Applying to College
Once you know which schools you'd like to apply to, the only thing left is to actually submit your application. Below you will find general information on the admissions process, as well as lots of advice on how to take your best shot at getting in.
Or, you can take a shortcut to the big important information and just check out this summary from CollegeBoard.
(Note: The information below applies primarily to four-year colleges, as they usually have the most stringent application requirements. If you are applying to another type of higher education institution, typically it's enough to carefully follow the directions provided for applying. If it becomes more complicated than this, the general tips on filling out applications provided below should still work.)
When to Apply
The best time to prepare for applying: the summer before your senior year of high school. The best time to actually apply...well, that depends.
There are several different standard times you can apply, first in the fall of your senior year and then in the spring. In the fall, if you've already made up your mind about your first-choice school, you can try to apply with 'Early Decision' or 'Early Action' plans. (Some of the upsides: applying early usually gives you a better shot at school-given scholarships and financial aid, and you'll know earlier if you got in. Downside: you may get locked into attending a particular school, even if you'd like to change your mind later.) Applications for Early Decision/Admission are usually due in November. You can also wait until Regular Decision time in the spring (usually around February/March).
If you would like plenty of flexibility in your decision and want to know within a few weeks whether you were accepted, you can also go the 'Rolling Admissions' route (see links below) with the schools that offer this option. (However, PLEASE PLEASE don't do this just so you can apply at the very last minute. Seats do fill up, so don't shut yourself out of a year at college by sheer force of procrastination.)
For more information about all the different admission types and what they could mean for you, see Project-College. Or, for a more informal side-by-side comparison of admission types, see the College 101 roundup at Shmoop.com.
Before You Apply: What to Expect and How to Prepare
1. Know your deadlines. If you have any particular school(s) in mind that you'd like to apply to, check the college website or call their admission office to make sure you know when the admission deadlines are. (If you're serious about the school, get their Early Decision/Action deadline in addition to their Regular Decision deadline.) Once you know the official deadlines, move the dates up for your personal calendar, as you should aim to submit your application materials at least a couple weeks early in case anything goes wrong.
2. Transcripts. Transcripts are a pretty universal requirement for college applications, so once you know which schools you'll be applying to, alert the high school office so they can prepare official copies for you. (If a college requires that transcripts be mailed directly to them, make sure the high school office also has the college's address.) Follow up to guarantee that transcripts were sent and received without trouble.
3. Throw together a loose resume. Some schools request resumes outright (see 'Resume' under 'How to Apply' below), but even if they don't, it's a good idea to come up with a list of all the activities and achievements you've gotten through during high school. Not only is this an ego boost, but taking the time to remember all your accomplishments will help you flesh out your application with unique selling points.
4. Register to take the ACT and/or SAT. Most four-year schools will require your scores from at least one of these tests, so make sure to register for them early enough that your scores can be processed with the rest of your application in a timely manner. (See our ACT and SAT Prep section for more information.)
5. Recommendations: ask early. Some colleges request or require 1-2 letters of recommendation, and most students end up getting these from their high school teachers. Once you know you'll need recommendations, ask your preferred letter-writers as early as possible to give them plenty of time — keeping in mind that yours probably won't be the only recommendation they'll be asked to write, and that they still have to spend most of their time doing their job and stuff. If necessary, remind (nicely!) only if you really think they've forgotten or if an application deadline is approaching quickly.
And always remember that this is entirely an unpaid personal favor they'll be doing for you, just because they (hopefully) like you. Heaps of thank-you's would be a good idea.
You can still apply with a paper application, but many schools are pushing for fully online applications. You can expect at least part of your application to be online, so make sure when you eventually sit down to it that you have dependable access to the internet (and preferably to a printer) for a solid chunk of time.
In addition, there may be a fee to apply (usually around $30). This fee is often waived if the application is submitted completely online, although sometimes it applies regardless.
How to Apply
Each college will usually give very clear instructions on how to fill out their application and what to include, and that should always be the bible you follow first. That said, you can usually expect some combination of the following:
- Transcript. A list of classes you've taken and your grades in each, provided by the high school school. Make sure to talk to the high school office as soon as you know where you'll be applying in order to get these on time.
- SAT/ACT scores. A full rundown of deciding which test(s) to go for and how to go about taking them can be found over in our SAT/ACT section, and it's recommended you take a look there to familiarize yourself with how your test will be used to consider you. For now, just know that most schools will require your scores from at least one of these standardized tests, so make sure you fit in the time to take them. If you know which schools you'd like to apply to, you can enter these colleges' names when you register for your test so that they will automatically receive your scores: scores can be sent to more schools later for an additional fee.
- The Common Application or similar short-format personal questions. The Common Application is currently used by over 500 schools (complete list here), and involves a list of questions about you and your background so that you only have to fill out all this basic information once. (One or more longer essays will often still be required: see 'Personal Statement' below.) If the college you are applying to does not use the Common Application, the school will likely provide its own forms for these short-answer questions.
- Resume. If questions about your achievements and extracurricular activities are not included in the short-answer questions (see above), a school may ask for a resume to go along with your transcript and personal responses. Either way, it's always a good idea to start early on creating a resume for yourself. You can either clean it up enough to be able to submit as-is on a moment's notice, or you can leave it very loose and informal and just refer to it occasionally to make sure you've remembered to list all the cool things you've done. Ideas on what to include can be found here (although including your SSN is not recommended without the college's explicit request).
Aside from the basic building blocks above, occasionally you will also find college applications that require the following:
- Prompted essay (aka 'personal statement' or writing sample). 1-2 page personal essays are a staple of the college application for more competitive schools, and are often critical to leaving an impression on an admissions board: be especially prepared to write one if you want to attend a private college. These essays are usually based on prompts (sometimes very specific, sometimes wide-open) given out by each individual school or provided in the Common Application (see 'Common Application' above). You will almost definitely be tempted to reuse the same essay on every application you send out, but be very careful about that — your odds of getting into any given school are much greater if each college you apply to gets a custom-written essay tailored to its exact prompt and to the particular campus/academic qualities that make you want to attend that school. A great intro to writing personal statements/essays can be found at FastWeb, and you can also check out some collected examples of successful essays.
- Recommendation(s). Many competitive schools ask for 1-2 letters of recommendation, and will provide any guidelines they'd like you to follow. For more information, see #5 under 'Before You Apply: What to Expect' above.
- Portfolio or work sample. If you are applying to a school/program that focuses on a particular skill (for instance, writing, art, or music), you may be expected to submit a sample of your work. If this is the case, just make sure to follow to the letter whatever instructions they provide for submission; in addition, consider having a qualified teacher or mentor (e.g. your English, art, or music teacher) help you look over your sample work first.
- Additional forms for school scholarships. If you are applying for any merit scholarships through the college, these applications may either be built into the general application or may have their own separate forms. Check the requirements for any scholarships you're interested in to make sure you're in compliance.
When you finish an application, EACH TIME you should look it over very carefully (more than once) to make sure everything's as complete and polished as possible. Some things to look for include:
- Did you tailor this application to the school you're going to send it to? (DO NOT recycle your application material without making sure that it is directly relevant to the school you're applying to, and that the correct school's name is listed in all locations. Admissions officers want to know why you'd like to go here, not just why you'd like to go to college. And this is especially true for private or more competitive schools.)
- Did you fill out everything that was asked for? This includes basic stuff like name, address, and email, as well as any lengthier questions. Blank spaces should all be checked to make sure you meant them to be blank — and even then, you might want to use a dash or say something like 'N/A' or 'None' rather than leave the space empty.
- Is all the information correct? Seems like a no-brainer, but that's why it can make you feel really stupid if you submit something with such a simple mistake (like a misspelled email address). Double and triple-check that everything is 100% correct (and legible, if written by hand).
- Are there any attachments that need to be sent, and are they in fact attached or on their way? This could include transcripts, recommendations, or any paperwork not built into the application. If you have something like SAT/ACT scores that need to be sent along later, make a note of it and follow up to ensure that all the parts of your application reach the college.
- Did you proofread everything? Anything obviously misspelled, or any sentences that don't sound right when you say them out loud? Periods, commas and apostrophes all in the right places? Go over your application and fix whatever stands out to you, and try to get a second or third person to check behind you if you can.
- If doing a mail-in application: is the address on the envelope correct? If email application: is upload location/email address correct? It does no good to send in an application if the college never receives it, so be dead certain before you hit the 'send' button or seal the envelope that everything is addressed as it should be.
A Note on College Interviews
Depending on the college you'll be attending, you may also have to do an admissions interview as part of your application. This is a chance for a school representative to meet with you in person and see what you're really like — and it's a great opportunity for you too. In fact, even if a college doesn't require an interview (very few do), you may want to see if you could request an optional interview with an admissions representative if you believe you could make a strong, positive impression in person, or if you have anything about your application that could use more explanation. (For example, was there a dip in your GPA with a clear reason behind it? An interview would give you a chance to soften some of the negative 'facts' about your record by giving your side of the story in person.)
For more information on college interviews and easy tips on how to approach them, see 'The Basics' on CollegeBoard.
You can also see a rundown of the different types of interviews and additional advice on handling them here.
(Jump straight to a thorough guide on waiting out decision letters with 'What to Do While Waiting' at US News.)
Once you've sent off your application, the first thing to look for is a confirmation that your application has been received by the college (usually an email). This could take anywhere from a day to a week or two. If it's been about two weeks without a reply, contact the school to make sure that everything has come through okay, and be prepared to resend or correct contact information if anything's gone wrong.
Then, after all your applications are confirmed, you finally get to collapse into an exhausted puddle and start the waiting game. Depending on when you applied, the size of the schools you're applying to, and how they handle admission deadlines (see the 'When to Apply' section above), it can take anywhere from a few weeks to six MONTHS to receive a final decision from the school. So long as your application packet was confirmed as received, a long wait for a reply does not mean that anything is wrong; admissions personnel deal with thousands of applications during a fairly limited time span, and they are usually invested in going over each application in-depth to make sure that each student they accept is a good fit for their college and vice versa. It's a good thing if they take time on their acceptance decisions, so just try to remember that when your eye starts twitching.