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How to Apply for College: Complete Expert Guide

Posted by Rebecca Safier | Jan 3, 2018 9:00:00 AM

College Admissions



Applying for college is a complex process with a lot of moving parts. However, the process doesn't need to be confusing!

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.

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. That's why we'll start off this guide with advice for what you can do early on to build a strong foundation.

If you're already a senior in the midst of college application season, then you can scroll down for more concrete information on application requirements. (This guide, by the way, is primarily focused on applications to four year colleges.)

Let's begin by considering what you can do in the first few years of high school to prepare for applying to college.


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 progress, whether you've chosen progressively harder classes, for example, or advanced into a leadership position in a club.

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. You'll research, visit, and apply to schools that you like and where you think you have a good chance of getting in.

Rather than figuring all this out senior year, you can go into high school with a proactive mindset. 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 and how to apply for college.

Let's consider each of these pieces individually, in terms of what you'll acutally submit to schools, why colleges care, and how you can put yourself in the best possible position to apply.




Choosing Classes

Your 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. First, what will you show the admissions committee?


What 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.

Colleges also get a report on each high school so they have context for your individual record. They should know what level of classes are on your course list - college prep, honors, AP, for example, along with the general expectations and rigor. 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 results from senior year. An acceptance halfway through the year is still contingent on successful completion of all your classes.


Why Do Colleges Care?

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. Evidence of these qualities in high school bodes well for building a class of students who will succeed in class 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 by high school requirements. However, you may have choice in the level of classes, as well as in areas with more options like foreign language and electives.

If you're someone driven to take all the honors and AP classes you can, then your challenge will be to find ways to balance all your work and find time to honor your interests. Colleges appreciate demonstrated interest in a specific field as much as, if not more, than general well-roundedness.

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 show admissions officers that you're making progress over all four years. Treat all classes as important, as they're all part of your GPA.

Remember, a 3.7 (A-) in honors classes versus a 3.7 in all college prep classes will be more competitive. Rather than playing it safe for an easy A, seek out a challenge in the subject(s) that call to you.

Apart from 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. As above, let's take a look at what you'll send, why colleges care, and what you can do to prepare.


What Will You Send?

On your college application, 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.

Some students also send a resume with their application, which similarly lists and describes your activities and/or work. You'll tell admissions officers about your extracurriculars throughout all four years of high school.


Why Do Colleges Care?

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 her 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.

Just as colleges want to find students who are open to taking on academic challenges, they want students who pursue their interests and take action toward their goals. Again, colleges are seeking to educate students who will go on to create value in the world.

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 for the sake of resume building.

Deep involvement is looked at more favorably than occasional participation. 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.

The final part of your application that requires months to years of planning is your standardized tests, like the SAT and ACT.




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 Will You Send?

Most colleges, unless they're test optional or test flexible, require that you send the SAT or ACT. Some also require one or two SAT Subject Tests. You'll take the tests, leave at least three weeks to get your scores back, and request official score reports sent from College Board or ACT, Inc.


Why Do Colleges Care?

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 I 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 prep early and give yourself enough opportunities to retest and improve your scores. You may start researching colleges early, so you can have a sense of how high a score you need to achieve.

One common schedule is to take 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 in sophomore year or the summer after. 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.

You'll learn a lot from your classes and experiences during high school and will grow a lot in terms of your interests and beliefs. As you explore and reflect, you should start thinking about where you'd like to go to college and where you have a good shot at admission. By the end of junior year, you should be drafting your college list.



The majority of college applicants are high school seniors, and most of the college application advice out there is aimed at them. But what do you do if you don't fall into this narrow category? Our eBook on how to prepare for and apply to college as a nontraditional student will walk you through everything you need to know, from the coursework you should have under your belt to how to get letters of recommendation when you're not a high school senior.

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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.

Some of these considerations include location, size, majors, financial aid, and overall academic and social culture. The selectiveness of the school will be a determining factor too, i.e., whether or not you have the grades to get in.

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.

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.


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.

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 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:

  • Application
  • Personal Essay
  • Supplemental Essays
  • Recommendations
  • High School Transcript
  • SAT or ACT score reports

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 Universal Application is another option for some schools, though not as common. Some schools, like those in the University of Texas and 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 and proofreading, other components, like your essay and recommendations, merit 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 five 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, elicit 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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