College Application Process Guide

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Applying for Colleges - How to Begin

The college application process can seem overwhelming, but with some background information on how to begin applying for college and staying organized, it doesn’t have to be.  

Start by focusing on the big college application to-do items. Outline everything you need to submit when applying for colleges. Look at college application deadlines, then work backward to give yourself a timeline of when you should work on each section to avoid feeling rushed. 

When should you apply for college?

The college application process isn’t something you can get done in a matter of weeks, so give yourself plenty of time to work on your college applications. Most students start the college application process towards the end of their junior year by collecting letters of recommendation, reviewing college essay prompts, and getting to know their priorities when selecting schools to apply to. 

Use your college list to narrow down which school applications to research. 

Prepare early for application season by learning about the four steps below: 

  • Earn a Competitive ACT Test Score 
  • Create a College List 
  • Visit Campuses 
  • Ask for a Letter of Recommendation 

Earn a Competitive ACT Test Score  

Whether you’re planning to meet early or regular decision deadlines, you want to know what your ACT score could be by then.  

One point on your ACT test could make the difference in acceptance into college and/or thousands of dollars in scholarships.  

If you think you might test more than once, take it in the early spring of your junior year to see where you are and familiarize yourself with the testing environment. Then, if you want to improve your score, consider testing again in the spring, summer, or fall of your senior year.  

Every student who takes the ACT more than once, automatically earns a Superscore. Your superscore is the average of your best scores from each subject from multiple test attempts. 

Create a College List

There are thousands of degree-granting colleges and universities in the United States. How do you sort through all these options and select the few institutions you want to learn more about? 
The type of colleges you consider will depend on your goals and expectations.  
Narrow down your choices by considering:  

  • Major programs 
  • Location 
  • Size 
  • Cost of attendance 
  • Extracurricular activities 
  • Admission difficulty 

Keep narrowing your college list until you have 8-15 colleges you want to spend time researching. Review the important college list factors to consider. 

Visit College Campuses 

Once you have a narrowed list of colleges, visit college campuses and experience firsthand what it’s like to be a student. A school may look great on paper or online, but you might be surprised when you step foot on campus for the first time.  
A successful college visit can give you the confidence you need to make a final decision on your future alma mater. Learn more tips on how to master a campus tour

Ask for a Letter of Recommendation  

Letters of recommendation are an essential part of the college application process. Admissions officers use this information to learn more about you from a new perspective. The letter should give them confidence in your ability to contribute to their school, showcase what makes you unique, and prove you have the drive to accomplish things inside and outside the classroom. Consider these tips when requesting letters of recommendation

What are the college application deadlines?

There are several college application deadlines to be aware of, including early decision, early action, regular decision, and rolling admissions. The deadline you choose to meet will depend on your goals and could impact the number of applicants you’re reviewed against. 
Find out which application deadline is best for you. 

What are the college application requirements?

You will find that most college applications require the same types of documents. The ones they request will help them compare applicants and select the ones that appear to be the best fit for their school. 

College application requirements include:  

Application Form

This is likely where admission offices will gather your basic personal information, extracurriculars, awards, leadership opportunities, work experience, and more.   

High School Transcript

Your high school transcript will outline the entire list of courses you took, final grades received, academic accomplishments, and both your weighted and unweighted GPAs.   

Letters of Recommendation

Collect letters from respected individuals who know you well, including counselors, teachers, employers, or coaches. Let them showcase who you are to the admissions officers based on their personal and frequent interactions with you.

Essay and Personal Statements

Your college essay is the place to tell your story beyond your other application pieces. Some applications have additional questions or spaces dedicated to personal statements. Use these to show them what is most important to you and what you have to offer.     

Standardized Test Scores

Even with more schools going test-optional, having test scores to submit may help you stand out and help earn you some scholarships. Consider taking the ACT your junior or senior year before it's too late, even if you ultimately choose not submit your scores. 

Application Fee

Most colleges require an application fee, but there’s good news! Students who test with an ACT fee waiver may also request a Waiver or Deferral of College Admission Applications Fee. To have a college application fee waived, you must submit your fee waiver directly to the college to which you are applying (not to ACT). 

On Demand Webinar: College Admissions from A to Z: Ace Your Application Process (And Stay Stress Free)

Navigating college admissions can be overwhelming and full of questions, but we’ve got answers! Check out this free on-demand webinar as expert college application counselors from Collegewise answer all your questions from making the most of your high school experience, researching colleges and ultimately crafting your best application. 

How to start applying for colleges?

If you’re wondering how to apply to college, you’re not alone! It may seem overwhelming, but with some guidance, you’ll be well on your way to getting that acceptance letter. 

Follow these steps when applying to college: 

1. Research Colleges 

Towards the end of your junior year, review the list of colleges you're considering. Plan to apply to roughly 5-8 schools, including your dream school and one or two safe schools. Research and keep detailed notes about each of those colleges’ application requirements, deadlines, and scholarships. Is there anything unique this school requires as part of the application process?

TIP: Keep your notes organized in an Excel doc (Download our college comparison tracker excel workbook) or similar so you can easily compare the colleges

2. Gather Your Documents

After looking at the requirements for each school, create a to-do list. Add deadlines and due dates to a calendar so you aren't scrambling to get everything done in time.

TIP: If you are planning to meet early college application deadlines, you'll need all your documents collected before the start of winter break since most educators and schools are unavailable then.

3. Get Financial Support

Now that you are getting ready to apply it’s time to review your financial options to help pay for school. Talk with your parents about any financial support they plan to offer towards college costs. In addition to family support, there are other financial plans you can make. Students should submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). After being accepted, you'll receive a personalized financial aid package will outline any federal grants or scholarships you qualify for, federal work-study, and student loans. Pursue scholarships that may be awarded based on need, merit, or athletic pursuits. 

4. Fill Out and Review Your College Application

Go to the college's website to start your application. Often they open in August for the following academic school year. You may also consider submitting your application through the Common App, which allows you to apply to multiple colleges with the same application. Ask one or two trusted individuals to review all your materials to ensure you aren’t missing anything or have spelling or grammar errors. 

Get More Insights with Our College Application Guide

What are you waiting for? Get started on your college applications! Don’t be afraid to ask questions along the way and remember to stay as organized as possible so that you can meet all your deadlines. 
To get more college application support, download the college application guide ebook. 

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More Resources for College Applications

A list of resources to help you navigate the exciting journey of applying to college.