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How to Apply for College: Complete Expert Guide


Applying for college is a complex process with a lot of moving parts. However, the process doesn't need to be confusing! While technically your application is made up of a few required materials, it's actually shaped by what you do and accomplish throughout all four years of high school.

By learning about each step and starting early, you can navigate your applications like a pro. This comprehensive guide will go over the ABC's of how to apply to college, from each requirement to what you can be doing as early as freshman year to start planning. We'll go over:

  • Getting an early start on the application process
  • Making the most out of your high school career, including choosing extracurriculars and doing well on standardized tests 
  • Putting together your college list
  • Gathering materials and writing your college applications 
  • Actually applying for college and keeping track of application deadlines

That's a lot of ground to cover, so let's get started! 



College might seem like it's a way, but there's actually a pretty limited about of time for you to get your applications in. That's why starting the process early is so important!


Plan Early for College

As your teachers may have told you, admissions officers consider all four years of high school when they evaluate your application. They want to know what classes you've chosen, grades you've received, and extracurriculars you've been involved in.

They're interested to learn about your interests and academic progress, too. They want to see that you're able to do well in high school in a way that will prepare you to succeed once you get into a university. To gauge this, Admissions counselors will likely pay attention to whether you've chosen progressively harder classes or held leadership positions in academic clubs, on sports teams, or as part of your job. 

Your academic success in high school plays a super important role in determining where you'll go to college. Ultimately, factors like your grade point average (GPA), test scores, and academic and extracurricular achievements determine where you apply. You may apply to a few schools that let in students whose GPA and scores are a little higher than yours, a few that match, and a few that are lower.  When choosing colleges, you'll also need to consider other factors, like the quality of education, availability of your major, cost, location, and campus environment. 

Rather than figuring all this out senior year, go into high school with a proactive mindset. If you're wondering "how to apply for college," remember that it starts with being thoughtful about the choices you make. Be conscious about choosing your course schedule, extracurriculars, and standardized tests. All of these components will help determine what schools make it onto your list

To help you out, we'll go over how you can maximize your classes and grades, extracurriculars, and standardized tests to improve your college admissions chances. For each, we tell you what materials you'll actually submit to schools, why colleges care about these materials, and how you can put yourself in the best possible position going into the application process. After reading, you should know how to apply to college, no matter what school you choose!




Choosing Classes

Colleges are interested in both your grades and which classes you decided to take. This is one of the most important parts of how to apply to college. 


What Info About Classes Will You Send?

When you apply to college, you'll have your high school send along your official transcript. Your transcript will show the classes you took and the grades you received. All your grades together make up your GPA, which is an important measure that admissions officers use to compare students' records.

Your transcript will also show counselors what level of classes are on your course list—like college prep, honors, AP, or IB—along with the general expectations and rigor. Admissions counselors will also receive a report about your high school's policies in terms of class assignments, course availability, and how they assign grades. That way, they should know if your school adds an extra six points for honors classes, or if its GPA scale is out of 5.0 rather than the usual 4.0.

Colleges will also see your courses, grades, and any AP or IB exam results from senior year...even after you submit your application packets. An acceptance halfway through the year is still contingent on successful completion of all your classes. If you don't finish your classes, or if your grades drop significantly, it might impact your admission chances. 


Why Do Colleges Care About Your Classes?

So what are colleges looking for in your high school transcript? First, they want to see evidence of academic achievement and college readiness. They want to make sure you can succeed in your college classes. Especially selective schools are looking for students with outstanding academic records.

Beyond this, admissions officers often appreciate evidence of progress. They want to see that you're improving over the years and taking on challenges. If you have some choice in electives, they may also be able to learn more about your interests from what you've chosen.

Colleges seek academically oriented students with a love of learning who are willing to challenge themselves. Providing evidence of these qualities in your high school transcript by taking challenging courses and making good grades bodes well for you. That’s because every year colleges want to build an incoming class of students who will succeed in their coursework and ultimately use their education to contribute in positive ways to society.

Considering the importance of your academic record in your college applications, what can you do as a freshman and after to prepare?


What Does This Mean For You?

A lot of your classes in high school, like four years of English and math, may be chosen for you because of your high school’s requirements. However, you may have a choice in the level of classes you take (such as honors courses), as well as in areas like foreign language and your electives, since schools often provide a variety of languages and classes such as music or art that you can choose from to fill those requirements. 

And there's definitely some perks and drawbacks to creating your own schedule. For instance, if you're someone driven to take all the honors, AP, or IB classes you can in order to get into a top-tier school, then your challenge will be to find ways to balance all your work and find time to pursue your interests. Colleges appreciate demonstrated interest in a specific field as much as, if not more, than general well-roundedness.

So if you're starting out in mostly college prep classes, consider adding an honors class or two to your schedule. If you especially like English, then consider taking on the challenge there. If math makes sense to you, see if you can transition into a higher level.

Even if you had a rocky freshman year, you can still show admissions officers that you're making progress over all four years. While great freshman grades would be helpful, it's not too late to double down on your academics to raise your GPA and show admissions officers that you're willing and able to put in the effort to improve. 

Taking advanced classes can help you boost your grades in a hurry, too. Remember, a 3.7 (A-) in honors classes versus a 3.7 in all college prep classes will be more competitive. Additionally, some schools honor your weighted GPA, which essentially gives you bonus points for tackling tough classes. Rather than playing it safe for an easy A, seek out a challenge in the subject(s) that call to you.

But in addition to your performance in the classroom, admissions officers are also looking to see what you do outside the classroom.




Extracurricular Involvement

Just like with your classes, grades, and GPA, you'll send a record of your extracurricular activities. If you're wondering about how to apply for college, you need to know that extracurriculars definitely play an important role in your college application process! As above, let's take a look at what you'll send, why colleges care, and what you can do to prepare.


What Info About Extracurriculars Will You Send?

On your college application, there will be a spot where you'll list out your activities, including clubs, sports, summer camps or classes, and work experience. You'll typically give a brief description of your role, along with the time commitment and how long you've been involved. The goal is to tell admissions officers about your extracurriculars throughout all four years of high school.

One quick note: some students also have to send a resume with their application, which also lists and describes your activities and/or work. This document serves the same purpose: to help admissions counselors better understand you, your passions, and your interests. 


Why Do Colleges Care About Extracurriculars?

Admissions officers are looking to gain a full sense of who you are as a student. If they only relied on grades and test scores, most colleges would have more qualified students than they had spots to offer. 

Secondly, they could accidentally end up with an entire class of engineers, or writers, or history majors (unlikely, but still a possibility if they don't get to know each student's interests and goals beyond their grades). Not only do they want to find students with diverse experiences and interests, they want to find students who will be active and create a lively, interactive community. If you're involved in high school, then you're likely to get involved in college, too.

So not only does your academic record indicate how you approach your education, but your extracurriculars show how you get involved in your community and the world around you.


What Does This Mean For You?

Explore! Get involved! But do so in a way that's authentic to you.

You definitely don't have to go sign up for every club and team that your school offers. In fact, doing so might just confuse admissions officers. They want to know what you're interested in rather than see you participating in everything for the sake of resume building.

Deep involvement (aka a “spike”) is looked at more favorably than occasional participation. That’s because it shows that instead of being a run-of-the-mill student, you have the focus and drive to become great at something specific that you are passionate about. If you join a club freshman or sophomore year, then you could benefit both personally and on your college apps from sustaining that involvement and even advancing into a leadership position (or developing greater skill in a more solitary pursuit like painting or writing poetry).

Freshman year and summer is a great time to explore activities. Not only will you be able to explore your interests and discover new ones, but you might meet like-minded peers and gain skills that can help in class and eventually professional environments.

Consider clubs, sports, art, music, community service, volunteer work, travel, internships, part time jobs…and reflect on what led you there and what you'd like to gain from the experience. Ideally, you'll take time to explore in the beginning of high school and get more deeply involved in later years. Along with your classes and GPA, your extracurricular involvement indicates your interests, commitments, and how you might contribute at college.




Plan and Prep for Standardized Tests

Most colleges require the SAT or ACT (and TOEFL if English isn't your native language). For the majority of students, doing well on these tests requires a lot of prep and planning. Most take it more than once, even up to three times or more. Let's consider what colleges want to see, why, and how it affects your college planning.


What Test Info Will You Send?

Most colleges, unless they're test optional or test flexible, require that you send the SAT or ACT. In the past some have also required one or two SAT Subject Tests, but these exams will be discontinued after June 2021. Be aware that in the future, this may mean schools which formerly required subject tests may require AP exam scores instead.

Regardless of what test or tests you take, expect to wait at least three weeks to get your scores back, and be sure to request official score reports sent from College Board or ACT, Inc.


Why Do Colleges Care About Test Scores?

The SAT and ACT are standardized tests, meaning that the test and testing conditions are the same for all students who take it (or at least, they're supposed to be). While these tests can be controversial, their underlying purpose is to compare students' academic abilities and achievement on an equal footing.

As we mentioned above, colleges have some sense of the differences among high schools and can thereby put your GPA and course selection in context. The SAT and ACT allow them to automatically compare scores on a more level playing field.

You can figure out what score you need by searching the name of your college and average SAT or ACT scores of accepted students. If you already have a dream school in mind, then you can shape your test prep around achieving the target scores you need to be a competitive applicant. What else do these testing requirements mean for you as you go through high school?


What Does This Mean For You?

Because these are important tests, especially if you're making up for a low GPA, you should prepare early and give yourself enough opportunities to retest and improve your scores. It's a good idea to start researching colleges early, so you can have a sense of what score you need to achieve to get into your dream schools. 

One common schedule involves taking the SAT or ACT for the first time in the fall of junior year, again in the spring, and for a final time in the fall of senior year. This means you'll start prepping for the exams during your sophomore year (or during the summer between your sophomore and junior years). Just as you should be thoughtful about your class schedule and extracurricular involvement, you should start planning and studying early for this important part of your college application.



Making Your College List

Apart from the preparation and planning discussed above, one of your first direct steps toward applying to college will be making your college list. There are thousands of colleges to choose from in the U.S. While this may sound overwhelming, you can narrow the number down quickly with a few considerations.

As you start looking at colleges, consider a school's location, size, majors, financial aid, and overall academic and social culture. The selectiveness of the school will be a determining factor, too. Highly selective colleges will require you to have high grades and test scores in order to apply. 

Ultimately, you should aim to have about two reach schools (tough, but possible for you to get in), three on-target schools (reasonable chance), and two safety schools (very strong likelihood that you'll get accepted). You may apply to more, but it's not advisable to send out applications to 20+ schools to see which ones stick. It's more important to figure out the question of institutional fit up front, rather than stressing out in April about which college to choose.

So how do you find schools that meet these criteria? You can set your preferences on search tools, like College Board and Naviance, to find schools and learn more about them. Apart from learning about the schools on their websites, you should, if possible, visit and take a campus tour. And you can find tons of information about individual schools on our blog, too. Just type your college's name into the search bar to get started! 


Touring Campus

If you can, you should definitely visit your colleges of interest in person. Just walking around the grounds, checking out the buildings, and feeling the general vibe of a school can help you figure out if it's somewhere you'd like to spend four years of your life. It also gives you the chance to ask current students any questions you might have about the community.

Most high schools allow their students three or four excused absences to take campus visits. You can take tours over the summer too, but you'll get a more realistic sense of the school if you go when students are there and classes are in session.

You can usually sign up for campus tours on the school websites, and sometimes you can arrange to stay overnight in a dorm or meet with school officials. Some admissions officers also keep track of your "demonstrated interest," so having your name on campus visit records could ultimately be helpful for your application, too.

Now that you have a sense of the planning and preliminary steps that go into applying to college, let's review the actual requirements of most college applications. This application contains all the information, like test scores and extracurriculars, that summarizes your high school work. We'll go over each part, as well as some strategies for keeping track of everything.




College Application Requirements

Before getting into each component in more detail, let's go over a general overview of what you'll need to send to colleges to apply for admission:

Some students send additional supplemental information if their program calls for it, like a portfolio for art school. Others may also set up interviews. More selective schools, like the Ivy League and MIT, often require interviews, while others simply encourage them. Usually, the school will have an alum close by that can meet you in a library or coffee shop and talk about your experiences and interest in the school.

Let's take a look at each of the main components in greater detail. I'll give a brief description here, but check out the links for more extensive guides on each application requirement.


The Application

Many schools use the Common Application, an online app that you can fill out once and then submit to several schools at once. The Coalition Application and Universal Application are other options for some schools. Some schools, like those in the University of California system, use their own applications.

Whether you use one kind of app or a combination, you'll set up an online account with a username and password. You'll fill out basic personal data, like your name, address, and contact information. The first four "pages" of the Common App, for instance, ask for this type of information on yourself and your family, plus your educational and testing records. The final two pages ask you to write about your extracurricular activities and paste your personal essay.

While filling out your application may only require a few weeks of information, gathering other application components—like your essay and recommendations—will require a few months of preparation.




The Personal Essay (and Any Supplemental Essays)

Your personal essay is a very significant part of your application. It's your chance to share your voice with the admissions committee and describe something meaningful to you. Plus, you demonstrate your ability to consider and communicate ideas through writing.

The Common App asks you to choose from one of seven essay prompts, all of which ask you to share something insightful about your identity. Schools with their own applications will have different essay questions.

Admissions officers want to get to know you, and are looking at depth of thought and quality of writing along with insight into your character and personality. Your personal essay is a challenging piece of writing, and it's a good idea to start at least two to three months before your deadlines to give yourself time to brainstorm, draft, ask for feedback, and revise.

Some schools also ask additional essay questions. These essays are usually shorter and may ask why you want to go to the school. Some questions are pretty unusual and call for you to get creative.

Just as your personal essay and supplemental essays take a few months of planning, your recommendation letters also require early preparation.


Letters of Recommendation

Most colleges require a recommendation, often referred to as the "secondary school report" from your counselor, along with one or two recommendations from teachers. Commonly, you'll ask a teacher you had in junior year. If you're applying to a specific program or major, you should ask a teacher in that field.

The best letters come from teachers who know you well and are enthusiastic about recommending you. Just as admissions committees read your personal essay to get to know you better, they also place a good deal of weight on recommendations and what they have to say about your academic and personal strengths.

You want to ask your recommenders at least three to four weeks before your deadlines, plus you should spend some time filling out a detailed "brag sheet" that they can refer to as they write your letter.

While all of the requirements discussed above will be part of your application, you'll also have to step outside of your online application account to send official documents, like your transcript and test scores.




High School Transcript

While you may self-report some of your classes and your GPA on your application, you also have to send along your official high school transcript. This documents shows your GPA, courses, and course grades, plus it proves that you're on track to graduating.

Most high schools will have you fill out a form and pay a small fee to your guidance office, which will send your transcript to the colleges indicated. Make sure to make your transcript request at least three weeks before your college deadlines.

While you may submit a request to your guidance office, you'll send your SAT or ACT scores through your online account.


Official SAT or ACT Score Reports

Just like with your GPA, you might provide your scores on your application, but you still have to send official documentation. You'll request these score reports through your College Board or ACT account.

If you take the SAT or ACT more than once, you might use Score Choice to decide which score reports to send (if your college allows it). You may also consider here your colleges' policy towards superscoring, or recombining your scores from various test dates to give you the highest possible composite score.

As with all the other parts of applying, sending your test scores requires some strategy and planning on your part. Now that you have a sense of what you'll be sending to colleges, what about the question of when to send these materials? When are college deadlines?




When Are College Deadlines?

Most students apply to college in the fall or winter of senior year. Schools offer a few options for deadlines, usually one or more of early decision, early action, regular decision, or rolling admissions. Early deadlines are typically in November, and regular deadlines are commonly in January. You'll get notified of your admissions decision around December or April, respectively.

Schools with rolling admissions allow you to submit your application within a period of time ranging from the fall to the spring. While these schools don't have a set deadline, they still tend to favor candidates who get their applications in sooner rather than later.

As you saw above, your college application process starts a lot sooner than the fall of senior year. Given that the college planning process is one that continues throughout high school, how can you keep track of everything?


Keep Track of Your College Planning

There's a lot to juggle when it comes to applying to college, but if you start early, you can space out the process and find ways to balance it with all your other commitments. Since the process is largely online, your applications and software like Naviance help you keep track of what you've completed and what you still have left to finish.

On top of this, it'd be a good idea to write up a checklist, set personal deadlines for each requirement, and keep track of everything according to your own goals and schedule. While you may not feel like you have to do anything for college until junior or senior year, the choices you make in 9th and 10th grade actually set the foundation for where you'll apply and what will go into your college applications.

Colleges want to learn about you from your application—your strengths, interests, and goals—but don't feel you should join a club or take a class based on your idea of what would impress an admissions committee. They're interested in learning about your authentic interests and unique voice.

Exploring your academic and extracurricular interests will not only help you develop and improve your skills, but it will also help you gain self-awareness. By thinking about what you like and setting goals, you'll be able to find and apply to the colleges that would ultimately be the best fit for you.


Check Out These Other College Planning Resources

These are a few of our many resources to help you plan and apply for college. Explore these resources and more to learn everything you need to know about planning and applying for college and financial aid!



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Rebecca Safier
About the Author

Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.

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