Applying to college can be a dizzying process. With all the advice coming from parents, teachers, peers, and counselors, even figuring out where to start can be confusing. We’ve created a step-by-step guide for getting into the college of your dreams, complete with many different resources to help you along the way.
1. Investigate college options and make your application list – Be clear about your personal needs and interests when it comes to choosing colleges. Do you want cold winters and a beautiful spring or nice weather all year round? Do you want a big school with a dedicated football fan base or a small private college with buildings older than your grandparents’ grandparents? Do you want to live on campus or off? Do you want to learn from 400-person lectures or sit in a classroom with 15 other students? Narrowing down these points is a critical step in the college application process. This article has many important points to consider when looking at different colleges to apply to. Visit schools if you can, or look for a virtual tour on their website. Make sure your short list of schools includes colleges with a variety of acceptance rates – in other words, don’t apply to only “reach” schools, this could end up quite badly.
2. Find out when the application deadlines are for all the colleges you are considering – One of the most important things when applying to any college is to be sure of the admission dates and not miss out on any important deadline information. Missing out on an opportunity to apply somewhere because you didn’t check the calendar would be very unfortunate. Sketch out a general plan of when you’ll have to start applying. College Simply is one of the many sites that provide information about admission deadlines.
3. Discover what specific materials you’ll need for the application process – College applications are often completed in one of two ways, either online or paper applications. For a successful application to any college, there are certain basic materials you will need. These usually include an essay or two, personal information, and a high school transcript. Start thinking about which teachers you’ll ask for letters of recommendation. These necessities vary from school to school, though there are many colleges that use the Common App: an online resource where college applications can be managed and completed. You can get these details about the materials required for the application process on individual college websites under the application links.
4. Make a list of scholarships and grants for which you will apply – Scholarships are often considered gifts from the government, private companies, or even individual people, because they do not have to be paid back in future. Your first step is to research and discover what kinds of scholarships are available to you, and this can be done using various sources like online scholarship databases, your high school counselor, or even the financial aid section of a college website. Next is to know when and how to apply for the available scholarships. It is also very important to know if (and how) the scholarships would affect any other financial aid from a college as detailed in the finding scholarships section of this government site. However, you also need to check with individual colleges, as policies may vary.
5. Apply for these grants and scholarships – After you have done an adequate research on which scholarships are available, decided which scholarships to apply for, and how to apply, you should begin applying. It’s never too early to start asking for free money. Cappex is one of the widely used online sites for finding and applying for scholarships.
6. Create a calendar of what you need to do when – A detailed calendar helps you keep track of what you need to do and when you will have to do it. This can include application and essay deadlines, as well as meetings with teachers or counselors. Try to schedule when you’ll start and finish your essays, as they can pile up quickly, and writing them at the last minute is absolutely NOT where you want to end up. Stick to this calendar as best as you can. Sometimes individual colleges will have checklists for you to use in the application process; add these to your calendar as well.
7. Take college entrance exams (ACT or SAT) if you haven’t already – To apply to most colleges, you’ll need to take college entrance exams. Find out test dates and sign up for the one that works best for you (you will need to create an account if you haven’t already). Sooner is better than later. For the SAT, these will be on the College Board website, and the ACT dates can be found here. Study for these tests! Though they aren’t everything in the admissions process, they are definitely important. There are free online practice tests, practice questions, and good studying tips for both the SAT and ACT. If you aren’t happy with your initial scores for the standardized test, you always have the option of taking it again. In fact, taking the test twice is usually a good idea, as some colleges will “superscore” your results, taking your highest score from each section of the test, even if those occurred on separate testing dates. Also, take BOTH the SAT and ACT, as some students do significantly better on one test than the other.
8. Go to college fairs or meet with college reps who visit your high school – Colleges often send their admission representatives to different high schools all over the country. You should take advantage of this opportunity whenever you come across one in your school and approach them. Admission representatives are always willing and ready to help and assist you with any questions and concerns. You can also include college fairs in your calendar so that you make sure to attend one or two.
9. Get letters of recommendation – Recommendation letters are one of the most important things to have when applying to colleges. For you to get a great letter of recommendation from your high school teacher, counselor, or coach, you have to know who to ask, when to ask and how to ask for it. A great recommendation letter can make all the difference and help you stand out among thousands of applicants. Be polite and give your teacher or counselor PLENTY of time to write it (2 weeks as a minimum).
10. Keep applying for grants and scholarships – Stick to your calendar and apply to as many scholarships as you have time for. Remember: free money! There are thousands of ways to earn this money, but you also want to be wary of financial scams. College Board provides ways to avoid being made victim of one of these scams.
11. Write your college application essays – Ranging from a hundred words to over five hundred words, a college entrance essay could make the difference between the chance of you being rejected or accepted by a college of your choice, especially the more selective schools. First, brainstorm topics and ideas for your essay(s). After you’ve chosen something to write about, write! And write some more. Sometimes it can be hard to come up with the perfect words, but writing gets easier as you get into the habit: try to get your voice to come through, and don’t write what you think the admissions office wants to hear. You’ll probably end up revising each essay 3 or 4 times, and it’s a good idea to ask teachers and counselors for help, and you can even find tips online. Parents and peers can also be a good resource, but make sure your essay is a reflection of yourself.
12. Visit your top choice schools and see if you can get an appointment with a college representative – If possible, visit the schools you’re applying to, and see if you can secure an appointment with a college representative from the college. Doing so will help you get an easy access to any answers to the questions and concerns you have. Helping admissions officers from the colleges get to know you on an individual level is also a good idea. The college representatives would be happy to introduce you to the various department heads or administrators that can answer your questions. Show your interest during college visits, don’t just be one of the students in the herd of tours wandering silently around campus.
13. Find out what financial aid forms each college requires – Start thinking about how you’ll fill these out. Each college has its financial aid requirements and they are often outlined on the school’s website. You should find out what financial aid forms each college requires and make sure you have a plan to get them filled out in time. To help with this, you first have to understand college financial aid and what FAFSA (federal student aid) is. As well as government aid, there are scholarships, grants, loans, and work-study programs. Keep your main focus on applying to schools, but remember that financial aid is an important aspect that you’ll need to keep in mind; this includes applying to scholarships throughout the school year.
14. Make sure everything you started in October has been completed – That includes applications, essays, audition tapes, interviews, tests, etc. You should make it a priority to stay on schedule with the college application process. It is therefore mandatory that you ensure you’ve completed everything that was on your calendar for October. This includes the essays. Even if they aren’t due for another month (or longer), giving yourself wiggle room to edit and even rewrite some parts of the essays. Once Thanksgiving break comes around, you won’t be in the mood to be (productively) working on college apps, so use the beginning and middle of November to get as much done as possible. Make sure you’ve sent in any test scores, letters of recommendation, or transcripts to the colleges that need them, and finish all interviews/audition tapes/etc. during this time. Here are some helpful tips to look at as you check things off.
15. Complete and submit applications! – Double check that all the information in your applications is correct, and proofread your essays a couple more times for good measure. As great as it may feel to finally finish writing that last essay, don’t let the relief distract you from checking your calendar. Finish and submit any applications that are due before the end of the month. Turning in an application early is definitely not a bad idea, as colleges’ online servers can get crowded and slow on that final deadline date.
16. Wrap up any last applications or essays – Usually the last of the college applications are due at the end of December, unless the school has rolling admissions (where they review applications year-round). This is the home stretch for essay-writing and application deadlines, so don’t let your energy fade. It will pay off to put 100 percent of your effort into the final applications, so you can maximize your options once you get accepted. Thank your teachers and anyone else who helped you in the process – little Starbucks gift cards go a long way!
17. Talk to your parents about financial plans – Financing your own education could prove to be very tricky, especially now that tuition is so high at schools all over the country. Talking to your parents about options to help you pay for school is very important. Loans, grants, federal financial aid, and work study programs are all great options. Your parents should be well aware of how much you are receiving in terms of grants, scholarships or even gifts, and how this will affect the cost of college. Early planning is essential as it allows time to relax and figure out plans to pay tuition. There are countless resources to help you pay for college, and learn how to do so.
18. Complete your FAFSA form online – The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) opens January 1st, and this is the primary source of financial aid for college students in the US. It is available to students at both public and private colleges, and it often provides help in paying for college (even the students who don’t think they qualify for financial aid). The CSS Profile, which is used by colleges “to assess the student’s eligibility for the college’s own institutional aid dollars.” Applying for financial aid can be a complicated process, but there are plenty of resources online and at your high school that can help your family get through it smoothly.
19. Make sure your parents or guardians file their taxes as soon as possible – This is to make sure their tax return doesn’t delay your financial package process. By doing this, you leave room for their tax returns to be refunded on time.
20. Apply for grants and scholarships with your new-found free time! – Now that all (or most) of your college applications have been submitted, you’ll have time to look for more scholarships or grants to apply to. We can’t emphasize this point enough: the more you apply for the higher your chances of getting the money!
21. Access your SAR (Student Aid Report) – Your Student Aid Report is typically available about two weeks after you file your FAFSA. It will have information about your eligibility for federal money as student aid and answer any questions you asked on your (FAFSA). Determine if there is anything that needs to be challenged on it. You will probably receive information via email on how you can access your SAR online, so be sure to check your spam folder! After receiving the student aid report, you now should make sure you understand your student aid report. Your student aid report should include your family’s expected contribution, verification, the data release number and any changes concerning FAFSA. The expected family contribution does not necessarily mean the amount your family is expected to pay. Rather, it implies the amount the government believes your family is capable of paying judging from income, assets and the number of siblings attending college at a particular time. Talk with your parents about how this affects your plans, but remember that nothing is concrete yet, as colleges can also provide you with grants, loans, and scholarships.
22. Look for acceptance letters (and emails) – After all your hard work in the fall, admissions decisions are finally on their way! Colleges often have online portals where you can check the status of your application while you wait for paper letters. As the decisions roll in, remember that your value as a student or person is not dependent on an acceptance or rejection from any certain college. Be prepared for some negative letters in the mail, especially since acceptance rates at many colleges have been dwindling for years. Make plans concerning any waitlist decisions you receive. And when you finally do get that exciting acceptance letter, it should contain the specific requirements and guidelines for enrolling in the college, which you can worry about once you’ve made your decision.
23. Compare financial aid packages – After receiving various acceptance letters from different colleges, you should critically compare the financial aid packages offered and know, for each school, exactly what the expected contribution is from your family. Comparing financial aid packages is important, as some schools may seem cheaper, though they might be offering higher loans, which will result in higher debt after graduation. FAFSA explains some more advantages of comparing them. If your first choice school turns out to be more expensive than another option, don’t be afraid to explore options with your first choice school. Vice presidents of enrollment and financial aid would be happy to discuss financing options with you and help you make the right decision.
24. Contact schools with all your questions and concerns – After receiving acceptance letters and comparing the financial aid packages, you should contact any college and ask any questions you have in mind. This helps you clarify any doubts or concerns you may have about the college enrollment deadlines, financial aid options, or even questions about life on campus.
25. Make the big decision! – After making comparisons between the various financial aid packages and asking any and all questions and concerns, it is then time to choose the school you’ll attend in the fall. Take into consideration your own learning abilities, weak points and interests. Consider the strengths and weaknesses of each college you’re considering. If possible, even visit the campuses or attend an Accepted Student Day to really get a feel for the school. This is the most important choice you’ll make in this process, and it can seem scary. But, if you weigh your options carefully and decide what feels best for you (not what your parents think, not what the internet says), things should go well (and if worst comes to worst, you always have the option of transferring).
26. Alert the school of your choice – Follow the steps for notifying the school you’ll be attending, and make sure to keep a checklist of anything else you have to do after letting them know. This will probably include sending a final transcript, among other things. If you’ve been admitted to your first choice college and intend to enroll, it’s also courteous to take yourself off any wait lists at other colleges to make room for other students.
27. Pay your deposit to ensure enrollment at your college – The next step is to pay your enrollment deposit, which is usually due around the end of April/beginning of May. Paying your college deposit (on time!) secures your place at the school come fall semester. This is also a good time to start keeping a file of financial aid and monetary information regarding your college. Make copies of all deposits, payments, and financial aid package offers to keep and file away.
28. Test out of as many classes as you can use AP (Advanced Placement) exams – AP exams are often taken each year by students in participating high schools in Canada and the United States. AP classes can be as challenging as the various college introductory courses, so many high schools place weight on these classes when calculating students’ GPAs. By taking an advanced placement class in high school, you are sending the message to colleges that you are willing and ready to tackle the workload after high school. The AP exams, which take place in May, determine whether or not you’ll be eligible to receive college credit for the class taken. Depending on the college or university, only certain AP classes can be redeemed for credit (this also depends on the score you received). Make sure to check if your college will accept AP credits for the classes you’ve taken. Passing an AP test (or two or three) can earn you college credits, therefore saving you money once you get to school, if you decide to graduate early using these credits.
29. Look into summer jobs and plan a budget – The summer after senior year is a great time to get work experience and save money for school. There are countless resources online to find volunteer work, paid jobs, internships and other opportunities in your area. You can also ask adults in your life for opportunities at their workplace.
30. Make sure all financial issues have been resolved – Make sure to communicate with your parents and your college to resolve any outstanding issues regarding financial aid or your enrollment deposit. Carefully go through all your financial aid paperwork and ensure there are no errors.
31. Look into orientation information, move-in information, and class availability – It’s a good idea to make a checklist for the rest of your summer early on. Some colleges require you to fill out forms, turn in documents, or even take placement tests over the summer, and these are deadlines you don’t want to miss.
32. Graduate! – In your last month of high school, you should absolutely make the most out of every opportunity to have fun. Keep in mind, however, that most college acceptances are provisional; you still have to pass core classes and graduate on time.
33. Work a summer job and save for college – If you don’t already have plans to travel the world this summer, you should look into getting a job for the next couple of months. It will help you start saving to pay off any student loans or expenses you’ll encounter in college.
34. Celebrate reaching the end of this long process! – Your hard work in high school is paying off, and you should be proud of everything you’ve accomplished, especially with the college acceptance rates steadily dropping. Enjoy your summer, but remember that in a few months you’ll be encountering your biggest academic challenge yet, along with moving away from home. Spend time with friends and get excited