine how many additional questions you need to get correct to improve. Did you make a simple mistake? Why? Did you run out of time? Could you skip a certain type of question to in lieu answer additional easy questions and get a better score? Evaluate your score after each test to see how you can improve going forward.
Extracurriculars or ECs
What are you passionate about? Rather than spreading yourself too thin by joining every club, charity, or sport, try to tie a few very specific extracurriculars together. Universities review thousands of applications for a few select spaces. Your EC’s will add depth and character to your grades and test scores that could set you apart from the crowd.
Admissions officers know that if you have regular activities with a central theme, you will find a way to include that passion while attending university. If your activities appear to be random and too recent, they could perceive them to be an attempt to simply impress the admissions department.
By developing a track record of thoughtful and meaningful participation, you will not only become very knowledgeable about your passion or special skill, but you will also have cultivated a pool of references to draw upon. You may need good references for your admission applications, scholarships, or internships. Throughout your life, building a network of friends and colleagues that know what you're passionate about, appreciate your talents or special skills, and have personal experience working with or supervising you, can give you an extra edge when others are evaluating your qualifications.
Here's an example of extracurricular activities that show a commitment to specific areas of interest:
- Jazz Band: grades 9th-12th
- 1st place International Piano Competition: grades 10th-11th
- Musicians for Charity Event Organizer: grades 9th-12th
- Piano for Seniors: grades 9-12; Head Tutor: grades 11th-12th
- Captain: grades 11th-12th
- 1st Place State Backstroke: grade 12th
- Town Lifeguard: grades 11th-12th
- Volunteer Youth Swim Instructor: grades 10th-12th
In the example above the student shows a solid track record of several years of developing a couple skills to the fullest potential. In addition to eventually becoming a champion, this student also uses these skills within the local community and for charitable events. Just from this small example you should have a good idea of what this student is interested in along with what kind of character or work ethic he or she has. You can also see how this kind of EC activity is more manageable and enjoyable for the student.
During the application process you may find yourself overwhelmed by deadlines in addition to your classes and extracurriculars. However, the college spreadsheet you created should be keeping you on track and relieving some of the burden. One item that you should have notated in your college spreadsheet for each school is the required GPA- this should be your minimum GPA goal. Colleges and universities will be requesting your mid-year grades, so ensure you keep your grades high and not plan on “catching up” at the end of each academic year. You’ve worked hard for many years, so try not to fall behind now. You are almost to the finish line and will be happy you pushed yourself to maintain your achievements.
Ask teachers, professors and volunteer or work supervisors if they would be willing to write a letter of recommendation for you. Once they confirm make sure you provide them with a resume and cover letter so they can use it as a guide when writing your recommendation. This will provide them with accurate information including dates and titles. There is usually an online portal for your references to submit their recommendation so keep in mind you will need to ask them for an email address that you can list during the application process. Your references should then receive a notification and reminder about submitting their letters.
Once your letters of recommendation have been submitted you will want to check your application status to make sure they were received. It’s also a good idea to send a thank you note to your references- not only is it polite but you may also need to ask for their letter of recommendation again in the future.
Admission essays will give the admissions team additional insight into your personality. Their job is to curate a group of students that will enhance the university, create a diverse yet collaborate student class, and find individuals that are a good match for the culture of the college as a whole. That’s why many star students don’t get into every school they have applied to.
When choosing a topic for your essay, be sure to include information that is not already on other documents you’re submitting. You can also write in detail about something that is on your application but that needs to be explained or would be extremely interesting with additional details. The biggest reason for requiring essays is to encourage you to tell your own story; who you are and what motivates, interests, or troubles you. Be honest, give yourself enough time to write, rewrite, and rewrite again. Ask someone who is proficient in English, preferably a native English speaker, to proofread your essay. Learn more about college application essays .
College interviews are often conducted by alumni. If you are planning a campus visit, you should check to see if you can schedule an interview while you are there. Review the college website for their interview policy and available dates. As with any interview, a bit of preparation will go a long way. You can practice general interview techniques with a teacher, employer, or experienced friend. However, you don’t want to have bad habits go uncorrected, so choose your helper carefully. The more you practice answering questions about yourself, the better you will do when it really counts.
Additionally, you should learn as much information about the college as you can. It will be very impressive if you ask questions that are specific to the university history, culture, or reputation. If you know a little bit about the interviewer, you might be able to mention something you both have in common to help the conversation be more natural. Do your research ahead of time and practice the questions you would like to ask, as well as those you anticipate being asked. Knowing how to answer common interview questions will make you feel and look more confident.
Finally, always dress for success. It’s a sign of respect to dress appropriately for an interview. You do not want to distract from the conversation with a poor clothing choice. Spend time preparing your interview clothing as soon as it’s confirmed you will have an interview. Waiting until the day of the interview could leave you unprepared and create unnecessary anxiety if you don’t feel good about your appearance. Learn more about making a good first impression during an interview.
Whether you’re completing the actual application through the school’s website or a third party site like common app, the application must be completed fully, accurately and on or before the deadline. Incomplete applications will be rejected and may cost you a spot at the university of your choice. Make sure you:
- Review the entire application several times
- Carefully read each question
- Answer each question fully
Hopefully you have already learned that getting help can be a lifesaver. If something doesn’t seem right or you don’t understand the directions, find help. If you have minor questions then often asking a college advisor is a good solution. If you’re confused or worried about the entire application process to study in the US as an international student, contacting a college consultant company may assist in guiding you through.
Keep in mind that the process of getting accepted into a US university is not a simple one and requires hard work on your part to find success. However, if you have followed the steps in this guide to getting into a US college or university, you are well on your way to becoming an international student.
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College admissions is all about finding a school that fits you. As an applicant, you are looking for an environment where you can thrive academically and personally, and it is the job of an admission officer to identify students who will make great additions to a unique campus community.
Learn what you can expect from each stage of the college admissions process, and find out what students on our College Hopes & Worries Survey have to say about applying to college.
1. College Planning
Your path to college begins your first year in high school as you make yourself college ready. Grades and test scores are important factors in college admission, but admissions officers are also looking for curious and engaged candidates who will round out a diverse first-year class.
Most admissions officers report that, along with your GPA , the rigor of your high school curriculum is the most important element of your college application.
- Choose your high school classes carefully. Make sure to challenge yourself with honors classes, AP classes, and IB classes when they are available.
- Grades matter for all 4 years. When colleges review your transcript, they typically focus on your sophomore and junior year grades but will still see the others.
- “Start early,” advise the respondents to our College Hopes & Worries Survey. Focus on getting good grades, and get homework help when you need it to stay on track.
- Even if you had a rough first year, there’s still time to turn your grades around. Many schools will reward your upward trajectory.
Read More: Get Homework Help
SAT and/or ACT scores take the lead, but admissions officers consider your performance on other standardized tests as well.
- The PSAT is optional your sophomore year, but your junior year PSAT scores can qualify you for scholarship programs such as the National Merit ® Scholarship, which can help cover the cost of tuition and get you into a great college. The best way to prep for the PSAT is to prep for the SAT.
- Good performances on AP exams are one indicator for admissions officers of your potential for achieving in college. More than 1,400 colleges and universities accept high scores on AP exams for course credits.
- Schools accept both the SAT/ACT equally, so it’s completely up to you which test you take (you can even take both!). The essay sections of both tests are optional, but some colleges may require it.
- Test optional schools: Schools that are test optional do not require standardized test scores as part of a complete application. Since your test scores could qualify you for merit scholarships (even at test optional schools), it’s still a smart idea to take—and prep for!—at least one standardized test.
What you do with your time outside the classroom shows colleges who you are and what qualities you’ll bring to campus.
- Commitment to a sport, hobby, religious organization, or job over four years of high school is key. Colleges would much rather see you excited about a few worthwhile endeavors than marginally involved with a ton of clubs.
- If an after-school job is cutting into your extracurricular time, don’t worry! Work experience demonstrates maturity and responsibility on your college application.
- Summer counts, too! Some students enroll in university programs to start earning college credits. Others volunteer or find a summer job. Whatever you do, your summer activities can make your college application rise to the top of a competitive applicant pool.
2. College Search
No two students are exactly alike, and no two schools are exactly alike. What are the features of your best-fit college ?
- Conversations with your college counselor about what’s important to you in terms of academics, campus culture, and financial aid will help guide your overall college search.
- Research is a must. Attend college fairs, consult our college profiles , and visit campuses to find and compare potential schools. Check out majors, dorms, clubs, career services, and other key features.
- You’ll end up with a list of dream, match, and safety schools —any of which i s a great fit for your specific personality and interests .
- How many colleges do students apply to? According to our 2021 College Hopes & Worries Survey, 40% of students plan to apply to 5-8 schools, while 32% will apply to 9 or more colleges.
Read More: Browse College Profiles
3. College Applications
When it comes time to apply, you’ll have some decisions to make.
- Will you apply early? Many colleges allow applicants to submit their materials for an early deadline (sometime in the fall) that falls before the regular deadline (usually sometime in January or February). Learn about early action vs early decision .
- The key components of the college application are your transcript, score reports, letters of recommendation, and application essay. Colleges will also ask you to list your extracurricular activities. Learn everything you need to know about college application .
- Always check admissions requirements with each individual school.
- The Common Application makes it easy to apply to multiple schools, but schools will typically have different supplemental essay topics or test score requirements.
- You may decide to interview with an admissions representative or college alumni member to learn more about schools—and to help schools learn more about you.
Read More: 24-Hour College Essay Review
4. Applying for Financial Aid
Debt has been the biggest concern among respondents to our College Hopes & Worries survey for the past three years. Educate yourself on how financial aid works , so you can make the right choices for you and your family.
- Schools usually have their own net-price calculators so that families can get a sense of what their out-of-pocket costs would look like. Check out each prospective school's financial aid website as you research your college list.
- Be aware that applying to college and applying for financial aid are two separate processes.
- You’ll start with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid ( FAFSA ), which is released on October 1 of every year. The form asks for information about your income and the size of your household to determine your expected family contribution (EFC) toward your college tuition.
- Schools may also use their own forms, or use the CSS Profile for non-federal aid.
- grants and scholarships
- federal work-study
- student loans
- Plenty of outside organizations offer scholarships tailored to academic interests, talents, extracurricular activities, career goals, geographic location, and many more factors. Keep an eye on deadlines which could fall as early as the summer before senior year.
Read More: FAFSA Deadlines, Dates, and FAQs
5. Choosing Your School
Once the notifications start rolling in, celebrate your acceptances with your college counselor, and make your final decision (typically by May 1, “Decision Day”).
- How to decide? 40% of respondents told us they’d choose the college that's the "best for their career interests" and another 40% said they'd choose the college that’s the "best overall fit."
- Get excited about the schools that accepted you by talking to real students on campus, learning more about key programs and on-campus activities, and touring dorms and other facilities.
- Compare financial aid packages to determine which one makes the most financial sense for you.
- If your dream college waitlisted you, don’t despair! You could still be accepted from the waitlist, as students notify the college whether they accept or decline. Check out our college waitlist strategies .
- Students may be deferred (their application held to be evaluated at another time) if a college decides they need more information (like senior year grades or test scores) before making their decision.
- You may also decide to defer your acceptance for a year to work, travel, or volunteer. Learn more about taking a gap year .
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The College Application Process for Student-Athletes
The college application process for athletes can seem overwhelming. With so much to think about and accomplish—from putting together your athletic profile to attending events and making sure the right coaches see you play—it’s easy to forget the fact that you actually have to apply to college. If you’re not organized and miss important deadlines, there’s no real safety net. It’s up to you to manage your time wisely so you can sign on the dotted line and begin your college athletic career.
How does the college application process work?
Each college’s admissions process is different. In addition to the applicants’ academics, extracurriculars, application essays and recommendation letters, admissions counselors also need to consider the college’s unique factors like enrollment projections, student body diversity, faculty and recruitment goals.
The application goes through an evaluation process to eliminate applicants who have not met the minimum institutional requirements. Applications that move forward then go to the committee, where admissions counselors read applications and determine who gets accepted.
Students who are clearly a good fit for the school will get accepted, but other applicants who need more review may go through several rounds of evaluation. College admissions officers want to know if you’re a well-rounded individual who can help the college reach its admissions and retention goals.
College application process steps
There are seven main steps to the college application process for student-athletes.
- Register for and take the ACT or SAT
- Register with the NCAA Eligibility Center (for D1 and D2) and/or the NAIA Eligibility Center
- Fill out and send college applications
- Fill out and submit FAFSA paperwork
- Request your final amateurism certification
- Send your final proof of graduation to the Eligibility Center(s)
- Sign your acceptance letter
Download NCSA’s College Application Process Checklist >
ACT and SAT registration and test dates
Student-athletes enrolling in a D1 or D2 college program are no longer required to take a standardized test to meet NCAA eligibility requirements. Eligibility will only be calculated based on NCAA core course GPA and the core course requirements . However, many colleges still require ACT or SAT scores to be admitted and to be considered for academic scholarships.
You can view 2023-24 ACT/SAT registration and test dates here .
Insider tip : When it comes to studying for standardized tests, the more you learn about the tests, and the earlier you practice them, the better prepared you’ll be when test day comes. Learn test-taking strategies, time management skills and the types of questions frequently asked on the ACT and SAT with our partner, Method Learning .
Do recruited athletes have to apply to college?
If you have already been recruited, you may be wondering, do recruited athletes have to apply to college? The answer is yes. Recruited student-athletes must submit a college application to the school that recruited them.
Some decide not to apply to a college until after they have taken an official campus visit . Others have already applied, been accepted and received a scholarship offer when they go on their official visit. Either way, it’s important to let the recruiting coach know once you’ve applied so they can be on the lookout for your application.
When do you apply for college?
The most popular time for students to apply to college is in the fall of their senior year of high school. Admissions experts say that, generally, a student should begin the application process by the start of their senior year of high school. Some colleges may have different deadlines, but most applications for regular fall admissions are due by January.
College application tips
By the time you’re ready to apply to college—usually the summer before your senior year—you should have your target list of schools narrowed down. You can apply to as many colleges as you’d like, but keep in mind that there are application fees involved and filling out the forms can be time-consuming. Every college has different deadlines for its admissions process, so make sure you have a method for organizing those important dates. A good practice is to create a spreadsheet or calendar to stay on top of the various timelines.
Insider tip : Student-athletes should consider using the Common Application , which allows you to send multiple schools the same application information at once. It’s a huge time-saver.
You have three application choices:
- Apply for an early decision
- Choose a rolling decision option
- Apply as part of the regular decision process
Each of these options has different deadlines. Most student-athletes decide to apply as part of the regular decision, so they have more time to make a final decision on the program they are most interested in or get their test scores up.
When are college applications due?
College applications for regular admission are due January 1. Some deadlines can vary based on the college or type of application. Early decision and early action applications are due November 1 and November 15.
College application deadlines
The table below lists the most common college application deadlines for various application options, such as early action and regular decision.
Are Ivy League or Top-50 colleges on your target list? CollegeAdvisor.com offers 1-on-1 guidance from admissions experts to strengthen your college applications and boost your chances of admission.
Early action vs. Early decision
Early action and early decision applications are important when applying to college. They can make it easier to get accepted early, but you need to plan ahead and know which college you want to go to. The big difference is that early decision means you have to go to that college if they accept you, while early action is more flexible and just gives you an early answer about your acceptance.
For more on the topic, check out this video featuring D3 Kalamazoo College swim coach Jay Daniels and former D1 and D3 swim coach Danny Koenig.
Can you apply to multiple schools early action?
Most schools allow you to apply early in one of two ways: early decision or early action. Since early action is non-binding, meaning you are not required to attend if you are accepted, you can apply to multiple schools from your target list. An advantage of early action over early decision is the opportunity to compare financial aid packages from those colleges to make the best decision for you.
Should you apply early decision?
Applying early decision can save you money, reduce stress, increase your chances of acceptance and provide more time for planning. It’s especially appealing for student-athletes who’ve found their ideal college athletically, academically, socially and financially.
Early decision may not be the right choice for you if:
- You’re unsure about the college/school
- You haven’t done enough research
- You need to improve your grades in the final semester
What’s the Common Application?
The Common Application (also known as the Common App) is a form that student-athletes fill out with general information like academic history, standardized test scores, extracurricular activities, and an essay, which can be sent to various participating colleges and universities. It allows students to apply to multiple colleges and universities simultaneously by filling out a single application. While the Common App is free to use, every college charges its own application processing fee.
How to write a college application essay
Since courses, grades, and standardized test scores are set factors in the application process, a student-athlete’s personal essay is an opening to tell their story, display their interests, talents and motivations. When writing a college essay, student-athletes want to write something that stands out from the large stacks of essays college admissions professionals read.
The tips below will help student-athletes prepare and write an essay that might land them in their dream college.
- Choose the right essay topic. Since there are no restrictions, student-athletes should take their time choosing a topic they are passionate about—one which they can explore extensively. Ideally, they should pick a topic that highlights aspects about them that would make them a great addition to a team’s roster.
- Seek assistance. When writing their essay, student-athletes should work closely with their academic counselor. Together, they should review the application instructions for schools the student-athlete is applying to – at some schools, they may be able to submit a video instead of a written essay. Athletes should also consider working with a network of admissions professionals like College Advisor , which guides students through the admissions process, including robust essay writing support to maximize the student’s acceptance.
- Be thorough. Avoid mistakes that will make it look like the athlete was careless when writing their essay. Be sure to follow guidelines provided for the length of the essay and read through the essay several times to catch errors. It’s also a good idea to have a parent and/or teacher read through your essay and provide feedback.
- Be honest and use your voice. Genuine work is easily detected. An essay is an opportunity to differentiate the student-athlete from other applicants with similar test scores and GPAs, so it’s important to be original and authentic, rather than relying on generic or overused ideas.
Understanding the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®)
While a full-ride scholarship to the school of your dreams is what every student-athlete wants, the reality is that only 2 percent of high school athletes are awarded athletic scholarships, and an even smaller percentage of that receive full rides. And there are no athletic scholarships at the D3 school level. Luckily, all students are eligible for financial aid to supplement scholarship dollars .
To receive financial aid, students must complete the Free Application for Federal Students (FAFSA®) .
If you miss the college or state deadline for FAFSAÒ, you are not likely to receive much financial aid, if any. If you miss the federal deadline, you’re out of luck for that year. However, you can submit for the following year. To learn more about the state and federal deadlines, you can visit our financial aid guide for student-athletes .
NCAA Amateurism Certificate
Starting April 1 of your senior year, you must request your final amateurism certificate if you plan to play in a D1 or D2 institution in the fall.
If you’re enrolling in the Winter/Spring, you can request your final amateurism certificate starting October 1. To be eligible to compete and receive a scholarship with the NCAA, you have to meet certain requirements . You have likely already registered with the NCAA Eligibility Center during your junior year, but you must update the information in your senior year in order to become certified and cleared to play at the college level.
Final transcripts and proof of graduation
After you graduate high school, you must prove to the NCAA that you’ve done so. The best way is to have transcripts sent to the NCAA Eligibility Center with your graduation date included. If you can’t provide a transcript with the graduation date included, an administrator at your high school can sign a proof of graduation and fax it to the Eligibility Center.
Tell the coach when you’ve applied
One of the most common mistakes student-athletes make in the application process is not letting the coach know when they’re applying to the school. If an athlete applies and doesn’t get in, there’s nothing they—or the coach—can do about it. But if the coach knows that an athlete submitted their application, they may be able to flag it with the admissions office. Of course, an athlete’s test scores, GPA and application need to stand on their own, but coaches will want to know when top recruits have applied to their school.
If the athlete doesn’t have a relationship established with the coaching staff, they should still let them know when the application was submitted. It may remind the coach to take a second glance at the athlete’s recruiting profile and video. For many coaches, deciphering whether a recruit is seriously interested in their program or not can be a challenge, so communicating about your application to the college may give you a competitive edge over other recruits.
The role of college coaches in the admissions process
College coaches can serve as both an aid and a barrier in a recruit’s college admissions process. Below is a list of the main ways college coaches get involved:
- “Walk your application through”: College coaches usually have some sort of input on recruits being admitted, depending on the college, the sport and the influence of the coach in question. This process is often referred to as “walking your application through,” but even the most powerful coaches have a limited influence with admissions. In most cases, coaches are going to reserve this power for elite recruits. With that said, a college coach only has so much influence and recruits trying to get admitted to a strong academic school that don’t have the required grades would be a lot more difficult.
- Secure financial aid: Access to additional aid is important for many student-athletes, especially those playing in equivalency sports with smaller athletic scholarship budgets and Division 3 programs that don’t offer athletic scholarships. College coaches can coordinate with their college to line up financial assistance for recruits, including academic scholarships, need-based aid and other forms of financial help.
- Dismiss unqualified recruits: If a college coach sees that an athlete may not meet the academic or athletic standards to gain admission on their own, then coaches may not even bother recruiting them. When building a list of prospective schools, athletes should have a good understanding of whether or not they meet the requirements to be admitted and if it’s realistic to add the school to their list.
Nothing is official until you receive an acceptance letter. And, even then, if you don’t formally accept, you haven’t made it quite yet. Each school has its own deadline for when you must accept, so make sure you note that when you receive your letter. If you don’t let them know you intend to come, they will offer your spot up to someone else. You’ve done all the hard work, so it’s time to make it official.
What if a coach recruits me after the application deadline?
Several coaches—especially at the D3 and NAIA levels—recruit student-athletes well into their senior year. Some student-athletes may find themselves in a position where the college coach is actively recruiting them, but the application deadline has passed. Fear not, there’s still a chance the coach may be able to override the deadline if their roster spots aren’t filled.
“Coaches would be calling you in the spring of your senior year knowing that they’ll more than likely be able to still get your application in, if you’re interested in their school,” says Julian Beckwith, Recruiting Coach at NCSA College Recruiting.
So, if an athlete is being recruited by a coach at a school they haven’t applied to, they should be up front and let them know. If the coach is genuinely interested in the athlete, they may be able to still get the athlete’s application in.
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College application process checklist
May 16, 2023 | 12 min read
It’s been a long time coming, but the end of high school is finally in sight. What’s next? If you’ve been thinking about college, you’ve got some preparing to do.
Applying to college takes more than just filling out a form or two. There are materials to gather, deadlines to track and financial matters to consider. So where do you start? And when do you start? Read on for your guide to the college application process.
- Each college may have a slightly different timeline, process and requirements for applications.
- Depending on the admission option you choose, your application deadline could be in November or January of your senior year.
- Most colleges have a preferred way of accepting applications, usually via one of several different online application platforms.
- Some of the materials you’ll need to present with your application include test scores, transcripts and letters of recommendation.
College Students and Credit Cards
In search of a credit card for students? Here are some things to look for.
When do you apply for college?
In general, you apply to colleges in 12th grade, or senior year. You won’t know the exact dates until you’ve decided which school—or schools—to apply to. That’s because your application deadlines will depend on the admission options each institution offers—and what makes sense for you.
For example, a college you’re interested in may have an “early decision” and a “regular decision” option. If you opt for early decision, you’ll probably have to apply by November. By applying for early admission, you usually have to agree beforehand to attend if the college accepts you. If you apply regular decision, your application deadline will probably be in January. And you can keep your options open and apply to other colleges as well.
Another college you like may accept rolling admissions. If you send your application in November, you could have a decision in 4-6 weeks. Then you could either accept the offer and be done with the whole process or move on to another set of college applications.
As a general rule, the College Board—a nonprofit that develops standardized tests, including the SAT—recommends getting ready the summer before your senior year by gathering all the materials you need. You could even start in your junior year by doing things like researching and visiting schools and boosting your list of extracurricular activities.
You can find admission options and application deadlines on each school’s profile on the College Board’s BigFuture site, or you can check directly with each school.
How long does it take to fill out a college application?
There’s no set answer to how long it takes to fill out a college application. You might be able to fill out the form in one sitting. But gathering the materials you need for the application—everything from letters of recommendation to essays and test scores—can take time. Especially if you’re also juggling coursework, studies and extracurricular activities.
Each school may have slightly different processes and requirements for prospective applicants. But here’s a general idea of the steps you might take when applying for college.
1. Understand the different college types
Being familiar with higher education options can give you confidence that you’re applying to the ones that best fit your goals and budget. Here’s a quick rundown:
- College or university: People often refer to “college” and “university” interchangeably. Universities offer both undergraduate and graduate programs, while colleges typically focus only on undergraduate studies. Some colleges are part of universities.
- Public or private college: Public colleges are mainly funded by the state government. Private colleges rely more heavily on tuition, fees and private donations to fund their academic programs.
- For-profit college: These colleges are operated by private businesses, and their goal is to make money. Some offer bachelor’s degrees, but most offer graduate degrees or career training.
- Four-year or two-year college: Four-year colleges, or undergraduate colleges, offer bachelor’s degree programs. Two year-colleges offer certificate programs and two-year associate degrees.
- Community college: These colleges are funded by tax dollars and offer a two-year associate’s degree, technical and vocational programs, or academic credit toward a bachelor’s degree.
- Vocational/trade/technical college: These colleges offer training toward a specific career—for example, in engineering, dentistry or the restaurant industry.
- Special-focus college: These could focus on a specific subject or area of study, like the arts, or serve a specific population, like students of a particular religious faith.
Questions about which qualification you should be aiming for? Check out this guide to the different types of college degrees .
2. Pinpoint the schools you want to apply to
You might already have some ideas about colleges you’d like to attend. But it’s a good idea to keep an open mind to all the possibilities. Here are some things that can help you build your list:
- Do your research. Talk to your teachers and counselors about your goals; visit colleges and talk to the students and admissions people; read college websites, brochures and blogs.
- Weigh what’s important. Think about your ideal college: size, location, student population, atmosphere, housing options and so on. Which items are non-negotiable, and which could you be flexible on?
- Reach school: A school where your SAT or ACT score is lower than the average score range of last year’s first-year class
- Match school: A school where your SAT or ACT score is in the same score range as last year’s first-year class
- Safety school: A school where your SAT or ACT score is higher than the average score range of last year’s first-year class
3. Know your deadlines
If you’ve read this far, you already know that application deadlines vary depending on the college and the type of application. The most common college application deadlines are:
- Early decision: If your chosen college has an early decision plan, you can apply early—usually in November. That’s because if you’re accepted, the decision is binding. Note that you can only apply to one school for early decision.
- Early action: With early action, you can apply to multiple schools early—again, usually in November. If you’re accepted, you’re not obliged to attend.
- Regular decision: This is the traditional way to apply to college, with applications typically due during January. With regular decision, you can apply to as many colleges as you like.
- Rolling admission: Some schools review applications as they receive them. They may have a priority deadline—typically November 1—and if you submit by that date, your application may have priority over applications made later. But they keep accepting applications until all the slots are filled.
Each type of application has pros and cons, so consider which works best for you. Whichever type of application you make, Coalition for College suggests that being ready to submit by November 1 can help you avoid stress.
4. Look into financial aid options
A college education can be expensive . Average annual tuition and fees ranged from $3,860 to $10,940 in 2022-23, depending on location and length of study.
Financial aid is money that can help you pay for school costs like tuition, books and supplies and housing. It could come in the form of:
- Scholarships: Scholarships can come from nonprofits, local governments, religious groups, professional organizations or community organizations, among others. You can check the Federal Student Aid website for ideas on where and how to find scholarships and these tips on how to get one .
- Grants: Schools, private organizations, the federal government and state governments offer grants. They can be need- or merit-based, so you’ll typically have to meet special requirements to qualify. For instance, some grants are offered to students based on ethnicity, family income or academic achievement. One of the most common grants to consider is a Federal Pell Grant .
- Work-study programs: Work-study is a federal financial aid program that helps students find part-time jobs on campus to pay for school. About 3,400 colleges and universities take part in the program. Students who don’t qualify for the program can still apply for jobs on or off campus.
- Student loans: There are two general types of student loans —federal and private—that you can apply for. You begin with a starting balance, and you agree to pay it back with interest over time.
The most vital step in applying for federal grants, work-study and loans for college is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) form . For more information, check out this guide to securing the right financial aid for you.
5. Determine what kind of application(s) you need to fill out for each school
Many colleges have a preferred way of receiving applications. Some colleges may accept only one method of application. Others may offer several options. It’s a good idea to check directly with your chosen colleges about which type of application they recommend you fill out.
According to the College Board , most colleges prefer an online application to a paper one. Some online application platforms are standardized. This means that if all your chosen schools accept the same platform, you can fill out one application and submit it to them all.
Some common online application platforms are:
- Common App: Created in the 1970s, the Common App was the first standardized application platform. It’s now accepted by more than 900 universities and colleges worldwide.
- Coalition application: Coalition for College’s Coalition application is accepted by more than 150 participating schools.
- Common Black College Application: Almost 70 historically Black universities and colleges now accept the Common Black College Application .
6. Choose references to write letters of recommendation
Lots of colleges ask prospective students to include letters of recommendation with their applications. These should be from people who know you well and can talk about your skills, achievements and personality.
You can check with your chosen colleges about whether they require letters of recommendation and how many. Some may be specific about who you should ask, like a current teacher or school counselor. If not, it’s up to you—you could also consider a coach, an employer or a club leader. Your teachers, counselors and family members may also have good ideas about who you could ask.
According to the Coalition for College , you should allow references at least a month to write your letters.
7. Gather the necessary documents and supplemental materials
Look online about what’s necessary versus what’s supplemental to a college application, and you’ll find lots of opinions and lists. It’s impossible to say for sure what exactly you’re going to need. The best thing to do is check in with your chosen colleges. They should all have clear and specific instructions about what they need to consider your application complete.
In the meantime, here’s a guide to some of the elements you might be asked to provide:
- Application form
- Application fee
- Parent or legal guardian information
- Social Security number
- High school code
- Essay or personal statement
- School transcripts
- Test scores
- Academic honors and achievements
- Recommendation letters
- List of extracurricular activities
8. Write your college essays
Not every college requires you to submit an essay with your application. But for those that do, it can be an important part of the selection process.
According to the College Board , your essay can showcase your personality and skills, as well as put forth a good argument for why you think you’d be a good match for the school. It could even be the deciding factor between two otherwise similar applications.
For advice on how to write a good college essay, check out these tips and videos from the College Board.
9. Complete your applications
After gathering all the necessary elements together, the form itself may seem like the simplest part of the college application process.
If you’re using an application platform, you can follow the online prompts to enter your information step by step. When you’re done, you’ll usually receive an automated confirmation that your application has been received.
If you’re mailing documents, you can include a stamped, self-addressed postcard with each package so that admissions officials can send you back confirmation of receipt. Or you can use the U.S. Postal Service’s Return Receipt service.
However you apply, the College Board advises keeping copies of each piece of the application for safety.
Application fees for colleges: How much can you expect to pay?
Some colleges charge an application fee, some waive the fee if you apply online, and some don’t charge at all. The ones that do charge set their own price. According to an annual survey conducted by U.S. News & World Report, the average college application fee in 2022 was about $45.
College application fee waivers
Students with financial need may be able to get a college application fee waiver. There are several types of waivers and several ways to get one if you’re eligible. For example:
- If you registered for and took the SAT or ACT using a fee waiver, you should be automatically eligible.
- If you’re applying for colleges through the Common App or the Coalition app , you can check the appropriate fee waiver boxes as you go.
- Some colleges have their own fee waiver application processes and requirements, so it’s worth looking into the individual policies of your chosen colleges.
- Some colleges accept a fee waiver form from the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
When can you expect to hear back about your college application?
The length of the college application process depends on the college and the type of application you’re making. Here’s a rough idea of when you might get a decision for each application type:
- Early decision: December
- Early action: December or January
- Regular decision: March or April
- Rolling admission: Usually within 4-6 weeks
Remember, these are estimated dates. The College Board encourages applicants not to jump to conclusions if it takes longer. If your colleges have application portals, you can also check your application status online.
Finally, unless you applied for an early decision—when the college’s acceptance secures your admission—you need to let colleges know which application you’re accepting by May 1.
Applying to college in a nutshell
There’s no one-size-fits-all way to approach the college application process. Each college has different requirements, processes and timelines. That’s why it’s a good idea to consult directly with your chosen colleges about what they need and when they need it.
After your applications are complete, you can start figuring out how to pay for college . If you’ve been saving for college , that can come in handy, as can financial aid . Student loans and student credit cards are also worth looking into. If used responsibly, they can be great ways to start building credit while still in college .
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