Overview of the College Application Process

University application form

Applying to college can be one of the most daunting tasks a student will face over the course of a high school career. While there seem to be an endless series of steps to follow and paperwork to finish, if you stay organized, it is possible to complete the process with some sanity intact.

Expressing Interest

Expressing interest in a college is perhaps one of the more overlooked, but incredibly crucial aspects of applying to colleges. Hans Hanson, of Total College Advisory notes that if you do not express interest in a college before you apply, you are completely unknown to the admissions officers and consequently are considered a 'stealth candidate.'

If it comes down to choosing between two equal candidates, the one who is unknown to admissions will typically lose. Generally, you want to try to express interest as early as your sophomore year of high school.

Creating a Student Profile Sheet

One way to make contact with admissions officers early on is to email them expressing your interest and attaching a student profile sheet. Hanson explains, "The student profile sheet is basically a summary of the student's accomplishments thus far."

Once you contact admissions, they will often start a file on you. Ideally, Hanson suggests, you'll send this student profile sheet to colleges you're interested in during your sophomore year. You should then update it periodically to include new interests.

While not all colleges track student interest, it still is boon in the application process. If a student does it with the intention of learning more about the college, then even if the admissions department isn't tracking student interest, you'll still come out ahead of the game.

Visit Campuses

Visits are incredibly crucial to helping students decide if a school is a good fit for them. Not only does it help a student get a picture of what campus life is like, it also helps the prospective student know whether his intended program is all that he thought it would be.

When you go, take a campus tour, make sure you get to see at least one class that has to do with the major you're interested in, and ask lots of questions. Try to go while school is in session.

Finding the Right Fit

As much as expressing interest in a college is about getting you on their radar, it's also about making sure you find the right fit. Christopher Dorsey, Director of Admissions at Eastern Connecticut State University says, "Students must visit the colleges that they are interested in attending. It is difficult for student to get the 'this is the right match' feel, without spending time on campuses." He also cautions students against putting too much pressure on themselves to get into a highly-rated college.

"College, like life, is what you make of it and students may have a better experience at a college that is a better fit than (they would) at the most selective college that they are admitted to."

The Application

According to Dorsey, your sophomore and the beginning of your junior years should be spent researching and narrowing down your list of colleges. However, once you have your list narrowed down, it's time to start applying.

Common App

The Common App is a nonprofit organization that allows you to upload materials for all your applications and send one application to multiple colleges. It's ideal because it makes it easy for students to gather all of their materials in one spot and it makes it easy for colleges to receive those materials.

Not all schools accept the common app - you can search member schools from the Common App website or you can ask the school to which you're applying if they take the Common App. It's important to note that in addition, many schools have a university-specific application requirement that a student must fill out for the application to be complete.

Also, keep in mind that some schools have an online application of their own in addition to accepting the common app. The bottom line is, make sure you read the admissions website of where you are applying to ensure you get all the required materials in.

How Many College Applications to Submit

A lot of students go the route of applying to many colleges in the hopes of getting into one. However, you should know that if you search your colleges well, you shouldn't have to do that. The College Board recommends that students submit four to eight applications, spread across three categories:

  • Safety - A safety school is one where you are highly likely to get in. For a lot of students, this can be a community college with an open admissions policy and a good reciprocal program with a four-year university. You should apply to one safety school, although some students consider applying to an academic safety school and a financial safety school.
  • Possible - These are schools that seem like a good fit for you. You fit in with their average scores, your grades are consistent with the other students they report admitting and you like their programs. These are the schools that you want to attend, and your top picks should be in this category. Submit two to four applications in this category.
  • Reach - These are schools that you may want to go to, but they are less likely to admit you. These should be schools where you could potentially get in, but where the competition is intense. You should submit only one or two applications in this category.

If you're not sure where a school would fall on your list, you can use an online admissions calculator to help you figure it out. While they are not a guarantee of admission, they can give you a realistic idea of where you fall compared to other students applying. Fill out basic information about your GPA, test scores, and activities, and the tool will tell you how likely you are to be admitted.

When to Apply

Every college has its own deadline for application materials. You should make a point to make careful note of deadlines of the schools you want to apply to. To help keep everything straight, Dorsey advises students to, "work closely with their guidance counselor to make sure all materials are submitted on time." Missing deadlines is one of the biggest mistakes Dorsey sees students make in the application process.

You can get this information on websites of the colleges you are applying to, or by calling the admissions office and asking. It should be noted however, if you are applying early action or early decision, the College Board timeline suggests that you can expect to spend the fall of your senior year filling out applications and being done by mid-November at the latest.

When to Take the SAT or ACT

There are lots of theories as to the best way to tackle the almighty SAT or ACT. Hanson suggests taking it three times: once at the end of your sophomore year, once at the beginning of your junior year and once at the end of your junior year. This way, you have the opportunity to practice test taking skills, improve your score and take the most advantage of colleges whose policies allow them to super-score the SAT or ACT. Super-scoring is a practice where colleges take the best scores from each individual section rather than the best overall score.


Application fees can vary widely per college, but you can expect to spend about $30 to $40 per paper application on average. However, many schools waive the fees if you apply online. In addition, the Common App allows you to ask for a fee waiver on your profile page.

Early Decision, Early Action and Regular Decision

Early decision and early action are two application options that allow a student to demonstrate committed interest to a particular school. Admissions officers like the programs because it allows them to select the students who are most likely to attend. However, they definitely come with some caveats.

Early Decision

Applying to a college as an early decision applicant means that you are in essence, telling the college that should they accept you, you will go there. The College Board notes that the application is binding - you are committing yourself to attending the institution. Hanson notes that while it can be a great way to bolster your chances of getting admitted, not all students should apply early decision. Some things to know about early decision include:

  • You can still apply to other colleges via regular decision deadlines. However, if you get accepted to the college where you applied early decision, you're obligated to withdraw your applications at the other universities.
  • If you need to see how much financial aid a college can give you, early decision is not the right choice for you.
  • Early decision is a great option for a student who does not need financial aid, has a strong application already, and is 100% positive that they want to attend the college in question.

One nice thing about early decision is that you'll know by December or January whether you were accepted.

Early Action

Early action is a little different than early decision. With early action you are also expressing a strong interest in the college of your choice, however, the decision is non-binding. Typically, you can apply to multiple schools via early action, and you are still free to decline if you are accepted.

Hanson says, "I have absolutely no doubt that applying early helps bolster your chances at gaining an acceptance letter." From the college's perspective, they want to try to admit students who plan on attending because the reality is, they have seats they need to fill to keep the college in business.

Regular Decision

All colleges have a regular decision deadline, although some colleges have rolling admissions - where they take applications on an ongoing basis until seats fill up. Regular decision is a great option for your safety schools.

Standing Out in the Crowd

What helps you get noticed in the seas of college applicants?

The Essay

The college essay is one of the most daunting tasks a senior will have to complete to get admitted to college. It's also one of the things that will make a student stand out in the application pool.

The MIT admissions department emphasizes the importance of making the college admissions essay yours, and telling your story in an interesting, but clear, way. Dorsey echoes this sentiment, stating, "We read too many essays that have been over-edited by parents, teachers, or guidance counselors. It is refreshing reading an essay that is truly written in the voice of an 18 year old." Of course, the essay should be well written and formal, but as Dorsey puts it, "The essay is the students chance to tell us who THEY are."

The College Interview

Not all colleges require an interview, but chances are, if you're applying to a highly selective school, you may find yourself sitting across from an alumnus that lives in your area, desperately trying to explain why you want to go to this college. To ace the college interview:

  • Rehearse a few answers to commonly asked interview questions.
  • Dress for an interview. There are no hard and fast rules about how you should dress, however, showing up in jeans and flip-flops is inappropriate.
  • Make sure you understand the college mission and the campus vibe. Be prepared to explain how and why you believe you are a good fit for that particular school.

Letters of Recommendations

Your application will generally include at least one, if not two to three, letters of recommendation (LOR). These recommendations help the admissions office complete a picture of you and how you might fit at their school. Of course the best way to make sure you have great LORs is to make sure that you take your high school years to build strong relationships with the teachers you have.

In addition, Montgomery Educational Consulting gives several tips for getting great letters:

  • Think about who you are asking to write your LOR. The people you ask should know you well and be able to speak to your work and personality.
  • Choose at least one teacher from a core academic discipline.
  • Remember that you are asking a favor - ask for your LOR at least a couple months in advance of a deadline.
  • Make sure that you give your recommender adequate information, including:
    • Your resume
    • Addresses and information for the programs you're applying to
    • Your full contact information including email, address and phone number in case there are questions

Always make sure that you follow up with a thank you note to let the recommender know that you appreciated their time.

After You Get In

You've applied to college, you got in and now you need to decide where to go. While the process is basically over, you still have a few details to attend to.

Events for Accepted Students

Schools often host events around the country and once you get accepted to that school, you are likely to receive an invitation or two to attend. This is a great chance to go talk to alumni of the school and ask questions about their experiences. It's also a good chance to help you see the culture of the school you may attend.

While it doesn't replace a campus visit, if you are undecided, an event can help give you a feel for what the university is like.

Financial Aid

Securing financial aid is a big part of the decision making process. Your school will mail you a financial aid offering with your acceptance letter or shortly thereafter. In addition, don't forget to apply to scholarships, etc. Even little ones can make a big difference in your total net price.

Keep in mind that if you don't get the financial aid package you want from the college you'd most like to attend, it's okay to call and ask them if you can have more money. To do this the most effectively, it's helpful to have an acceptance to a comparable college with their financial aid. Hanson notes, "Leveraging your financial aid packages in this way will ensure that you get the most money you can."

Overview of What to Do When

The college search and application process is a long one. Here is an overview of what to do when:

Sophomore Year

  • Begin searching for colleges that fit your needs academically as well as financially.
  • Reach out to the admissions offices of the colleges you are interested in. Create a student profile, listing your achievements and accomplishments.
  • Plan to visit some of the schools on your list during June and August (between your sophomore and junior year.)
  • Take the spring SAT.

Junior Year

  • Take the PSAT in the fall of your junior year.
  • Finish visiting any colleges that you haven't visited yet.
  • Finalize your college list.
  • Begin research scholarships that you might qualify for.
  • Take the SAT in winter of your junior year, as well as in the spring.
  • Common App opens August 1. Start the gathering your application materials.
  • Being working on the required essays.

Senior Year (Early Admissions)

  • By the end of August, finish your required essays.
  • Take the SAT one more time if you feel your score can significantly improve.
  • Early in September, ask for any required letters of recommendation.
  • Have a goal to finish your applications by mid-October. This way, you have a bit of wiggle room if something goes wrong.
  • In January, fill out the FAFSA and then continue applying for scholarships.
  • In the spring, let the colleges you applied to know whether you're coming.

If you are applying regular decision, you still have the same tasks, but they do not need to be done quite so early. With that said, keep in mind that it's best to apply for financial aid in January.

Keep It Fun and Exciting

Believe it or not, college admissions can be an exciting time to begin a new adventure. Too often, it's full of stress and tension. However, Dorsey notes, "Students should treat the college search as an exciting time in their lives and not a life and death search."

Rest assured, there is a college that fits exactly what you want to do and where you will find a home. Take your time, do your research, and regardless of what happens, you will come out on top.

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Overview of the College Application Process