Guide to Applying for College
Applying for college is a challenging and time-consuming process. From selecting schools and submitting test scores to writing your admission essay and securing financial aid, you’ll likely spend well over a year applying for colleges. Read our Guide to Applying for College for a complete look at the steps you’ll take as you seek, apply to, and pay for college.
The College Search
Whether you’re a high-school junior or senior, an adult learner, or a prospective transfer student, your application process begins with a list of schools. So how should you compile this list?
Identify Your Priorities
Highlight the features that matter most to you. Colleges come in all shapes, sizes, and costs! Think about the college experience you hope to have. Are you looking for a large campus bursting with variety and diversity, or do you see yourself on an intimate campus with small class sizes and highly attentive professors?
You’ll also want to be realistic about the obstacles you may face. Are you limited by affordability, geography, or prior academic performance? Look for schools that are accessible based on your personal circumstances.
By the same token, if you have an excellent academic résumé or noteworthy extracurricular achievements, identify top schools that you may be able to access based on your special merits.
Additional factors that you should consider in the selection process include:
- Academic Accessibility
- Relevant Degree Programs
- Campus Size
- Campus Culture
- Availability of Online Courses/Degrees
Seek advice from counselors, teachers, parents, older siblings, and friends.
Take advantage of the support system around you. High school advisors have a wealth of resources that can help you navigate the college landscape. A qualified counselor will consider academic performance, financial outlook, and your personal wishlist in order to help you identify colleges that match your priorities and prospects.
But don’t stop there. Seek opinions and insights from trusted sources including educators, parents, and college alumni in your personal or extended circle. While nobody can make this decision for you, it helps to hear from those who have been down this path.
Search for Colleges Online
Like everything else, much of today’s college search takes place online. The web is overflowing with sites designed to help you make a decision. But it’s up to you to make sense of the messaging that you have likely received from countless sources every single day of your search. You’ve been bombarded with information and promotion relating to the college selection process.
Be sure to use that wealth of information while also distinguishing it from marketing materials. As you look for a college match, trust resources that report reliable metrics, and always conduct background research on any school that makes your list. No matter what your priorities, you should be looking for an accredited school with a strong graduation rate, a positive record for post-graduate employment, and a good public image.
Narrowing Down Your List
Build an initial list of 15 to 20 schools. Sequence this list based on order of preference. List the schools you most wish to attend first; the schools you least wish to attend at the bottom.
The top seven to ten schools on your list are those to which you should likely apply. The schools on your list should fall into three categories:
- Safety Schools— The very best schools to which you have the highest chances of gaining admission. Pick 2-3 safety schools which meet your criteria and where you feel acceptance is most likely.
- Reach Schools— The very best schools on your list, your reach schools are those highly desirable schools where acceptance is possible but remains a statistical long shot. Choose 2-3 schools in this category.
- Match Schools— Most of your list should be comprised of schools that match your academic profile, financial outlook, and likelihood of admission. Apply to between 4 and 6 schools that have everything you’re looking for and which offer you the best chance of gaining admission.
Submitting Test Scores
Most colleges and universities require entrance exam scores, though a growing number of reputable colleges and universities are making college board test scores optional, or doing away with test scores altogether. Still, most non-profit public and private four-year colleges consider College Board exams mandatory for admission. This means most students will need to take several standardized tests in order to be eligible for the college or university of their choice.
Students attending elite schools, applying for specialized programs, or attempting to earn preliminary college credits may face a number of additional testing requirements including SAT subject tests and Advanced Placement Tests.
College Entrance Exams
Most four-year colleges require you to have completed and submitted certain entrance exam scores. Entrance Exams are offered by the College Board.
The following are the most commonplace.
- PSAT— The Preliminary SAT, also known as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT) is essentially a practice exam for the SAT, but a high score can earn you access to a merit-based scholarship for college. You may only take this exam once per year, and many students opt to take the PSAT during both their 10th and 11th grade school years.
- SAT— The most commonplace college entrance exam, you may take your SAT exams as often as you feel you must in order to maximize your score potential. Many students elect to take the SAT exams multiple times between their 11th and 12th grade years. Most four-year colleges, and some two-year colleges, require you to submit an SAT score (or, alternatively, an ACT score). One or the other is mandatory in order for you to apply. In addition to determining your admission eligibility for many schools, SAT scores notify receiving colleges of your interest, and can make you eligible for college-based scholarships.
- ACT— The ACT may be taken in lieu of the SAT (or in addition to the SAT) as a college entrance exam. The most significant distinction between these tests is that the ACT includes a science section. Otherwise, there are no noteworthy differences in how universities evaluate scores on these exams. You may choose to take one or the other (or both) based on your personal educational goals. Unlike the SAT, which you can take an unlimited number of times, you may only take the ACT up to 12 times.
- SAT Subject Tests— These standardized tests focus on individual subjects. There are 20 SAT Subject Tests in 5 subject areas—Mathematics, Science, English, History, and Language. Your performance on these exams can help enhance your qualifications for enrollment in some schools, may earn you scholarship money, or could help you place out of certain prerequisite classes in a given subject area. Some elite colleges recommend or even require that you complete and submit scores for at least two subjects. Subject tests are relatively risk free, especially when you choose to submit to a school which does not require them. In this case, your score may help your chances of admission, but they will not hurt you.
Advanced Placement Tests
Students nearing satisfactory completion of Advanced Placement (AP) courses in high school are eligible to take standardized Advanced Placement exams as offered by the College Board. AP tests are administered each May and typically include a multiple choice section and a free-response section. Students who earn a passing grade (between 3 and 5) may be able to have prerequisite college courses in that subject area waived, may receive college credits, or both.
Test Prep Services
Several leading test prep services offer exam-specific courses designed to help you prepare for and excel at your college entrance exams. Prominent test prep services like Kaplan and Princeton Review offer strategies for effective studying, savvy test-taking, and some insight into what to expect on your exams.
Applying for Colleges
Many colleges have their own unique admission processes, application requirements, deadlines, and fees. Once you’ve narrowed down your list of colleges, familiarize yourself with the instructions for each application. First and foremost, determine which of the schools on your list allow the submission of a Common Application. The Common Application is a single application shared between roughly 700 colleges. Using the Common Application may allow you to streamline the process and lower the cost by reducing the number of application fees you must pay.
For more advice on applying to colleges using the Common Application, check out our Focus on the Common Application.
Any schools on your list which do not accept the Common Application will have their own requirements and deadlines for submission. Take note of these factors as you prepare to complete your applications.
You’ll need to gather or obtain information and documents to complete your college applications. This may include:
- Biographical Information, which will likely include copies of certain documents such as a birth certificate, social security number, or a photo I.D. such as a driver’s license. You will not be asked to send originals, but will need to have important documentation on-hand in order to make copies where requested.
- Academic Records, which will likely include submission of your college transcript and may include proof of your class rank. In most cases, you will be required to have your school transmit your transcript directly to colleges where you plan to apply. Be sure to allow plenty of time to request and obtain (or facilitate transmission of) your transcripts.
- Awards or Achievements, which could include special recognition, certificates or other commendation for academic, athletic, or artistic merit.
Preparing Your Applications
Once you have all of your essential materials on hand, take some time to read through all of the requirements for each application. Failure to follow instructions is a very easy way to get your application thrown into the reject stack. Read the terms and conditions of your application including word count limits, required supplemental materials, submission instructions, and application fees. Only after you’ve read through your application in full should you actually put pen to paper (or keystrokes to online form).
Also be aware that more than 700 colleges—including many highly influential schools—accept the Common Application. The Common Application streamlines the application process, making it possible for a student to complete and submit a single application to up to 20 schools. This can save you a significant amount of time and money, and it can substantially improve your odds of getting accepted to multiple schools. Also noteworthy, the Common Application offers the applicant 7 distinct essay prompts, which can give you a bit of flexibility on the admission essay portion of your application. The biggest disadvantage of the Common Application is that it isn’t accepted by every school, but if it is accepted by multiple schools on your list, you should definitely take advantage.
Writing a College Application Essay
As noted in the section above, many colleges require an admission essay, a personal statement, or both. The Common Application also includes an essay requirement. In other words, you should be prepared to do some writing.
Here, we’ll begin with the words of the great author and sometimes painter Henry Miller, who advised in his 11 Commandments of Writing “Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.”
Your goal is to reveal something about yourself that might capture the interest, attention, or even the imagination of an admissions officer. Free your mind and your pen will follow.
Also be aware that different schools may place different weight on this essay. Some colleges may consider the admission essay an important part of the evaluation process whereas others may consider it entirely optional. Some essay prompts will be direct and straightforward (e.g. Why do you feel that this is the right university for you?); whereas others may be more abstract (e.g. If you could have any superpower, what would it be and why?)
If you’re completing a Common Application, you’ll be able to choose from 7 distinct essay prompts. Whatever the prompt, there are some universal tips that should help you write an effective essay:
- Show confidence, not arrogance. Demonstrate the reasons you would be a positive addition to the campus without coming off as boastful.
- Avoid repetition. You’ve already submitted transcripts, an extracurricular resume, and test scores. Make sure your essay showcases a different side of you, one that adds color to the hard numbers.
- Be witty, but not sarcastic; original but not off-putting; personal but not unprofessional. Find balance in your subject matter and your tone.
- Proof, edit, then proof again, and again, and again. Triple-check your grammar, spelling, and organization. The more time you spend reviewing your completed essay, the more likely that you’ll spot mistakes, and identify opportunities for improvement.
- Seek feedback from trusted sources. Run your essay by a teacher, parent, or friend. Get multiple opinions as you go through your revisions. You don’t have to take every single piece of advice you receive, but it can be extremely helpful to get other perspectives on your work.
For more comprehensive advice on writing an effective essay or personal statement, check out our Focus on College Admission Essays.
Letters of Recommendation
Many colleges require you to procure one or several letters of recommendation from teachers, coaches, advisors, employers, or noteworthy local leaders with whom you’ve forged a meaningful relationship. A letter of recommendation is essentially an endorsement of your talents, dedication, and character provided by somebody who has had a meaningful impact on the course of your education.
If your application calls for one or several letters of recommendation, you’ll need to identify and approach individuals who you believe can accurately speak to your strengths. Start by:
- Identifying top candidates from among teachers, advisors, coaches, employers or others.
- Narrowing your list to those with whom you’ve developed the most substantive relationship.
- Approaching prospective candidates and graciously requisition recommendations.
- Engaging one-on-one in a conference or meeting with those who agree to submit a letter on your behalf.
- Submitting letters, or ensuring the submission of letters, according to your application deadlines.
For comprehensive advice on securing letters of recommendation, check out our Focus on Letters of Recommendation for College.
Some colleges may require you to attend an interview—either in person or through videoconferencing—as part of consideration over your application. The interview is not required by every school, but those that do will likely only reserve an admission interview for students who are already under serious consideration for admission. Interviews may be conducted by a single admissions officer or by an admissions committee.
If you are called for an interview, treat it as you would a job interview. Dress professionally, arrive on time, be prepared with printed copies of any requested materials, and address admissions officers with respect. As with your admission essay, your goal in this interview is to reveal a bit more about yourself, to set yourself apart from other candidates, and to demonstrate confidence without exhibiting arrogance.
Know Your Deadlines
Every college or university has its own submission deadline. Once you’ve whittled down your list of prospective schools, create a calendar of important deadlines. Give yourself plenty of time to gather materials, request transcripts, write your essay, acquire letters of recommendation, and carefully review your completed application. Keep important deadlines on your radar and stay well ahead of them.
In most cases, Regular Decision deadlines will begin in January. Some colleges may make January 1st the application deadline. This includes the Common Application, which is due by 11:59 PM on January 1st. For the majority of colleges, your application will be due sometime between January and February. There are some colleges that allow late applications in March or April, as well as a number of colleges—especially online schools—which allow steady rolling admissions at any time of year.
It’s also critical to be aware of each school’s specific deadline for submission of financial aid information. The federal deadline for submitting your Free Application for Federal Student Aid is 11:59 PM on June 30th. However, many colleges and universities specify their own deadlines for receipt of financial aid information. Be sure that you are aware of these important deadlines as you line up dates on your calendar.
Also be aware that colleges tend to make admission decisions by March or April, and in most cases, your final decision will be due by May 1st.
Early Decision (ED) and Early Action (EA)
While applications for Regular Decision admission are typically due in January, you may have the option of submitting for Early Decision (ED) or Early Action (EA). Either of these options allows you to complete and submit your application early—typically by a November deadline—so that you can be considered for early acceptance. At the time of writing, 45 colleges and universities—many of them among the most elite and influential schools in the U.S.—offer either Early Decision or Early Action options, or both.
If you seek Early Decision and are accepted, you are obligated to enroll in the accepting college. This means that Early Decision is truly only a logical option if you are already certain of the school you wish to attend. Once you’ve received acceptance, you’re in.
With Early Action, you are not obligated to enroll in the accepting school, and may make your decision by the traditional May 1st deadline. However, acceptance through Early Action may prohibit you from seeking Early Decision or Early Action at another school.
One noteworthy drawback to ED or EA is the fact that these early deadlines may precede the receipt of financial aid. However, in most cases, you are also required to pay a deposit immediately upon acceptance. This can create a financial hurdle for some students who receive early acceptance into colleges or universities. In this regard, ED and EA may be financially prohibitive options which are only accessible to more affluent students.
Important Application Deadlines
June 30: FAFSA Submission Deadline
November: Early Decision/Early Action Application Deadlines
January: Common Application/Regular Decision Application Deadlines
March/April: Colleges Make Admission Decisions
May: Deadline for Student Decisions
Getting Financial Aid
Federal financial aid is available to most students who plan to attend an accredited college, graduate school, or professional school. In order to receive federal financial aid, your school must be accredited by a national or regional accreditor with recognition from the U.S. Department of Education. Additional factors such as non-citizenship or a past criminal conviction could impact eligibility. Beyond these factors, nearly every qualifying student can earn some form of federal financial aid.
Federal financial aid is generally divided into two primary categories: Student loans and need-based grants. Student loans can take a number of forms and while the available sum may be based on financial factors, even students without financial need are eligible for some form of student loan. Need-based grants are made available only to those students who can demonstrate financial need.
In order to determine your eligibility for either student loans or need-based grants, you must fill out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA will help the Department of Education and your prospective college determine what kind of aid you can receive, and how much. Every qualifying student should fill out a FAFSA for every qualifying year of college.
At the time of writing, the current deadline for submission of your FAFSA is 11:59 PM, July 30th. However, it is important to note that many colleges and universities have their own deadlines for submission of financial aid information. Be sure that you know these deadlines, as they will supersede the deadline set by the office of Student Aid.
Filling Out Your FAFSA
Every student attending an accredited college, university, or professional college should fill out a FAFSA. You’ll need to complete this form annually to determine your financial aid eligibility for each year that you attend college, grad school, or professional school.
The FAFSA for each upcoming school year becomes available for completion on October 1st. Do your best to get started on the application process as early as possible. There are four ways to fill out your FAFSA:
- Apply online at fafsa.gov
- Apply using the myStudentAid mobile app
- Complete, print and mail a FAFSA PDF
- Or, to receive a print form in the mail, call at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243) or 334-523-2691 (TTY for the deaf or hard of hearing 1-800-730-8913); then complete and mail form.
- Enter Basic Info—If this is your first time filling out the FAFSA, you will need to provide all requested identifying information. If you have already filled out a FAFSA in a prior year, you can log in using your FSA ID and select the FAFSA RENEWAL option. Some of your information will be prefilled for you.
- Select SchoolsYou must designate at least one accredited college or university to receive your FAFSA information. This information will allow your intended school(s) to make determinations about the financial aid package to which you are entitled. If you are using the website or mobile app to complete your application, you may send your FAFSA to up to 10 schools. If you’re using the PDF or print version, you can choose up to four schools, but can add more schools at a later point in the process. Once you’ve completed your FAFSA, your information will be shared with the colleges on your list. The financial aid office from each of these schools will use this information to make a determination about the state- and school-based aid for which you might be eligible. Use the Federal School Code Search to find the schools on your list.
- Determine Your Dependency StatusYou’ll answer a series of questions to determine whether you are of independent status, or are a dependent of your parents. If you qualify as the latter, you’ll need to provide both your financial information and that of your parents.
- Enter Your Financial InformationYou will need to provide information about your recent tax history, earnings, and assets. Depending on your filing status, you will also need to provide the same information about your parents or spouse.
- Sign and SubmitYou may sign and submit your FAFSA using your FSA ID or by printing and mailing your completed application. Forms submitted online are processed much faster than those completed and submitted by mail. You should see a confirmation page following online submission, and you should also receive an emailed confirmation outlining the next steps.
Federal Student Loans
Students who do not qualify for need-based grants will likely receive an offer for one of several federal student loan packages. The following are the most common Federal Direct Loans, those loans which are funded by the federal government and processed through the Federal Office of Student Loans:
- Direct Subsidized Loan— Also known as a Subsidized Stafford Loans or Federal Family Education Loans (FFEL), the subsidized student loan is available to undergraduate students with demonstrated financial need and, as of the 2019-2020 school year, has a fixed interest rate of 4.53%. Undergraduate students may borrow between a maximum of $3,500 and $5,500 in subsidized loans each year.
- Direct Unsubsidized Loan— Also known as an Unsubsidized Stafford Loan, this loan is available to most undergraduate and graduate students attending an accredited college or career school. The direct unsubsidized loan is not based on financial need, and no credit check is required for its approval, however, students receiving the unsubsidized loan will immediately begin accruing interest (at a fixed rate of 4.53% as of 2019-2020) from the day the loan is granted. Undergraduate students may borrow between a maximum of $5,500 and $12,500 in unsubsidized loans each year.
- Direct Consolidation Loan— Loan consolidation allows the recent graduate to consolidate an array of loans from various lenders into a single monthly payment, which can help streamline repayment interest rates and due dates.
- PLUS Loans— There are two types of PLUS Loans—the Parent PLUS Loan and the Graduate PLUS Loan. The Parent PLUS Loan is available to qualifying parents with dependents who are college students; the Graduate PLUS Loan is available to independent students attending graduate schools. PLUS loans are designed to cover any additional expenses beyond what is covered by traditional Stafford Loans. As of the 2019-2020 school year, interest for Direct PLUS Loans for both parents and graduates stands at a fixed rate of 7.08%. There is no ceiling to how much eligible borrowers may take out in PLUS loans.
In addition to the federal financial aid, you may also be eligible for state financial aid. Available loan, grant, and scholarship programs will vary from state to state, as will eligibility requirements. After completing your FAFSA, find the online portal for financial aid in any states where you are considering attending college. Your eligibility from one state to the next may help shape your ultimate enrollment decision. Visit the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) portal to find out about financial aid in your state.
College-Based Financial Aid
A number of colleges provide both need-based and merit-based aid to eligible students. In particular, private and elite colleges will use a supplemental form—in addition to the FAFSA— to determine additional aid eligibility as funded directly through the college. The College Scholarship Service Profile (CSS Profile) form helps roughly 250 participating colleges and universities determine which students qualify for need-based financial aid based on their family’s ability to pay for colleges, and which students qualify for merit-based aid based on academic or athletic achievements.
Private Student Loans
For students and parents who require additional funding after federal loans have been exhausted, private education loans are an option. Unlike federal loans, there is no nationwide fixed interest rate. Your fixed interest rate will vary based on your personal credit history and the private lender who ultimately signs over your loan. Typically, these interest rates are higher than those available with federal loans.
While student loans must be repaid, need-based grants typically do not need to be repaid. However, most are also available only to those with demonstrated financial need. The following are among the most commonly awarded federal need-based grants:
- Federal Pell Grants: Pell Grants are for students with demonstrated financial need, which is based on expected family contribution (EFC), and is available to undergraduate students in the amount of $6,345 during the 2020-2021 school year, though the amount may vary depending on financial need, the cost of the school, and full- or part-time student status.
- Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG): Provided to students based on demonstrated financial need, this grant does not require repayment. Eligible students must have already qualified for a Federal Pell Grant, but still demonstrated further financial need. Students may be given an amount between $1000 and $4000 each year on top of the Pell Grant sum.
- Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants: Given to college applicants whose parent or guardian gave their life during service in Iraq or Afghanistan following the events of September 11th, eligible applicants must have been under 24 years of age, or already enrolled at least part-time in college at the time of the parent or guardian’s death. Additionally, eligibility is reserved only for those who qualify for all conditions of a Federal Pell Grant but the expected family contribution (EFC) condition. The sum for the Service Grant will typically match the amount awarded for Federal Pell Grants in a given year. For the 2020-2021 school year, that sum is capped at $6,345.[Link: ]
- Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants: Recipients of the TEACH grant must take certain courses, and commit to certain post-graduate jobs in order to be eligible, or the grant reverts to a loan which must be repaid. To earn a TEACH grant, an applicant must complete a FAFSA, qualify for federal student aid, enroll in a TEACH-participating undergraduate or graduate school, enroll in a TEACH-Grant-eligible program, meet basic academic performance thresholds (which may vary per school and should be discussed with your school’s financial aid office), receive TEACH Grant counseling, and sign a TEACH Grant Agreement to serve. TEACH Grant recipients will generally be awarded up to $4,000 per year.
Getting College Scholarships
Just like need-based grants, scholarships are financial gifts earmarked for college which need not be repaid. Scholarships are generally awarded based on merit, which could include academic, athletic, or artistic achievement. Scholarships are also often given based on meritorious affiliation with a religious institution, non-profit organization, charitable cause, or community organization. Additional outlets for scholarships can include your home state, your municipality, the college to which you are applying, and an array of private benefactors or corporations. Many employers also make scholarships available to students who are committed to a discipline, professional field, or the organization itself.
Scholarships provided by employers often require you to remain with the organization for a determined period of time. Other scholarship recipients may have to meet certain basic requirements to retain a scholarship—including full-time enrollment status, participation in a certain activity, or a minimum GPA. Other scholarships may be awarded with no strings attached.
Scholarships come in all shapes and sizes—some providing just a small stipend to help fund expenses like text books; and others large enough to help fund four full years of private university education. Your opportunities can vary significantly based on your academic performance and personal achievements. That said, you should apply for as many scholarships as you believe you might be eligible for. The more relevant scholarships that you apply to, the better your chances are at reducing your dependency on student loans.
Choosing the Right College for You
You’ve completed every step in the process. You’ve submitted your applications, your test scores, and your financial aid information. You wrote an awesome personal statement and you got some glowing letters of recommendation. You’ve applied for a ton of scholarships—and you even won one of them.
Then you spent months staring at your inbox, waiting for the big reveal. And finally, after applying to nearly a dozen schools, you have 7 acceptance letters to choose from. Congratulations!
Now what? How do you choose?
- Evaluate Your Options— Now that you have a few schools to choose from, weigh these options against your priorities. Of those schools which have accepted you, how much does each one cost? Are any offering additional financial aid or scholarships? What about geography? Are there schools from your region offering you in-state rates? Or do you prefer to relocate to a whole new region? Consider these features, as well as reputation, faculty, degree options, and more.
- Visit Campuses—The best way to evaluate your options is to see them with your own eyes. Arrange campus visits, set up tours, and get a feel for the culture and student life at each of your prospective destinations. This firsthand experience can tell you a lot about your compatibility with a school and its student body.
- Seek Advice—Take advantage of your campus visit by asking as many questions as you can. If you have a major in mind, try to arrange a meeting with the head of your intended department. Speak to current students. Ask questions about classes, housing, activities, weekend recreation, and anything else piquing your curiosity. Your future classmates are a rich resource for knowledge and information. Find out everything you can before committing.
- Make a Decision— The deadline for Regular Decision enrollment is typically May 1st. Be sure that you’ve weighed all of your priorities, scheduled all of your visits, and asked all of your questions before this date. Now, all that’s left to do is make the big decision!
Once you’ve submitted your decision, your work is finally done. Just kidding. You’re really just getting started! You have a lot to do before your first year in college, from paying your deposit and securing housing to shopping for dorm gear and attending your first orientation.
For help with these steps and more, jump to our Guide to Surviving College.