College Application

A Guide To The College Application Process

  • Nov 17, 2021

College admissions are all about finding a school that fits you.

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 so many steps, we recommend students create a to-do list because once you can see it visually - the number of tasks and a schedule to do them - it simplifies a lot of things.

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!

Here's a guide to the college admission process that all prospective undergraduates need to know.


Identify Colleges To Apply To

No two students are exactly alike, and no two schools are exactly alike. Identify colleges that are best fit for you by means of research and conversations with your college counselor. 

There are thousands of colleges 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 mix of dream schools, safety schools, and possible schools. 


Dream schools are colleges you know will be a challenge to get admission in.

Safety schools are colleges you know are very likely to accept you.

Possible schools are the colleges you have a good chance of getting selected in.

Applying to colleges in each of these categories will increase the chance of you getting accepted into at least one, or ideally more than one college, giving you the ability to choose.


Important College Application Deadlines

High school seniors have multiple deadlines to choose from when applying to colleges.

First are Early Decision deadlines, usually in November. Students who apply via early decision, or ED, will 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.

Early Action is another type of application deadline that tends to be in November or December. Similar to early decisions, students who apply via early action will hear back from schools sooner. The difference is EA acceptances aren't binding.

Students can also choose to apply by a school's Regular Decision deadline, which can be as early as November 30 at certain colleges but is typically January 1. Students who apply for regular decisions generally hear back from schools in mid-to-late March or early April.

One other admissions policy to be aware of is Rolling Admissions. Schools with rolling admissions evaluate applications as they receive them and release admission 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.


Grades and Test Scores

College admission tests, like the SAT, are standardized tests typically taken in your junior or senior year. Colleges use scores from these tests to help them make admission decisions. Each college has its own admission processes and policies, and they use scores differently.

Your path to college begins your first year in high school as you make yourself college-ready. Remember that 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.


Selecting a College Application Platform

Students have several options when it comes to college application platforms. 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. 

But not all schools accept the Common App, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Georgetown University in the District of Columbia. Other application options include the Coalition Application, a newer platform accepted by more than 150 schools, and the Common Black College Application, accepted by more than 60 historically Black colleges and universities.

Additionally, some colleges have school-specific or university system-specific applications.  Students can visit a college's website to determine which application platforms are accepted. 


Application Fees

For just about every college application you submit, you'll be required to pay a nonrefundable application fee which ranges from $43 to $90. 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.


Writing A College 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.

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.


Ace the 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.


Other Key Components of a College Application

Here are other parts of the college application that prospective students should be ready for.


  • Personal information: In the first portion of a college application, students will have to provide basic information about themselves, their school, and their family.
  • High school transcript: Colleges will also ask for an official high school transcript, which is a record of the courses students have taken and the grades they have earned.
  • Standardized test scores: Many schools require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores. These scores are usually sent by the testing companies. 
  • 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.

Making the 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.

Depending on the colleges you're selected in, determine which college is the best fit for you and 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. 

You may also decide to defer your acceptance for a year to work, travel, or volunteer.

Do you want to know more about making the right choice for your college and career?
Book a Free One-on-One consultation with a career expert.

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