Saturday, July 13, 2024

How to Apply for College in 9 Simple Steps

You’ve done the hard work in high school, shown passion for extracurriculars, and crushed your exams. Now, it’s time to get ready for the next big move — applying for college! ✨🎓

Sure, there’s a lot riding on these applications, but it’s all about taking it step by step. Discover the nine steps that can boost your chances of getting accepted into your dream school

Before you know it, you’ll learn how to apply for college, be strolling across the quad, ready to conquer the world! 💪   

male and female students studying the requirements for a successful college application
Navigate college admissions with these expert tips and successfully land a spot in your dream school. Photo: Milkos/Depositphotos 

1. Create Your College List: Where Do You Want to Apply?

Ready to start applying for college? Let’s kick things off by figuring out where you want to go to school. 🙌

Organize your college options based on your chances of getting in — it’ll be like giving yourself a friendly nudge towards better odds of acceptance. Don’t forget to explore alternative schools as a backup plan in case things don’t go exactly as planned. 🤔

But if you’re still worried about whether or not you’re going to be accepted, turn to a college acceptance calculator rather than a crystal ball. 🔮

Based on your coursework, grades, extracurricular activities, class rank, test scores, and intended majors, a college acceptance calculator can help you sort possible colleges into three categories: safety, probable, and reach

male student wearing headphones learning how to apply for college while looking at his college list on his laptop
Curate your college list based on your desired schools, and choose one that will nurture your passions and match your goals. Photo: Wes Hicks/Unsplash
  • Safety: The “hell yeah” category that includes colleges where you have a really good chance of getting accepted (80 percent or higher). They might not be your top pick, but they’ll be there for you if the others don’t work out.
  • Probable: The “maybe” category where your odds of acceptance are between 30 percent and 80 percent. Your academic credentials are in the same ballpark as the school’s average for accepted students.
  • Reach: The “I’m dreaming but it’s worth a shot” category where your odds of getting accepted are below 30 percent. It might seem like a long shot, but hey, anything can happen!

Now, some folks recommend applying to four to eight schools, but the total number of applications will be totally up to you. 🏫

TIP: Consider affordability, captivating extracurriculars, and distinctive programs to refine your college options and ensure customized applications to your desired schools. 

Figure out what type of institution it is you want (whether public, private, or trade), then attend college tours to check if the culture, local scene, and academic standards are the right match.

2. Make Your College Application Action Plan

Now, it’s time to kick things up a notch. Create an overview of everything you need to do for the entire college application process, including a clear roadmap and timeline for each step. 📆

Let’s talk strategy: if you want to crush the college application game, you’re going to need a detailed to-do list

Here are two key things to keep in mind when putting that list together:

List All Your Application Requirements

You have to know the exact application requirements you need to prepare for each college. This is the foundation of your action plan, so don’t skip this step! ✅

Here are common and essential ingredients that complete your college application masterpiece:

  • Completed application form: A college application form asks for information about your academics, extracurriculars, and personal background. To ace this step, remember to be comprehensive and to proofread your application — don’t let simple mistakes slip through.
  • Application fee: Colleges may charge an application fee, ranging from $50 to $100, which covers the purchase and maintenance of the online application system, as well as the price of examining applications.. A portion of the fee is also used to cover fee waivers for applicants from low-income families.
  • High school transcripts: These show off the impressive classes you’ve taken and highlight your grades to admissions officers. Make sure to request them early, double-check the deadline for each school on your list, and remember to submit these on time.
  • Standardized tests: Despite more and more schools moving toward test-optional policies, submitting strong test scores can enhance your application and demonstrate academic aptitude.
  • Letters of recommendation: Request recommendation letters from one or two teachers who know you well and can speak favorably about your academic strengths and personality. It’s best to give them plenty of time to think it over and make the letter, so ask at the end of 11th grade. 
  • Personal essay: Expect to write a 300 to 500-word essay (sometimes two) on a chosen topic to help the selection committee know who you are beyond your GPA and test scores. 
  • Supplemental resume: This shows what you’re passionate about and what you’ve accomplished — include a brief description of each activity, how long you participated, and any leadership roles held or awards received. 
male student listing down the requirements for a successful college application
Start the application process early and allot ample time to research, collect necessary documents, and write essays to avoid a last-minute rush. Photo: monkeybusiness/Depositphotos

Note Your Application Deadlines

Some college applications can be more demanding because they feature complicated sections or require tough-to-get documents. 📋

This means that deadlines will not be the same for all the schools you’re eyeing. To make sure that your efforts are not wasted, keep track of these important dates in your mobile (or actual) calendar. 📱

The first step is to check the college’s website and find its specified college application deadline. From there, you can plan your moves several months to a year in advance to ensure a well-organized and stress-free college application. 

happy female student checking the deadlines of multiple college applications
Note your application deadlines and be punctual in submitting your requirements. Photo: voronaman/Depositphotos

Note: Consider when you want to apply for college — during early, regular, or rolling admissions — and see if the schools you’re applying to offer all these options. 

Due to less competition, early applications boost your chances of being accepted to college, whereas rolling admissions offer shorter response times and support in weighing several acceptance possibilities.

You can use the following timeline as a model to make sure your applications are filed on time:

January to April (Junior Year)Prepare for AP exams in MayPlan ACT or SAT test datesSchedule college campus visits
May (Junior Year)Take AP examsRequest letters of recommendation
June to August (between Junior and Senior Year)Take the final ACT or SATOpen a Common App account (if you’re using the app)Start brainstorming and drafting your personal essay on the Common AppComplete your college campus visits
September (Senior Year)Ask for feedback and finish your personal essay on the Common AppFinalize your list of college optionsRequest the scores of your standardized testsMake a choice between Early Action and Early DecisionFollow up on your letters of recommendation
October (Senior Year)Complete your submissions to Early Action or Early Decision schools
November (Senior Year)Finish your essays for regular decision colleges (ideally before Thanksgiving!)
December (Senior Year)Finalize your submission to regular decision collegesCheck acceptances from Early Action or Early Decision colleges
January to March (Senior Year)Research and apply for college scholarshipsWhen available, accomplish admission interviews
March to April (Senior Year)Check acceptances from regular decision collegesWhen applicable, submit waitlist letters to colleges that listed you on their waitlistWhen applicable, submit appeal letters to colleges that rejected your applicationsMake a final decision about your college choice and submit your deposit before May 1
May (Senior Year)Remember to get back to those who wrote letters of recommendation and express gratitude

3. Ace Your Standardized Tests

While they’re not the sole determining factor, ACT or SAT scores play a significant role in college applications because it indicates your readiness for college-level courses

By evaluating your academic knowledge and critical thinking skills, they offer colleges insights into your preparedness. 💪

It is important to remember to check whether your dream schools have adopted test-optional policies, as many colleges have embraced this approach. This allows you to allocate your time and energy towards fulfilling other application requirements. 

However, even when optional, a strong test score can certainly enhance your application and make it stand out. ⭐

female high school student focusing on answering SAT exam in preparation for college applications
Although some colleges adopted test-optional policies, a strong test score can still enhance your college application and make it stand out. Photo: lightpoet/Depositphotos

It is advisable to take your chosen exam during your junior year of high school. This ensures that you will have ample time to retake the test if necessary before your college applications are due.

TIP: Experts advise students to start studying and take practice tests during the summer between their sophomore and junior year. 

READ MORE: SAT Dates and Deadlines: Quick Guide and Tips [2023-2024]

4. Receive Stellar Letters of Recommendation

Your GPA and standardized test scores may prove that you’re a good student, but numbers don’t tell the whole story

This is where recommendation letters come in. It plays the crucial role of providing colleges with deeper insights into an applicant’s character and abilities and showcases how they can contribute to the college and its community through personal stories of perseverance and passion. ❤️‍🔥

When it comes to selecting the people to help with this requirement, base your options on the college requirements of your target school. Letters from high school teachers, coaches, and counselors are often preferred, but remember to choose someone who can highlight your strengths, work ethic, and personality. And when you ask them, be super polite and considerate of their time. 💯

happy female teacher writing an effective recommendation letter for a successful college application of her students
When preparing your college applications, do not hesitate to seek assistance from educators, advisors, or mentors. Photo: OlezzoSimona/Depositphotos

Make sure to approach your chosen recommenders at least six weeks before the application deadline or by the end of 11th grade. Set up a meeting to explain your college plans and why you think their recommendation would be awesome. ⏰

Take the time to provide information (such as accomplishments and aspirations) on impactful projects or qualities they could highlight in the letter. 

Good recommendation letters are descriptive and personal, and they complement whatever information can be found in the application. 🥇

READ MORE: How to Get a Killer Letter of Recommendation

5. Write Killer College Essays

Crafting a remarkable personal essay for college applications may seem overwhelming, but there are key elements and techniques that will set your essay apart and leave a lasting impression on admission officers. 👌

Understanding the purpose of your college essay is a must. It’s a gateway to showcase your character, passions, and individuality beyond numbers and grades — a chance to reveal why you would be a valuable pick. 

Note: Depending on the prompt, the essay is where you can present your goals, passions, challenges, or even your coronavirus story. 🔎

smiling female student writing a personal essay on her laptop to complete her college applications
Remember to highlight exceptional abilities, accomplishments, and non-academic activities when writing your college application essays. Photo: sirikornt/Depositphotos 

When it comes to length, the essay should be 650 words — be concise and thoughtful because every word counts. ✍️

Check out these quick tips that can help you nail your college application essay:

  • Start strong. Make your introduction pop with a killer opening sentence or paragraph. This hook sets the stage, engages the reader, and reveals your writing’s purpose so you can grab the admission officers’ attention from the get-go. Think bold statements, thought-provoking quotes, intriguing questions, funny anecdotes, or vivid scenes. 
  • Read and reread the essay instructions. This will prevent you from missing any crucial details, like page or word limits, or the actual essay prompt itself.
  • Create an outline. It may not sound like a ton of fun, but trust us, it’ll make your life so much easier. You’ll have a roadmap to follow that’ll lead you to a killer intro, an engaging body, and a conclusion that’ll leave a lasting impression. 
  • Always use your own voice when writing. Share personal experiences that exemplify your values, such as community service or leadership roles. Showcasing how you’ve translated these beliefs into actions provides a deeper understanding of your character.
  • Stay on topic and keep it concise. Make sure your essay is telling the story you want to share while keeping it under the word limit.
  • Check for any pesky grammatical errors. When schools spot easily avoidable typos in your essay, this can communicate that you’re not careful or detail-oriented. If you can, enlist a proofreader to help you out.
  • Wrap up your essay with a memorable finale. Sprinkle your writing with colorful details and captivating anecdotes that vividly illustrate your intention, and write a powerful closing paragraph that ties everything together. 
  • Give yourself plenty of time to write and revise. College essays always take longer than you’d think, so allot a few weeks to a couple of months for writing and revising. 

READ MORE: How to Write a Killer College Essay: A Step-by-Step Guide

6. Submit Your High School Transcript Requests

In the grand scheme of college applications, the one tasked to send your official high school records to desired colleges is none other than the guidance counselor. 📬

But before they can work their magic, it’s up to you to give them the details on all the schools you’re applying to and their application deadlines. 🪄

Request your high school transcripts at least two to three weeks before the application deadline to allow for processing time and potential delays (postmarks also count, in case you’re in a last-minute pinch!). 

smiling guidance counselor talking with a male high school student about his high school transcript request for college application
High school transcripts are examined by admissions officers to determine your overall GPA, course preferences, and consistency in your schoolwork. Photo: Valerii_Honcharuk/Depositphotos 

But if you’re applying to college as a transfer student, keep in mind that you’ll need to request official transcripts from your current or previous college.

TIP: While you’re chatting with your counselor, feel free to pick their brain about anything else college-related. They’re there to help and can be a fantastic resource for all your burning questions! 

Ask them about local scholarships or grants available for students in our area, a list of potential colleges that align with your interests and goals, or college majors that matches your targeted career paths.

7. Check All the College Application Boxes

Whether you’re using the Common App or a college’s own application form, the deal is to follow the application instructions to a tee. An accurate, well-thought-out application shows the admissions committee that you’re detail-oriented and taking this process seriously.  

For instance, stick to the word limit for essays and other written responses — going over or falling short could hurt your application. Submit all required documents, follow formatting guidelines, and meet submission deadlines. ⚠️

Again, double-check your application for any spelling or grammar mistakes, ensuring that you have highlighted all your shining academic achievements. 🧐

Don’t hesitate to ask a parent or counselor for help in proofreading your materials — they can provide valuable feedback and spot any overlooked errors. 

Submit it along with supporting documents, and hurrah! — you’re nearly finished with your application. 🙌

8. Pay Your College Application Fees

Now, onto the not-so-fun part of applying to college: the fees. Most colleges require an application fee that usually clocks in at around $44 Which you have to pay by debit or credit card. 💳

The application fee is used by colleges to pay for processing and reviewing applications. This covers the price of labor and supplies and guarantees that only serious candidates submit their applications. 

But hey, it’s a small price to pay for your future, right?💲If you have a demonstrated financial need, though, you might be eligible for a college application fee waiver — after all, every penny counts when it comes to paying for college. 💰

male student paying his college application fee on his laptop using his debit or credit card online
Don’t forget to research and apply for financial aid, loans, or scholarships to help with the cost of college. Photo: SIphotography/Depositphotos

If you’ve already qualified for a SAT fee waiver, you’re in luck! The College Board also automatically gives you four college application fee waivers. 

Not only that, the National Association for College Admission Counseling also offers fee waivers to students who meet the requirements for SAT or ACT testing fee waivers. That’s another way to potentially apply to up to four colleges for free. 

TIP: Not sure if you qualify? Talk to your high school guidance counselor for more information. 

READ MORE: These 52 Rated Colleges Have Zero Application Fees [2023]

9. Cross Your Fingers!

After hitting “submit” on your application, it’s now a waiting game. For students applying for regular admission, acceptance letters typically start trickling in around March or the first week of April. ✉️

But, if you’re an Early Action or Early Decision applicant, you could hear back as early as December. Talk about a holiday gift! 🎁

Remember: Keep in mind that these are only approximate dates. Some schools may have various deadlines, so check with each of them separately. 📣

female students reading the acceptance letters from multiple college applications
Don’t limit yourself to just one or two colleges and increase your chances of getting accepted. Photo: monkeybusiness/Depositphotos 

Since you have this valuable time, why not explore different aspects of the schools you’re considering, such as taking virtual campus tours, connecting with current students or alumni, or researching potential scholarship opportunities? 📑

Utilize this window of opportunity to gather as much information as possible in order to make an informed choice that will shape your future college experience.

After that, the ball is in your court. You usually have until May to make your decision and commit to your chosen school.

Optional Steps When Applying to College

We’ve gotten past the crucial must-dos when applying to college. But there’s always something more you can do, so here are smart (but optional) ways to stand out:

female college student artist holding a paintbrush painting on canvas
Your portfolio should tell a story about you as an artist, and improve your chances of getting accepted to your dream college. Photo: prathanchorruangsak@gmail.com/Depositphotos 

Create a College Resume

A well-crafted resume supplemental resume shows what you’re passionate about and what you’ve accomplished

This can give the admissions committee a complete picture of who you are and what you love to do outside of the classroom.

So, don’t be shy! Include all your hard-earned scholarships, academic awards, extracurricular activities, and work and volunteering experience that show off your skills and interests. 🙋

Submit a Creative or Artistic Portfolio

If you’ve got a knack for visual arts, music, writing, or any creative field, this is your chance to ditch the ordinary, unleash your artistic prowess and turn your application into a masterpiece by providing an impressive portfolio. 🎭

Your portfolio should be a curated gallery that packs a punch, featuring your absolute best work that screams, “Take a look at me and what I can do!” And don’t forget to add a sprinkle of insight into your creative process and why you’re head-over-heels about pursuing an arts degree

Start early, polish your pieces until they sparkle, and proofread like a perfectionist — boosting your chances of getting into your dream college. ✨

Using the Common App to Apply to College

If you’re applying to multiple colleges (as you should be), check out the Common App — a free-to-use app for college applications used by more than 900 colleges in the US.📱

You can put all the info your prospective schools need in one place with the Common App, making the whole process a breeze. Did we also mention that you can even include extra documents like personal statements or essays here? 

Another great feature is that it keeps track of the different application deadlines for each school. 

Remember: Not all colleges use the Common App for their applications. 

How to Stay Organized During the College Application Process

Juggling multiple college applications can be a disaster if you don’t have any idea how to keep things organized. 

To stay on top of things, it’s important to designate a spot in your room where you can store application materials, and check your calendar regularly for upcoming deadlines

There are some great applications and websites that can help you narrow down your college choices, keep track of everything, and combat procrastination. 🤔

College Advisor can match you with schools that fit your criteria, while Naviance lets you compare colleges and suggest schools based on your interests. 

And to stay on top of deadlines, check out Trello, a free project management app that sends you notifications when a deadline is coming up. ⏰

READ MORE: 11 Top Online Study Tools Every Student Needs in 2023


Now that you know the ins and outs of applying for college, it’s time to take the plunge and put your knowledge to the test. 🙆 

Take things one step at a time, and don’t let the stress get to you. When acceptance letters start rolling in, celebrate your success like the superstar you are. 

Congratulations, you’re on your way to achieving big things! 🎉

How to Apply to College: Frequently Asked Questions 

What are the steps in the college application process?

Start by researching colleges, then take standardized tests and gather necessary materials like transcripts and recommendation letters. Finally, submit your application and fees by the deadline. Staying organized and focused throughout the process will increase your chances of success.

When should you start applying for college?

How many colleges should I apply to?

Is it better to apply for college through the Common App or directly?

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