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The Complete College Application Process: Expert Guide

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Posted by Justin Berkman | Jun 18, 2016 8:30:00 AM

College Admissions



If you want to successfully complete the college application process and make yourself as competitive for college admission as possible, you’ll be directly or indirectly working on your college applications well before the deadlines approach. In fact, if you have any intention of applying to selective colleges, this process can really begin as early as your freshman year.

In this article, I’ll describe all of the tasks you should complete to maximize your chances of getting into the best possible college. Furthermore, I’ll let you know when you should be completing these tasks so that you’re able to stay on top of the process.

Feature image source: Scott Savage /Flickr 


Overview of the College Application Process

The major components of your application that will be evaluated are your transcript, your standardized test scores, your recommendations, your personal essay, and your extracurricular activities . I'll walk you through all the steps you need to take to strengthen each component of your application. If you follow my advice and timeline, you'll make yourself an extremely strong candidate for any college.

Read on to learn the specific things you should be doing and when to do them. 


Take the Right Classes

When to start: Before freshman year

Colleges will evaluate you based on the classes you’ve taken. The most selective schools want to admit students who have challenged themselves and are willing to push themselves academically .

You don’t have to take every single honors and AP course that’s offered at your school, but if you want to get into a top college, you should be able to demonstrate that you can excel in some of the hardest courses that are available to you. Also, it's best to take the most difficult classes in the subjects related to your academic strengths or your intended major .

You should begin thinking about which classes to take before your freshman year of high school. In many schools, the math or foreign language class you take during your freshman year will determine what level you’re able to reach when you’re a senior in high school.

Spend ample time considering which classes to take  and whether those classes will allow you to pursue your academic interests and reach your college goals. Specifically, consider which  science , math , history , foreign language , English , elective , and AP classes you should take.



Challenging yourself makes you stronger.


Get Good Grades

When to start: Freshman year

I think this is pretty obvious, but your grades matter to colleges. The majority of colleges will focus on your sophomore and junior year grades, but schools  will also look at your freshman and senior year grades . Also, your high school GPA is typically calculated from your grades from all four years of high school.

You should try to maintain the mentality that every semester counts, and do as well as you can each year of high school. For inspiration and useful information, check out our article on how to get a 4.0 GPA and better grades .


Excel in Extracurriculars

When to start: Freshman year

Other than your grades and test scores, your extracurricular activities probably have the biggest influence on the quality of your college application.

Colleges, especially the most selective ones, want their students to have exceptional achievements outside of the classroom, and they’re looking for individuals who use their leisure time to pursue their passions . You should participate in extracurricular activities throughout high school. Colleges prefer to see a sustained commitment to your activities; it’s more impressive to do one activity for four years and continue to show growth in that activity than it is to do four activities for one year each.

Some students believe they need to be well-rounded and do a ton of extracurriculars; however, for college admissions, it may be more advantageous for you to develop a “spike” and exhibit excellence in a particular activity or field . Instead of playing every sport, writing for the school newspaper, participating in speech and debate, and joining student government, you may be better served to focus your extracurricular efforts on becoming a superstar field hockey player. Or, if you're passionate about science, you may want to spend your free time creating an award-winning project for science fair or competing in Science Olympiad.

If you have multiple interests, it's perfectly acceptable to explore all of them ; just keep in mind that you don't have to do every possible extracurricular to get into a great college, and, generally, reaching the highest level in a given activity requires such an incredible time commitment that you won't have time to participate in many other activities outside of school.

Learn what to do if you’re struggling to find extracurriculars . Also, when you’re filling out your college applications, know how to write about your extracurriculars .



Maybe the marching band is a good extracurricular for you. Image source:  Utah Department of Transportation /Flickr


Rock Your Standardized Tests

When to start: Sophomore year

Even though some colleges have minimized the importance of standardized tests in admissions, your standardized test scores are still a crucial component of your application to most colleges . I advise starting your studying for the SAT/ACT during your sophomore year. Also, you may want to take the PSAT or PreACT during your sophomore year to familiarize yourself with standardized tests.

To give yourself the best chance of reaching your target score and to decrease your stress level, we recommend first taking your SAT/ACT in the fall of your junior year.

If you don’t reach your target score on your first attempt, you can do more studying and retake the test in the spring of your junior year. If you achieve the score you’re hoping for by the end of your junior year, you’ll have more time during your senior year to focus on your schoolwork, extracurriculars, and college applications . If you’re still unsatisfied with your score at the end of your junior year, you have more time to study over the summer and retake the test in the fall.

Make sure you know when is the last time you can take the SAT/ACT . Your deadline for taking the SAT/ACT is dependent upon the specific schools you apply to and whether or not you apply early. For most schools, for early decision, you have to take the SAT/ACT by October or November of your senior year, and for regular decision, you have to take the SAT/ACT by December of your senior year. However, there are a few colleges that will accept the January SAT or the February ACT.

If you’re considering applying to a school that requires SAT Subject Tests , I also recommend taking those by the end of your junior year.


Research Colleges

When to start: Junior year

Before you apply to college, you need to know which colleges to apply to. You can start learning about colleges as early as your freshman year, especially if you want to get an idea of what you need to do to be a competitive applicant, but you should actively research colleges starting in your junior year at the latest .

Use college search websites , finders , guidebooks , and ranking lists to help find colleges that would be a good fit for you. You can also use college fairs and tours to gain more exposure to different colleges and get a better idea of what you’re looking for in a school.

By the start of your senior year of high school, you should have a list of colleges to apply to . I recommend applying to reach schools , target schools , and at least a couple of safety schools .



 College Fair fun. Image source:  Patrick Giblin /Flickr


Get Superb Recommendations

When to start: Spring of junior year

Recommendations are also an important part of your college applications. Colleges want assessments from others on your abilities as a student and your character. Be aware of what constitutes a good recommendation and how to ask for a letter of recommendation .

It’s best to initially ask teachers to write your recommendations in the spring of your junior year.
By asking early, you’ll be able to get your teachers to agree before they become inundated with requests during your senior year , and they’ll have more time to think about what they’re going to write.

Make sure you know whom to ask to write your letters. At the beginning of your senior year, you can submit formal requests for your recommendation letters.

Also, for your reference, check out these recommendation letters that got a student admitted to Harvard and other Ivy League schools.


Write Outstanding College Essays

When to start: Summer before senior year

Writing your college essays is the most challenging and time-consuming part of the actual application process. Learn everything you need to know about the college essay and how to come up with great college essay ideas I recommend starting to work on your college essays during the summer before your senior year.

The absolute latest you'd want to wait is the beginning of your senior year, as soon as you’ve finalized the list of colleges you’re applying to. Even though college essays aren’t particularly long, in my experience, they do take much longer than you’d anticipate, and you’re less likely to be able to write good essays if you wait until the last minute to start .

Give yourself enough time to have a trusted teacher or counselor proofread your essays. And you’ll also need time to revise them. Obviously, the essays have to be completed before you submit your applications. If you’re applying early, most deadlines are in mid-November. If you’re applying regular decision, most deadlines are around January 1st.

Make sure you keep track of deadlines for the schools you’re applying to because deadlines will vary. For example, the application deadline for University of California schools is November 30th.




Final Thoughts and Additional Steps

For most students, the steps listed above are the major components of the college application process. However, some of you may have to do extra work depending on your situation and the colleges you apply to . For example, if you're an aspiring college athlete, you may participate in the athletic recruiting process . If you're applying to an art school or program, you may have to make an art portfolio .

Also, some colleges recommend or require interviews . If you interview, know what questions to ask and prepare for .

For those of you seeking financial aid, you’ll have to go through the financial aid process , and you may want to apply for scholarships .

You should find out the status of early  applications in mid-December and regular applications by late March. Then, you may find yourself with multiple options and have to face the task of choosing a college.

While the application process can feel overwhelming and incredibly stressful, you can minimize your stress by having a plan and avoiding procrastination. Don’t worry too much. Regardless of what you do, there’s no absolute guarantee that you’ll get into the most selective colleges, but if you try hard and follow our advice, you’ll get into a good college and develop the attributes that will enable your future success .


What's Next?

If you're looking for an example of what you need to do to get into the best colleges, check out this successful Harvard application .

Perhaps you've heard people reference Ivy League schools, but you're not exactly sure what they are. Learn about Ivy League colleges and read our article ranking the Ivy League schools .

Finally, figure out where in the country you should go to college .


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Justin Berkman
About the Author

Justin has extensive experience teaching SAT prep and guiding high school students through the college admissions and selection process. He is firmly committed to improving equity in education and helping students to reach their educational goals. Justin received an athletic scholarship for gymnastics at Stanford University and graduated with a BA in American Studies.

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