How to Apply for College: Process, University Application Tips & Advice

As a high school senior about to graduate, you feel like you’re at the edge of a cliff. You’ve had a program to follow all your life so far, and you’ve been told where to go and what to do next.

High school graduation marks the end of all that.

Suddenly, your legal adulthood begins, and your childhood safety net disappears. Out of nowhere, you have to decide for yourself what to do next!

Amid all this confusion, stress, and excitement, you’re also expected to magically know everything about applying to college. Some high schools are better than others in guiding their soon-to-be graduates. However, most students will still have at least a question or two about this process.

In this guide, we’ve laid out everything you need to know about the steps to apply for college. 

Let’s get to it!

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An Overview of Applying to College

The college application process is somewhat complicated, so it’s important to step back and see the whole picture first. During your final classes of high school and working on getting those SAT and ACT scores up, you’re also supposed to be gathering the right documents, visiting colleges, and meeting application deadlines. 

It can feel overwhelming, but we’ll break this undertaking into five parts:

  1. Choosing the right colleges for your goals and needs;
  2. Compiling all the required documents for applications;
  3. Managing your time to meet deadlines;
  4. Filling out applications correctly;
  5. Getting into college without burning out

In other words, we’ll draw out a map for your entire senior year. By following this guide, you’ll make it to graduation with your sanity and energy still intact. Walking across the stage with your diploma, you can smile and cheer, knowing that your dream college is waiting on the other side.

1. Choosing a College

You can’t start the college application process without knowing which college to choose. Further, you can’t start looking for them without knowing your priorities and goals when it comes to higher education.

Before you do anything else, sit down and make a list of what you want out of your college experience. If you have a certain career path in mind, that’s great — one of the most important factors for the college will be whether it’s the right career fit for you. But, if you don’t know exactly what to do next, it’s absolutely normal as well! Choosing a college, think if there is a specific path or major you’re looking to take, such as engineering or literature? Are there certain programs for athletics or extracurricular activities that are important to you?

You’ll also need to consider whether you want to live at home, stay nearby, or move further away. Of course, all of this also ties into affordability and the availability of financial assistance. 

Related Read: How to Use Goodwall’s Web Profile to Score a Scholarship & Get Into College

Research Online and Visit In Person

After you’ve figured out what the right college means for you, compare your priority list to universities as you explore your options. Researching colleges online helps you tell immediately if the school checks off most of your boxes.

At the same time, colleges and universities know that they often can’t get students to enroll unless they impress them online first. Touring campuses in person is essential for that exact reason and cannot be fully replaced by virtual tours. Colleges can hire a marketing expert, but can they follow through on their promises? Visiting in person will allow you to see if the college is all it’s hyped up to be. You can also decide if you like the overall vibe and the people.

Create a List of College Contenders

Write out a list of your top choices, including everything from your dream school to worthy competitors. Don’t forget to have backup options, too. Some colleges are more competitive than others, so applying to several schools will give you options once those decision letters come in the mail.

2. Documents to Gather

Researching and visiting colleges can be fun and exciting, but the application process is not as stimulating. Gathering piles of documents and filling out endless forms isn’t exactly how most high schoolers want to spend their free time. Unfortunately, this process is an unavoidable and crucial part of your college search experience.

Here are some things you should look for or ask about:

  • Recommendation letter requirements
  • Personal statement essay prompt
  • Writing samples or portfolios
  • Test score requirements
  • Transcript
  • Application form

Most colleges require that you compile these documents into one application file so that they can get a well-rounded idea about your academic achievements, personal qualities, interests, and goals. Some programs require even more documents, especially if they are highly specialized areas or very competitive.

Personal Statements

A personal statement essay is your chance to sell yourself to the university outside of good test scores and GPA. Colleges typically provide a prompt with a word count and general questions you should answer, but not always. 

When drafting your personal statement, make sure you express your personality and talk about your interests. This is your time to show them who you are and how you’ll contribute to the school. Ultimately, you want to persuade them that you are the type of student they’re dying to have enrolled.

College Essays

Beyond the personal statement, you might also be asked to write another essay. In that case, the college will offer an outline or at least a word count and a topic.

Combined with the personal statement, these college application essays should give the school a good idea of you as a person and what has brought you to apply to their college. It’s always best to mention your interests, a major, or a specialty or a college minor you want to pursue, and how that fits into your goals.

Related Read: 10+ Types of Colleges and the Admission Requirements by College Type

Letters of Recommendations

Applying to college, you’ll almost always be asked to supply at least one letter of recommendation. Often, you might even need two or three of them.

Letters of recommendation are formal letters from professional connections sent directly to the school without your review. The idea is that you are asking people who have worked with you professionally at jobs or schools and can vouch for your work ethic and personality. To do this honestly and straightforwardly, letter creators must have the privacy to write exactly what they think about you.

Writing a letter of recommendation can take time and thought, especially when the person is in a position where they get a lot of requests. There is etiquette to asking someone to write a recommendation letter for you as well — make sure you do it politely, explain why it’s important for you, and don’t forget to thank them for all their time and thought they put into it. 

Test Scores and Transcripts

Each college has its standards for SAT scores, ACT scores, and GPAs. When it comes to SAT and ACT scores, it’s usually best to try to rank in the top 25%. This score will show that you perform above average and will be able to handle higher-level work.

To get an idea, the top 25 schools, according to U.S. News, generally admit students with an average SAT score between 1400 and 1545. If you’re curious about a specific school, you can often find their minimum test score requirement and research what their average test scores are for admittance.

When it comes to grades, most colleges ask for a 2.0 GPA and above, and more selective schools will look for a 3.0 GPA or higher. Keep in mind that if you’re interested in financial aid and scholarships, there are minimum GPA requirements for those as well. 

To show the list of classes you’ve taken and your grades, you’ll have to submit your official transcripts. This involves asking school staff to send the official sealed documents straight to the school — you can’t open them!

Samples and Portfolios

For most liberal arts colleges and state school programs, delivering a personal statement and essay combined with test scores is enough proof of your abilities. However, for some competitive programs or specialized tracks, you might need to assemble a portfolio.

For example, if you are pursuing an art degree, you might need to compile samples of your work for consideration. Ideally, you’ll be working throughout your high school education to build up your skills and work. Make sure to pick the projects you’re most proud of and present them in a professional, interesting way!

Related Read: 25+ Books for College Students to Read in University

3. When to Apply

You might be thinking, “it’s easy to find college application deadlines on the school’s website.” But, there are several different types of application deadlines you should be aware of.

While there are standard ways to set up application deadlines for colleges, each school has its own way of doing things. Some colleges have rolling application periods, while others have strict dates. So, what do all these deadlines mean?

Regular Decision

Colleges that conform to the standard decision system typically set an application deadline between January 1st and January 15th. To be sure, check the websites of each of your chosen schools to mark your calendar.

In this system, all interested students apply simultaneously and wait to be notified of the college’s decision in March. Generally, decision letters arrive in the mail by late March, and students are expected to respond by May 1st, which is the official college decision day for seniors.

One of the great things about the standard decision process is that students can take their time to research and compile their documents for the application. While other deadlines and decision systems rush students to apply, this one puts your mind at ease. What’s more, students can use all their grades and accomplishments for the first half of the senior year on their application.

Unfortunately, it can be tough to wait until March to find out if you’ve been accepted. Further, it’s even harder if all the decisions are rejections. Without a single acceptance, your only course of action is to try to apply to schools with a rolling decision system.

Rolling Decision

Certain colleges prefer to open the floodgates and process applications as they’re submitted. This type of application policy is called a “rolling decision.” In a rolling decision system, acceptances are processed on a first-come, first-served basis.

Some benefits to this system are that you can apply whenever you’re ready. If you’re eager to find out whether you’ll be accepted into a certain college, you can apply as early as you’d like. Rolling application periods also run much longer than other types of deadline systems, so you can wait to get grades and accomplishments from later in your senior year if you need that extra boost.

If there’s no reason for you to wait, then applying early on in the period will get you an answer right away. Knowing whether you have already been accepted to at least one school will help with the rest of your application efforts. At the same time, colleges have a maximum capacity for the number of students they can accept, so there may be no more slots left if you apply later down the road.

But, if the program you want to enter is highly competitive, you’ll have the opportunity to show your serious interest by applying during deadlines of heightened interest, such as the ones below.

Related Read: How to Save Money in College: 15+ Easy Ways w/ Tips & Advice

Early Decision

Some colleges, especially competitive ones, use an early decision or early acceptance policy, usually accepting applications between October 15th and November 15th. By applying this early in the year, students can find out if they’ve been accepted by mid-December.

In this system, acceptance or rejection are not the only two options. You could be fully rejected, or the college could choose to defer you to the regular decision round among the rest of the student applications in January. Some schools also offer a second round of early decision, which occurs at the same time as the regular round of decisions.

While applying during early decision shows your high interest in the school, the decision is binding. In other words, if you are accepted, you must attend the school unless you are financially unable. What’s more, you must withdraw all your applications to other colleges.

Early acceptance has many advantages if you are confident you want to attend the school:

  • Early decision communicates to the college that they are your first choice, which in case of some schools helps your chances;
  • You’re competing against a much smaller group of applicants;
  • Once you’re accepted, you can relax for the rest of the year.

Early acceptance, however, requires you to begin your college research process much earlier. You’ll want to start in junior year or even earlier to be sure that you’re choosing the right school. You’ll also be unable to provide any grades, accomplishments, or recommendation letters from your senior year classes and teachers.

Also, you’ll have to get started on financial aid forms much earlier to ensure you receive your financial assistance package along with your acceptance.

Early Action

Early action is a lot like early decision, except this process is nonbinding. While you can send in your application earlier, and you’ll show your high interest, you won’t have to attend the school if you get accepted.

These applications are typically due between October 1st and November 15th, but you still have until May 1st to decide with the rest of the regular applicants. And, you’ll find out the decision earlier, receiving the official mail in mid-December.

The drawback to this application process is that it offers a slight advantage, but not much of it. You’ll also have to prepare to apply for both college and scholarship or grant earlier than normal, so you won’t have the benefit of any of your senior year accomplishments. The biggest benefit to early action is finding out the college’s decision earlier and still being able to compare its offer to other colleges. 

Related Read: What Is a Scholarship? How Do Scholarships Work?

Single Choice Early Action

Single-Choice Early Action (SCEA), also known as Restrictive Early Action (REA), is less common for regular colleges, but it’s most popular among Ivy League universities. These schools are highly competitive with each other, so they pressure applicants to choose one or the other early on. For example, universities such as Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Notre Dame, and Stanford all have this system in place.

The college allows applicants to apply in SCEA and REA programs as long as they do not apply to other universities at the same time. For example, if you choose to apply during Harvard’s SCEA period, you are not allowed to also apply to the same decision system at Princeton.

Each of these schools has its own specifics, however, so it’s important to read through all the fine print. Some of these universities restrict you from applying to other private schools but not public schools. Others allow applications only at universities that employ the rolling decision system.

With all these rules in place, SCEA and REA are not binding — these schools just want to ensure they are your first choice as much as you’re implying they are. You’ll find out their decision in mid-December, just like in the normal Early Action periods, and you’ll have until May 1st to decide.

4. Filling Out Applications

Don’t forget the most important step of all in the college application process — filling out the application form! These forms are pretty standard and require personal information to help the school identify you and link all your other documents to the correct file. 

These forms may be tedious to fill out, but thankfully you won’t have to think too hard about what to write down. Most of the information is standard, such as your name, address, employment status, and more.

You’ll also want to make sure you apply for scholarships and financial aid along with your college application. Financial assistance applications require more confidential information like your social security, household income, and similar details. Scholarship applications typically focus more on essays, proof of accomplishments, and engagement in the community.

Related Read: Why Are Scholarships Important? 7+ Benefits of Scholarships 🎓

5. Tips and Advice

First and foremost: the earlier you start, the better. It never hurts to give yourself ample time for research, college visits, and compiling documents. 

Second, if you are serious about getting accepted to a college with a rolling decision system, it’s best to submit your application as soon as possible to get ahead of other students. If you want to attend a school with early action or early decision options, apply during those periods unless you need extra time to boost your grades.

Third, plan your campus visits according to your priorities. If you want a quiet visit without the distractions of school in progress, visit a university during a break. If you’re looking to get a feel of campus life and have access to all the buildings, schedule your tour while school is in session.

Finally, prepare questions ahead of time, focusing on what your experience will be like at the school. Some great questions to ask admissions include what it’s like to live on campus and how to change majors.

College Application FAQs

Need some more advice on applying to college or what the process looks like?

Below are some frequently asked questions from high school seniors looking to apply to college.

What does a good college application look like?

The best college applications include a relatively high GPA, great SAT or ACT scores, and a transcript that shows a challenging, relevant course load. These applications are strengthened further by an interesting and authentic personal statement and raving recommendation letters.

What are some options for applying to college with no money?

Financial assistance is available through our government for those who are financially struggling. You can also apply to scholarships offered by the schools or separate organizations, apply for work-study programs, or consider taking out loans.

Who should I ask for a recommendation letter?

The best people to ask for recommendation letters are teachers with whom you were most engaged and received the best grades. You can also ask coaches from your athletic programs or staff that supervised clubs you were involved in. If you volunteered or worked at other organizations or events, you can also ask the managers or people in charge with whom you worked directly.

How early can I apply to college?

For the most part, you can apply to colleges as early as you’d like. Most universities require that you have a high school degree before you move on, but you can apply early with the intent to finish your high school education. But remember, the biggest challenge is competing with other high schoolers with more grades, courses, and experiences than you if you apply too early.

Related Read: Ultimate College Packing List: Things to Take When Heading to University

Now — Prepare for Those College Acceptance Letters!

Braced with insider knowledge on how to apply for college and a detailed checklist, you’ll be miles ahead of your senior classmates. Put your best foot forward with an honest, detailed, and stellar application.

If you need further help or advice in your college journey, Goodwall is here with a wealth of resources. From the beginning to the end of your college experience, you can come to us for helpful academic tips and support.

Check out the education section of our blog for more!

Related Read: What is a Junior College?

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Goodwall Team
Written By Goodwall Team
This article was written by the Goodwall team or by a contributor for publication on Goodwall. Goodwall is dedicated to helping students, entrepreneurs, and young professionals reach their full potential. We'll share thought-provoking and supportive articles on career advice, self-improvement, navigating the college landscape, climate action, social impact, and more. On the business side, we'll talk about SMB subjects related to community, diversity, talent acquisition, case studies, and enterprise.

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