Applying to College

Deciding to go to college is a big decision but ultimately one that can set you on a path to success! While the application process can be daunting and confusing, we have compiled the basic information as well as some insider tips to help you achieve your goals. Plus, check out our College Tracker Sheet to help you get started on your college journey. 

Strategies to Make Your Application Process Easier

Application Tips
  • Work strategically - Applying to college can be difficult to navigate, but if you plan out your applications, essays, and resources, you can eliminate unnecessary work and use your time efficiently. Settle on a solid list of colleges early on, including a few safety schools, several match schools, and a few reach schools. It is okay if your dream school is a reach school, but don't forget to give yourself options in the future. 
  • Work together - If you have friends applying at the same time as you are, work together, and hold each other accountable. Bounce ideas off of each other and remind each other of important deadlines.
  • Interact with colleges - For schools that you are really interested in, open their emails and mail, accept optional interviews, and visit their website or campus (if you can). This shows something called "demonstrated interest," which shows a school how excited you are about attending. Showing a high demonstrated interest might be the little thing that tips your application over the edge.
  • Talk to your counselor - Your counselor will have a big role in your application process, so it is important to build a good relationship with them. Not only can they answer a lot of questions or read your essays, but they will also likely be writing recommendations and submitting documents like transcripts and other reports. Some schools also have optional documents that your counselor can submit. To ensure your best chances, see if your counselor will submit some of these optional documents for you. 
  • Keep track of your letters of recommendation - Ask your teachers or mentors early (think end of junior year), and have a thank you note or gift to show your appreciation. Some teachers and counselors have to write a lot of letters, which they write on their time. Keep track of who you have asked, and if you can, ask multiple people. Some schools may also require letters from a science, math, or English teacher, so be prepared by asking multiple trusted adults. 
  • Have an open mind - A lot changes in your senior year alone, and it can be scary. If you don't get into your dream school or your best friend chooses a different college than you, it's okay to feel sad. But, remember that this is the start of a whole new part of your life, and it might look totally different from what you expected. Pick a college that is going to be best for you, not because of someone or something else, and look forward to the future that lies in front of you!
Essay Tips
  • Stay organized - Keeping track of all of your deadlines, schools, and requirements can take off a lot of stress when you get to crunch time. Have an updated resume and recommendation letters ready so you aren't scrambling. It can also be helpful to have a folder on your computer or Google Drive to hold all of your college-related documents. Plus, writing your essays in a Google or Word Document will make sure that they auto-save so you don't lose your progress if something happens. Check out our college tracker sheet to help you stay on top of your applications. 
  • Start early - Give yourself enough time to think through your essays and college list. This will help you make sure that you are finishing strong! The weight of senior year responsibilities can make the process seem tedious, but you'll want to put just as much effort into your last application as your first. Check out our College Timeline for more details on when to start the application process. 
  • Make sure each essay has a lesson - A good strategy when writing an essay is to have a strong hook, some exposition/storytelling, and to end with a takeaway or lesson learned. It can be easy to let your storytelling take over an essay, but the important part is to show how that experience affected you. Your story also doesn't have to be the most important thing to ever happen to you; if a small moment taught you a big lesson, use that snapshot to demonstrate how you've grown.
  • Optimize your time - If you are applying to many schools, you will likely see prompts that are similar or can be answered with a similar topic. It can be smart to modify an essay you already have to fit another prompt. This can also work if you have a topic that you especially like because of its creativity or relevance to your experience. When you are given a prompt that could work with an essay you have already written, modify it to fit the needs of the prompt and the word limit. But be careful, since this strategy is meant to help you optimize your time, not avoid doing the work. Remember, your essays might have a similar structure or theme, but every essay you submit should be unique. 
  • Always triple-check your work - Make sure that your personal information is accurate, such as your contact information or GPA. It is also important to read through your applications to make sure that they say exactly what you want them to say. If you only have 50 words to answer a prompt, make sure that every one counts!
  • Be specific - Each essay that you write should be unique and specific to you; if someone else could have written it, then your essay might be too generic, especially for personal statements. These are a chance to show off what makes you special, so use every word to prove to each college that you belong there! Topics like moving, a sports injury, or your coronavirus experience might not be very unique, so unless that moment changed your life tremendously, search for topics that are unique to who you are. 
  • Be proactive - If you struggled in high school or have circumstances that might not be seen positively, use your essays or the "additional information" boxes as an opportunity to tell a college what happened. This is a good way to explain the reasoning behind a bad grade or other parts of your transcript. Moreover, turning a negative into a learning opportunity can actually really help your application since it shows that you have grown from that experience. 
Interview Tips
  • Do your research - Some schools offer optional interviews with alumni. While this interview won't make or break your application, it can give it an extra edge if you really impress your interviewer. Research the college and find programs, clubs, or classes that really interest you. It will be clear to your interviewer how passionate you are about this school.
  • Prepare yourself - An interview, while it might be about you and your interests, still takes preparation. A day or two before your interview, look up common college questions and think about what you might say. Identify a few core values/passions that you have, and come up with ways to reference these, as well as anything impressive that you have done in high school. While this will likely be a friendly conversation, it's okay to show off the things about you that are interesting. Think also about how your answers can relate to the college specifically. If your passions align with the university's values, mention how you would be a great fit for the institution. 
  • Dress in business casual - Your appearance will be one of the first impressions that you make on your interviewer, so you'll want to wear clothing that is professional. If you need help, see if a friend or adult can help you pick what to wear. 
  • What to bring - Bring your laptop and a charger, two copies of your resume, a notebook and pen, and anything that your interviewer asks you to bring. If you have a portfolio of art, music, dance, or something else that you have created, have it ready at your interview on your laptop. It may also be good to bring anything relevant to what you plan to talk about; if you're passionate about sustainability, you could bring a reusable mug or water bottle, or if you're an athlete, you could wear a varsity jacket, if you have one. Arrive about 20 minutes early, if you can, to wherever you are interviewing so that you can get settled. If you are interviewing in a restaurant or cafe, pick a table that is near an outlet and where you'll be comfortable. 
  • Be confident - Smiling, speaking clearly, and having good posture are all ways to show your interviewer that you are a good candidate for the school. It's totally okay to be nervous, but arriving early to get situated can help ease some of your nerves. You've got this!
  • Send a thank you - Many interviewers are volunteers, so they are meeting with you on their own time. Be sure to send a follow-up email or note to thank them for their time and your conversation. 


The College Application Dictionary

  • Binding - A term used in reference to admissions decisions, specifically ED; decisions that are binding mean that a student agrees to enroll in a school immediately if they are admitted; this agreement may be broken if the financial aid package is insufficient or for other extenuating circumstances
  • Deferral - When a student who has been accepted to a college postpones enrollment, usually by a year; requires confirmation with the college
  • Fee Waiver - Typically given to students with financial need to waive fees for college applications, standardized tests, or other processes
  • Legacy - A college applicant whose relative has graduated from that college; may be given priority in admission by some colleges
  • Need-Aware Admission - When colleges make admissions decisions with consideration to the financial circumstance of a student; may be able to meet a student’s full financial need
  • Need-Blind Admission - When colleges make admissions decisions without consideration to the financial circumstance of a student; may not be able to meet a student’s full financial need
  • Registrar - A person who works in the college office who registers all students; may be responsible for permanent records and student files
  • Types of Admission
    • EA - Early Action, a deadline option that allows you to submit an application before the regular deadline; not a binding decision; may increase the chances of admission; students may apply to multiple schools using the EA deadline
    • ED - Early Decision, a deadline option that allows you to submit an application to your first-choice college before the regular deadline; a binding decision; may increase the chances of admission; students may apply to only one school using the ED deadline
    • REA - Restrictive Early Action, a deadline option that allows you to submit an application to your first-choice college before the regular deadline; not a binding decision; may increase the chances of admission; students may apply to only one school using an REA deadline or may only apply to one private school using an REA deadline (meaning they can apply to a public school using an EA deadline), depending on the school 
    • RD - Regular Decision, a deadline option that you will submit most applications by; this is not a binding decision
    • Rolling Admission - An admission policy of considering an application as it is received, rather than setting an application deadline and considering applications in a batch; admissions decisions are usually received quickly 
  • Types of Application Forms 
    • Coalition Application - A typical application form accepted by the ~90 colleges that are a part of the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success; allows you to fill out a general application once that can be sent to multiple colleges
    • Common Application - A typical application form accepted by the ~700 colleges that are a part of the Common Application association; allows you to fill out a general application once that can be sent to multiple colleges
    • Note: Many colleges, such as the University of California schools, require applications to be submitted on their own sites and will not be available using one of the above application forms
  • Types of Colleges
    • Community/Junior - 2-year institutions that students typically graduate from with an associate degree; community colleges are generally public institutions and junior colleges are generally private institutions
    • Private - Institutions mainly funded by students’ tuition fees and donations; generally have higher tuition rates but may offer more financial aid
    • Public - Institutions mainly funded by state governments; may also receive donations; generally have lower tuition rates but may offer less financial aid
  • Types of Essays
    • Personal Statement - An essay, such as the Common Application Essay, that reflects a personal attribute of a student’s life; likely required for a college application
    • Supplemental Essay - An essay that must be completed in addition to a personal statement in response to a prompt given by a specific college; generally seeks to explore a student’s interest in a specific college
  • Types of Fees
    • COA - Cost Of Attendance, typically includes tuition, room, board, transportation, and books/supplies fees to attend a college
    • Room & Board - The cost of housing and dining plans that is not considered in tuition but is considered in COA
    • Tuition - The cost of college courses that does not include books, room & board, or other fees and is considered in COA
  • Types of Schools to Add to a College List
    • Fit/Match - Schools where your application fits in with the average student, meaning your GPA/SAT/ACT scores and your extracurricular engagements are similar to that of other students
    • Safety - Schools where your application exceeds that of the average student and you are confident you will get in; typically have a higher acceptance rate
    • Reach - Schools where your application might be below the average student because your GPA/ACT/SAT scores and extracurricular engagements are slightly below that of other students; typically have a lower acceptance rate
  • Types of Tests
    • ACT - A common college entrance exam with four sections and an optional fifth writing section that requires an extra fee but may be required by a college application; typically taken in junior or early senior year; there is no penalty for wrong answers
    • AP Exams - Advanced Placement Exams that are given in May to assess proficiency from an AP course; may qualify for college credit; there is no penalty for wrong answers
    • PSAT - The practice version of the SAT that can be taken during the sophomore and junior year but is not considered in college applications; the PSAT/NMSQT taken by a junior can qualify them for the National Merit Scholarship; there is no penalty for wrong answers
    • SAT - A common college entrance exam with three sections and an optional fourth writing section that requires an extra fee but may be required by a college application; typically taken in junior or early senior year; there is no penalty for wrong answers
  • Transcript - An official record of courses taken and the grades received for the course; a high school transcript is typically required for college applications and may be submitted by your counselor
  • Transfer Student - A student who enrolls in a college after attending another college; may be from a community college to a 4-year college or from one 4-year college to another
  • Waiting List - The list of applicants who will be admitted to a college if space is available; placement on the waiting list is not a rejection but is contingent on other students who have been admitted but will not attend that college
  • Weighted GPA - A Grade Point Average that is calculated with the assumption that more difficult classes receive a higher point value than a typical class