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How to Apply to Colleges: A Complete Guide

An application form that has been stamped as "ACCEPTED".

The college admissions process in the United States has become increasing complex over the past two decades, while the ways that colleges choose who to admit have become more and more opaque. There’s so much information (and misinformation) out there about how to make yourself a competitive applicant—taking hard classes, joining extracurricular activities at school, doing community service, getting a good SAT or ACT score, filling your summers—you may not realize how much time and energy the actual application process takes until it’s too late.

In truth, the best thing you can do for yourself in the college admissions process is to give yourself time. With time, you can manage the process, keep your stress under control, ensure you’re putting together the best possible application materials, and maximize your chances of admission. Without time, no matter how much good stuff you did in high school, you’ll be flailing, stressed, and compromising on your application materials.

To that end, understanding the college application process is as important as understanding what colleges look for in applicants. Here’s a step-by-step guide to ensure you’re in the driver’s seat.

Steps in Applying to Colleges

The first thing you’ll want to do is break out the process into stages and consider when you’re going to accomplish each piece.

Initially, creating this list will likely make the process seem daunting; as you think about it, you’ll probably begin to add more and more tasks. While this will be scary at first, it’s actually healthy because it will reinforce what a big project this is and how seriously you need to take it. We’ve put together a basic list below, but you’ll also want to think about your unique situation.

Once you’ve done that, you’ll want to think about when you’re going to accomplish all these tasks! Consider making a monthly or even weekly schedule with everything you know you have on the calendar already, and start filling in your college tasks. Remember, you may want all this done by the Early Decision deadline of November 1, so plan accordingly!

Some tasks will be big, like when you have time to visit schools or schedule interviews. Most of the rest, though, will be small. Can you set aside time each week to research a different school or major? When will you work on your essays? For these aspects of the process, doing a little bit at a time will be much more effective than taking it all on at once.

Research Colleges & Visit Them

The first step in applying to college is figuring out which colleges to apply to! Maybe you have a list of dream schools, or maybe you’re starting from scratch. Either way, you’re going to want to set out a significant amount of time during your junior year to research schools. Ask yourself: do you want to be in a city or a more secluded place? A big school or a small school? An engineering/tech school or a liberal arts program? Public or private?

As you find schools you like, consider what they have in common, and use those core factors to figure out what you want in a college. That way, you can begin to narrow your list.

Make Your College List

Once you’ve done your research, you can make a list of colleges to which you plan on applying. It’s OK if the list is long at this point; usually 20-25 schools is good for an initial list. As you start to visit and research more in depth, you’ll find that some actually aren’t a good fit for you. Over time, you should plan to narrow the list down to somewhere around 10 schools.

Even at this early stage, try to list schools that vary in selectivity. Don’t go for only schools with single-digit admission rates; you’ll need some schools where you’re more likely to get in. This is one part of the process in which outside advice can be immensely helpful!

Create an Application Timeline

The fewer surprises along the way, the better. Start tracking down application deadlines, deadlines to sign up for interviews, dates for information sessions, and any other pertinent information about the schools on your list. Once you’ve done that, it’ll be much clearer what the things you need to do now are, and what can be left until later.

Don’t forget about those later things, though! Make sure they’re in your application calendar too, so when the time comes, you’ll remember to do them.

Ask for Letters of Recommendation

Even though you won’t be submitting these letters until the fall, it’s still very important to ask for recommendation letters as early as you can. High school teachers and school counselors get a lot of letter requests and may cap the number they’re willing to write. They also may want you to fill out a questionnaire to help them write you the strongest possible letter.

Similarly, you may ask a coach, mentor, employer, or advisor for a letter as well, and it’s always good practice to ask well in advance. Recommenders, whatever their relationship to you, are doing you a favor, so ask politely and say thank you if they agree!

Prepare for and Take a Standardized Test

Another part of the process you’ll want to plan ahead for is when you’re going to take (or retake, or retake again!) the SAT or ACT. If you know you’re the kind of person who needs very good test scores for your dream school, start planning ahead! Similarly, if your schools recommend SAT Subject Tests, you need to find room for those, too.

It’s also important to keep in mind that the SAT and ACT only offer certain test dates, and some are immensely popular. So, sign up for your preferred date early, and start studying now!

Schedule an Interview (if Applicable)

While not all colleges and universities offer on-campus or alumni interviews, signing up at those that do is a great way to learn more about the school and sincerely demonstrate your interest. Once you know which of the schools on your initial list of colleges offer interviews, look into signing up. Then, once you have a date, start preparing to make a good impression.

When it comes to on-campus versus off-campus interviews, admissions officers give them equal weight in the process. Nevertheless, getting to interview with an admissions officer and hear from someone who’s actually on campus can be much more edifying than speaking to an alum. If a college offers on-campus interviews and you can get there, you should definitely take advantage of that possibility.

Finalize Your College List

By the middle of the summer before senior year, you should know enough about the colleges on your list and your chances of admission to narrow down your list into its final form. There’s no hard maximum or minimum (although the Common Application will only allow you to apply to 20 schools), but you want to have a good mix of selectivity.

While it might feel too early to settle on your schools, it’s important to finalize this list over the summer so you don’t drown in application essays.

Write Your Application Essays

There are two kinds of college essays: your personal statement, which will go to all of your schools, and shorter, school-specific essays. The essay prompts for the personal essay generally become available well in advance, but the essay prompts for each school’s essays usually aren’t finalized until the first week in August.

Nevertheless, you don’t want to be wasting precious time during the fall of your senior year writing application essays when you could be studying or participating in extracurricular activities. Thus, it’s crucial to get as much writing done over the summer as possible.

Consider Applying for Financial Aid

In addition to the application process for admission, if you’re planning to apply for financial aid to support your higher education, you’ll need to keep track of that process too. During the fall of your senior year, make sure you’re filling out the forms for FAFSA, the federal financial aid and student loan program, as well as keeping an eye out for scholarships and merit aid.

Again, while the deadline for financial aid applications is either concurrent with or later than the admissions deadline, it’s imperative that you stay on top of the process.

Choose an Early Decision School

This last step is optional, but it is important for many students. It is well documented that at a significant number of schools, students who apply in the early decision round benefit from a higher admission rate than students who apply regular decision. If your top-choice school is one such school, it is worth strongly considering applying early decision.

Some students find it hard to make such a big decision in November; they want to have options to pick from in the spring. That’s understandable, but, as counterintuitive as it sounds, you may be limiting your options by not applying early, given the higher admission rates at so many schools. A school that would take you early might not take you in regular decision.

Key Components of a College Application

In the fall of your senior year, it’ll be time to put together the actual application. Almost all American colleges and universities use an online platform for their applications, which means you won’t need to enter your information over and over again. The majority of schools use the Common Application, but some use the competing Coalition Application. If you can’t find the school through the Common App search function, check its admissions website.

Regardless of the interface, you’ll be asked for the following information:

Personal Information

This is exactly what it sounds like: your name, your date of birth, your educational history, etc. You’ll also be asked for information about your parents and their educational histories, so make sure to check in with them. This is also the place where you’ll fill in details about your extracurricular activities as well as any awards and honors you’ve received.

Personal Essay

Because the personal statement essay goes to all your schools, you upload it in the main part of the Common Application (or Coalition Application), rather than the individual school sections. Be sure to write this in a separate word processing software document, so you can check for spelling and grammar errors or show it to an advisor for feedback. Then, copy and paste the text into your online application.

Supplemental Essays

Once you’ve filled in all the information in the main application, you’ll need to answer a few more questions and potentially add essays for each school on your list. Be careful to answer all the questions; otherwise, your application may not submit! Again, plan to write and revise your supplemental essays separately, then copy and paste them into the online application.

High School Transcript

You will also need to send your high school transcript to all the schools to which you’re applying. Because these almost always need to be official transcripts, they should come directly from your guidance counselor or school official. Your school likely uses a program like Naviance or Scoir to manage this. If you’re unsure, talk to your guidance counselor.

Letters of Recommendation

Just like your transcripts, your recommendation letters need to come directly from your teachers or other recommenders. Your teachers will use the school’s system, but you’ll have to add any outside letter writers directly to each college’s portion of the application. If that isn’t an option for the school, teachers can mail the letters directly to the admissions office.

Standardized Test Scores

Most schools also want you to send official score reports from the SAT or ACT. For each, you’ll need to check the admissions website to find its unique four-digit CEEB code. Then, you’ll type those codes into the College Board or ACT websites to have your test scores sent. If you’re an international student, you’ll also likely need to submit an official TOEFL score.

Application Fee

Lastly, once everything in your application is completely done, you’ll need to pay an application fee to each school. These range from around $50 to $100, depending on the school. This fee is important for two reasons. One, it’s a cost to consider when applying. And two, it means you must submit each school’s application separately. Even if they’re all grouped under the Common App, there’s no one button to submit them all!

How to Get a College Application Fee Waiver

Colleges understand that these application fees can be a significant burden to students and families. For that reason, most American universities offer students the option to apply for a waiver that releases them from the application fee. These application fee waivers are given to students who can show that the fees present a significant financial burden.

You can apply for a waiver in one of four ways: through the College Board (if you took the SAT or SAT Subject Tests), through the Common App itself, through the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC), or through individual college admissions offices.

Each requires proof of financial hardship (often through evidence of qualifying for low-income housing, free or reduced lunch, or other forms of public assistance), as well as confirmation from your guidance counselor. The application is not as straightforward as it might be, but it’s important to know that these fees should not keep you from applying.

Final Thoughts

No matter how much wonderful stuff you’re bringing to the college admissions process, your strengths and uniqueness are likely to get lost in the shuffle if you don’t manage the process effectively. Develop a strategy, make a plan, and stay focused! If you stay ahead of the game, you’ll be in a much better position to submit strong, successful applications.

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