Understanding the College Application and Admissions Process
Information and Resources for Students and Parents
College applications: words that strike fear in the hearts of many high school juniors and seniors. But students need not tremble and break out into a sweat. While the college application process will always be associated with some stress, the more you know about it, the better you will manage and the more likely you are to achieve your higher education goals. With that in mind, this guide helps demystify the college application and admissions process. Get information and resources to help you conquer each step of the process, from start to finish.
The college admissions process starts long before the first application is submitted. Even though it might seem early, students can and should begin thinking about where they want to go to college, what they want to study, and how they plan to get there once they start high school. Review these tips for freshman through senior year to ensure you cover all your bases before you send your applications for review.
“In your freshman year, aside from taking classes that interest you, it’s time to strategize how to ‘max out’ your high school course offerings,” says college admissions expert and SocratesPost founder Mercy Yang. Students should use this first year of high school to plan out the classes and extracurricular activities that will stretch them academically and personally over the next four years. “This shows colleges you have intellectual vitality and the ability to excel in rigorous academics — the two cornerstones of college,” she says.
Key action items:
- Meet with a guidance counselor to create a four-year plan that supports your college goals
- Begin taking challenging courses that push you to grow academically
- Start exploring college websites to get a sense of what you might want to study and the type of college you want to attend
“In their sophomore year, students need to start building relationships with teachers and coaches,” says Yang. Cultivating these relationships early in high school can help students get answers to their college questions and ensure that these individuals can talk about your skills, abilities, and growth should you need to ask them for a letter of recommendation. “Teachers who feel like they know their students personally will want to support them throughout high school and recommend them to college when the time comes.”
Key action items:
- Make a list of questions about college for your teachers and set up times to meet with them to discuss potential college options
- Participate in extracurricular activities that will make you a well-rounded student
- If you struggled with a subject freshman year, seek out tutoring to improve those skills
- Start preparing for standardized tests by taking the PSAT 10, PSAT/NMSQT, or ACT practice tests
- Begin comparing colleges that you are interested in
- Start searching for scholarship and grant opportunities
- Continue checking in with your guidance counselor to ensure you are taking classes that meet graduation and college admissions requirements
“During their junior year, students need to hone in and do an audit of their extracurricular involvement,” notes Yang. Admissions panels love reading about students’ involvement in programs or projects outside class, but they need to be strategic. “Junior year is your time to ask yourself which one or two activities really matter to you and stick to those — this shows you aren’t just participating in everything possible to look good on paper and will also give you free time to research college and figure out how you want your next chapter to look.”
- Stop participating in extracurriculars you aren’t passionate about or that spread you too thin
- Study for and then take the SAT or ACT
- Begin attending college fairs and meeting with school representatives
- Visit college campuses to start figuring out where to actually apply
- Research and take note of application deadlines for the colleges you’re most interested in
The last year of college is all about applying to and preparing for college. In addition to collecting application materials, completing and submitting applications, and securing scholarships and grants, high school seniors need to keep the momentum going through the end of the academic year. “Students should really focus on their AP exams — even if they’ve already gotten an admittance letter, continue participating in your classes, asking questions, and prepping for these exams,” encourages Yang. Good scores on AP exams look great to admissions panels and also helps lower the overall cost of college. “If you do well on the exam and get college credit, you’ll save thousands in tuition and will be glad you did when it’s time to pay back student loans.”
- Retake the SAT or ACT, if you think you can improve your score
- Ask for letters of recommendation
- Complete college applications and personal essays
- Send thank you notes to everyone who helped you with your application, especially those who wrote letters of recommendation
- Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)
- Finalize a financial aid plan
- Speak with parents, teachers and counselors if you need help making your final decision on which college to attend
- Once you’ve made a final decision, notify colleges
The College Application Process
Going through the process of applying to college requires students to step outside comfort zones, figure out long-term goals, and demonstrate why they deserve a spot at a particular school. This section walks college-bound students through the process and provides tips for each step.
Step 1: Research and Self-Reflection
Picking the right college starts long before the application process and requires students to think critically and carefully about the type of experience they want while in college and what they want to do after college. Before even beginning an application, students need to reflect and consider the big picture. A few questions that prospective applicants should ask themselves include:
- Why do I want to go to college?
- What do I want to do after college?
- If I don’t know what I want to do after college, what subjects have I enjoyed in high school? Could any of them turn into a major or career?
- What are my strengths, weaknesses, and personal interests, and, knowing these, what could be possible majors to pursue?
- In what type of environment do I learn best? (E.g. smaller classes with more personalized instruction from professors or large auditoriums where I can do my own thing?)
- What are the most important factors to consider when choosing a college? (E.g. Cost? Community? Ranking? Location? A specific degree program or department?)
After considering these questions, students should consult with parents, teachers, guidance counselors, and academic advisors to ensure they are on the right path for achieving their college goals. Students should also start researching prospective colleges by visiting school websites, requesting information packets, and attending college fairs.
Step 2: Choose Where to Apply
According to Yang, students need to think holistically about the type of experience they want to have when selecting schools to apply to. “Do you want to learn by reading primary texts and discussing them with a group of 10 students in a Socratic style, or would you rather learn by listening to a lecture in a large auditorium, taking notes on your laptop?” Yang also cautions that learners need to focus more on how they learn and less on where or what. “As an example, journalism majors across different campuses experience vastly different curriculum and teaching styles,” she explains. “Some colleges focus on reporting in field, some on the theory of media, some on public relations and mass communication.”
Other considerations include whether students want to attend a small liberal arts college or a large public university, whether they want to stay close to home or venture away, and if they want to attend a school located in a city, town, or in the country. If you need extra help deciding, consider scheduling a campus visit. According to College Board, students should try to schedule these in the late summer or early fall of their senior year.
After doing thorough research, organize prospective schools into three lists to narrow down the options: safety, likely, and reach. The first list would consist of schools you feel certain you’ll get into based on academic and extracurricular requirements. Although your chances of getting in to these schools seem strong, they may not be your top choices but you would still attend them. The second list would be schools you feel you have a likely chance of getting in to but aren’t certain. Lastly, reach schools are those institutions you dream of attending, but you may not meet all admissions requirements or the school may be highly selective.
Step 3: Take Required Standardized Tests
Most colleges require applicants to submit either ACT or SAT scores, which are often used to assess college readiness, determine class placement and/or in some cases determine scholarship eligibility. Depending on the institution, chosen major, and courses taken in high school, college-bound high school students may also need to take SAT Subject Tests and/or Advanced Placement exams.
The SAT consists of three components: reading, writing and language, and math. Test takers can score up to 1600 points. The mean SAT score for the Class of 2018 was 1068. College Board reports that approximately half of students take the test twice – often once during their junior year and again in the fall of their senior year.
The ACT covers four subject categories: English, math, reading, and science. An optional writing section is also offered. A perfect score on the ACT is a 36 and the average composite score was 20.8 for the Class of 2018. Like the SAT, students can retest if unsatisfied with their original score.
AP exams are one way students can earn college credit while still in high school. Learners must enroll in AP courses and show proficiency in college-level material. Scores range from 1, meaning no recommendation, to 5, meaning extremely well-qualified. Each college has its own policy regarding score minimums for receiving credits. Currently, students can select from 38 AP tests.
SAT Subject Tests:
SAT subject tests are offered in 20 academic fields. Many students take these tests to demonstrate competency in a particularly subject to stand out during the admissions process, although some schools also require subject test scores. Others use them to award college credits to those who earned exceptional scores. SAT subject tests may be a good alternative for students who don’t have access to AP classes.
Step 4: Plan When to Apply
In general, colleges and universities use one — or more — of the following application deadlines:
An early decision application is due during the fall of a student’s senior year. This option, however, should only be used if a student is certain they will attend a particular university. Because of this, applicants may only submit one early decision application. If accepted, the student is required to enroll unless financial aid falls short. Although students can only apply to one early decision school, Yang says there are some benefits. “If you apply early decision, typically in October or November, you’ll be compared among a smaller applicant pool and can benefit from higher acceptance rates. You’ll also know your admission decision by December and won’t have to think about college again until you start attending,” she explains.
Similar to early decision, these applications must be sent during the fall of a student’s senior year. An early action application signifies a school is a top choice, but it does not obligate the student to enroll if admitted. Multiple early action applications may be submitted.
Regular applications are generally due in January. Check with the institution for specific dates, which typically range from January to March, with some exceptions such as the University of California system. Yang states regular admission is more competitive because of the larger applicant pool but it also allows students to compare multiple admissions offers and financial aid packages side-by-side, which would not be possible with early decision.
Finally, some colleges and universities accept applications at any time. This option is known as rolling enrollment. Schools in this category may have a priority enrollment date, but students who miss it are still allowed to apply later. While applications are accepted at any time, Yang recommends students still apply as soon as applications are accepted. “Rolling admissions schools accept applicants as applications are submitted, so the longer you wait, the fewer seats you can be considered for. Sign up for their email list, follow them on social media, or visit their website often to get notified right when applications are released,” she says.
Step 5: Complete Your Application
After doing lots of preparation and research, students can sit down and fill out applications to all the schools to which they want to apply. Most schools use multipart applications so that admissions panels get a holistic sense of the applicant’s abilities, interests, hobbies, and life story. Specific requirements may vary by school and degree program, but common components of the application usually include:
Colleges and universities use this document to collect basic information such as name, address, date of birth, parental details, and social security number. Students also provide details for any honors or awards they won in school or their community, information about extracurricular and volunteer activities, and employment history.
Official high school transcript(s):
Colleges and universities use high school transcripts to assess how well a student has done in their high school classes. To be seen as official, the high school must send a sealed transcript directly to the college or university (meaning it cannot come from the student). If applying through early decision or early action, institutions may request a mid-year report from the school, alongside a final transcript once the student graduates.
Standardized test scores:
Schools require testing scores to be sent directly to the designated schools, which students identify on the form when taking the exams. These can include the ACT, SAT, and, if applicable, SAT Subject Tests. Letters of recommendation: Schools usually ask for two or three letters of recommendation from individuals who can speak to a student’s record and their potential for success at the collegiate level. Most students ask teachers to provide these, but mentors, spiritual leaders, employers, and other non-family members who know the student well can also write them. Make sure you ask your recommender and provide any necessary information at least one month prior to the application due date. This allows them to really think about you, your accomplishments, and your potential contributions.
Essays or personal statements:
Colleges use essays and personal statements to get a more unscripted sense of who the applicant is, what they hope to accomplish, and how their life experiences shaped who they are. Most colleges provide a prompt to discuss, such as a time the student overcame adversity, significant accomplishments, or future goals. Students should take this chance to clearly and succinctly show the panel why they deserve a spot at the school.
Many colleges and universities have their own application, which means students will need to complete multiple packets if applying to more than one school (which they should), but some schools use platforms that let students to apply to multiple schools with just one form. When it comes to filling out applications, check out services such as Common Application, Coalition Application, and Universal College Application. If applying to state schools, some large systems provide a single application for all campuses, such as the University of California application and the California State University application. Most schools state which type of application form must be used on their website, but if you aren’t sure whether a school requires an individual application or not, reach out to the admissions office for clarification.
Step 6: Applying for Financial Aid
The cost of public and private four-year schools topped $10,230 and $35,830 per year, respectively, for 201-19. As tuition and fees continue to rise each year, students and their families must find ways to cut costs and avoiding crippling student debt. Fortunately, learners can find scholarships, grants, work-study programs, and assistantships that can drastically reduce expenditures.
The first step students should take is filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The federal government uses financial information provided on this form to consider cost of attendance against income to determine your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The agency then decides how much funding should be need-based (e.g. Pell Grants, Subsidized Loans, Perkins Loans, and Federal Work-Study) and non-need-based (e.g. Unsubsidized Loans, Federal Plus Loans). Colleges also use FAFSA information to award institutional and programmatic awards, making it doubly important to submit this document each year. The FAFSA deadline may be different for the federal government, your specific college, and individual state so make sure to research all dates and submit the form as soon as possible.
Other sources of financial aid degree seekers should research include scholarships and grants from local and state funding, private foundations, nonprofits, employer tuition assistance, and private financing.
Step 7: Choose Where to Attend
Students who applied for early decision admissions should receive notification by approximately December 15, while those who applied during rolling admission will wait between six and eight weeks to hear back. Individuals who took part in regular admissions may need to wait as late as March or April to receive word about their admissions status. Many schools give prospective students until May 1 to make their decision, providing students plenty of time to narrow options. According to Yang, students should use this time wisely to whittle choices. To figure out where you should attend, she suggests the following:
“If affordability is important to you, either eliminate the ones you know you can’t afford or appeal to their financial aid packages.”
Review the curricula
“Look at the curriculum of the majors or departments that accepted you — is it what you expected and will it help you achieve your career goals? Eliminate programs you don’t want to invest in and focus on the ones you do.”
See the school in person
“Narrow it down by actually visiting the schools or revisiting if you’ve already gone. Request to be hosted by a current student, sit in on a few classes both in your intended major and in other departments, and walk around campus to see if you can imagine yourself there.”
Tips for Community College Transfers
Given the rising cost of getting a higher education, many students now elect to complete two years at a community college before transferring to a four-year institution. While it’s worth it to save money, these students may face a few unique challenges when leaving their old school, applying to a new one, and getting settled in. These tips from college counselor Lindsey Conger can help make the transition easier.
- When signing up for classes, make sure the credits are transferable
Far too often, students take classes without ensuring they actually transfer to the four-year school they hope to attend. “You can find websites and other tools through your community college, and the university you want to transfer to that can help you,” says Conger. “Speak with your advisor to make a curriculum plan so you can make your time at community college count.”
- Ask lots of questions
Conger stresses the importance of asking lots of questions to ensure students understand the full picture and take advantage of any benefits or agreements between the two schools. “Make sure you know if there is an articulation agreement between your community college and university,” counsels Conger. “Ask if there are any documents you need to make sure your credits transfer and talk to officials from both schools to ensure these move from one school to the other seamlessly.”
- Get to know your professors
“Your professors can serve as mentors throughout the college admissions process,” encourages Conger. Even though students will only be at a community college for two years, they can still build meaningful professional relationships and receive mentoring. “These professors may have contacts at your new university and can help you make connections; they may also write you letters of recommendation.”
- Earn an associate degree
Rather than simply taking two years worth of classes at a community college, ensure you follow a plan of study that allows you to graduate with an actual degree. “Completing your associate degree can help make your life easier,” says Conger. “A degree can often transfer easier than individual classes and can also signifies that you’ve already completed basic general education requirements, thus negating the need to take them at the four-year university.”
- Seek out financial aid opportunities
Even though you saved some money by attending community college first, that doesn’t mean every student can pay the higher rate for their final two years. Fortunately, funding options exist to help offset these costs. “There are often scholarships available just for transfer students,” notes Conger. “Seek those out from your new school, local nonprofits, foundations, and federal/state funding sources to help pay for your education.”
Applying to College as a Non-Traditional Student
According to the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, students are considered nontraditional if they meet one of seven characteristics. These include:
- Delaying postsecondary enrollment rather than starting college directly after high school
- Attending college on a part-time basis
- Maintaining a full-time job
- Qualifying as an independent in terms of financial aid
- Having dependents other than a spouse
- Identifying as a single parent
- Not possessing a high school diploma
“Depending on the nontraditional students’ profile, the admissions process could focus more on extracurricular accomplishments rather than grades and test scores if the students has been out of school for an extended period,” notes Yang. Colleges try to be sensitive to the unique experiences and life paths of nontraditional students and work with them along their journey. “Nontraditional students may be allowed to submit letters of recommendation from employers rather than teachers, and transcripts from any college previously completed may count more than high school transcripts, as these provide a more recent screenshot of academic abilities.”
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