Everything You Need to Know About Applying to College

TBS Staff Writers
Updated June 18, 2024
Applying to college might seem like a complicated task, but it's just a series of small steps that need to come together in the right way at the right time.

Are you ready to discover your college program?

Everything you need to know about the college application process.

The college application process is pretty standard at most schools. Typically, you take the required tests, write a personal statement, then submit your application. You should keep an eye on your email, in case a school requests additional information as they evaluate your materials.

Below, we’ll cover the process of how and when to apply to college in more depth. We’ll help you check all the right boxes and maximize your chances of getting into your dream school.

4 Things You Need to Apply for College

As you approach the end of your junior year of high school, you should finalize a list of schools you want to apply to. How many schools you’ll want to apply to depends on your circumstances.

It’s always good to have a backup school, but if you’re confident that you have the right grades and test scores for your preferred choice, you may only need to apply to one college. Conversely, if you’re only applying to very academically competitive schools, you may want to submit 8-10 applications. For most students, four or five schools is about the right number. Your list will grow and change over time, but it’s good to have a strong starter list by February of your junior year.

When preparing to apply to these colleges in the fall of your senior year, make sure you have all of the necessary application materials. Every school requires a copy of your high school transcripts, which you can request through your high school records office. Below are a few other items to take care of as you apply.

1. Test Scores

Many colleges require a college entrance examination, although some schools have recently dropped this requirement. The two most common college tests are the ACT and the SAT, which seek to measure what you’ve learned in high school. While similar, they do have some important distinctions. Nearly every college that wants test scores will let you submit results from the ACT or the SAT, so it’s up to you to decide — you may also take both.

Most students take the ACT and SAT early in the second semester of their junior year, which leaves room to retake the test in May, June, or later in the summer if needed, before senior year starts. Many students also take test preparation classes or use free online resources to study for the ACT or the SAT.

Some schools will also ask you to take SAT subject tests, which measure what you know in specific subjects you studied in high school. If a college asks you to take these, it’s best to take them at the end of your junior year.

2. Letters of Recommendation

Grades and test scores tell a college what you’ve learned, but they don’t speak to your individual experiences. To address this, many colleges ask students to obtain letters of recommendation from their teachers, which provide a more complete picture of the student. These letters allow the college to get a better sense of your character.

Most colleges want 1-2 letters of recommendation from teachers who worked with you in an academic subject in 11th or 12th grade. It is best to ask teachers for letters of recommendation at the end of 11th grade, since that allows them to compile their thoughts over the summer. Make sure you choose a teacher who knows you well; if you’re just another face in the crowd, they may struggle to paint an accurate picture of your work as a student.

You can also request letters of recommendation from other adults who know you well. For example, you might request a letter from a coach; a supervisor or manager at your job; a pastor, rabbi, or other faith leader at your church; or another adult mentor from outside the school system.

3. Personal Statement or Essays

In addition to letters of recommendation, most colleges will also want to hear from you. They’re eager to hear about your thoughts, interests, seminal experiences, perspectives, challenges you’ve faced, and aspirations.

Most students start working on their essays in the summer between junior and senior year. When planning your essay, be sure to consider what colleges want to know about you, and work with an adult who can offer feedback and suggestions on your writing. This can take some time, but it’s well worth it. Don’t forget to have someone edit your essay before you submit!

4. Other Information

Some colleges will also have you meet with an admissions officer or talk with them over the phone about your college plans. Not all colleges require interviews, so you should make the most of interviews with those that do.

Some colleges also allow you to submit a short video or a portfolio of work. A video offers a great way to bring the college into your world, while a portfolio allows you to share examples of your professional, educational, and artistic accomplishments.

What to do Before Applying for College

Visit Colleges

For many prospective students, visiting a college campus is a good first step in the application process. Everything you’ve learned in school and experienced in your life has taught you how you learn best and where you’re likely to feel comfortable. You should lean on this wisdom as you evaluate your scholastic options.

First, take that knowledge for a test drive. Ninth- and tenth-graders can learn more about life on a college campus by taking a “gas-tank tour” of nearby schools. Most students in the U.S. are within a day’s drive of at least a few colleges, and those schools are a good place to begin your search.

“Even if you haven’t decided on a major, you probably have an idea about your interests and learning style, which is more than enough to begin a strong college search.”

You should try to visit a variety of schools. Consider large and small colleges, schools that excel in subjects of interest, and campuses rural and urban. Keep a record of your feelings about each campus and school style. If you can’t physically visit a target school, check out its website: There, you can often find virtual tours, campus pictures, curricula listings, and testimonials from current and former students.

As you explore your options, you’ll develop a better feel for your ideal college. You may even find that you like a different kind of school than you expected; that’s very normal at this stage. Finally, try not to worry if you don’t know everything you want right away. Over time, your family, counselors, and advisors can help you hone in on the right school as you narrow your list.

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Understand what makes a good college

When evaluating schools, there are a number of factors to consider. The size, location, and culture of the campus are all important. Knowing what you want to study also helps, particularly if you are very passionate about a particular subject. Most larger schools offer a wide variety of majors, but some smaller colleges will have slimmer pickings, so keep that in mind.

Affordability will be important for many students. You shouldn’t entirely dismiss pricier schools right away, particularly if you have a strong academic background and could earn a large scholarship. Still, if cost is of primary concern, you’ll probably want to limit your search to public schools within your state and states with reciprocity agreements.

Compare Colleges

Once you have a few college visits under your belt, you should have a better idea of what kind of school you’d like to attend. From there, you can expand your college search beyond local campuses. A college search tool can provide you with all kinds of information about colleges throughout the country. These suggestions can lead you to each school’s website, where some colleges offer virtual tours.

Students seeking information about distant colleges can also attend college fairs. Typically held in the spring or fall, college fairs bring together dozens (sometimes hundreds) of colleges, allowing you to shop around and ask questions about programs, campuses, and financial aid options. Be sure to ask your school counselor for a schedule of college fairs near you.

One of the best ways to learn more about colleges is to attend a high school visit, which is when an admissions officer comes to your high school to talk about their instutition. These visits allow you to ask about important issues and talk with someone from the admissions department.

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Questions & Activities

  • Write down your ideal college. How big is it? Where is it located? Besides studying, what would you like to do with your free time when you’re on campus? What are the other students like? Is it close to home? Which of these things matters the most to you, and why?
  • Use this information to complete an online college search, and follow that up by visiting the websites of a couple of colleges that interested you. What other information would you like to know about these colleges? Where could you find that information?
  • Talk to your teachers about their college experiences. Where did they go? Why did they go there? If they had it to do over again, what might they do differently?
  • Ask the same questions to a couple of students when you visit a college campus. What do their answers tell you about your college search?
  • And whatever you do, remember: You are the expert on your educational goals. Your perfect school might be different from what your parents or your teachers or your peers want, and that’s okay. Applying to college is about finding the right fit for you.

The most important thing to remember is to set aside time to complete your applications. Ideally, candidates should aim to complete their applications in August, before senior year starts. That way, you won’t have to worry about applying to college and keeping up with your homework at the same time.

Alternatively, try to set aside 1-2 hours every weekend to focus on your college applications. That way, you can focus on being a student during the week and still complete your college applications in a timely fashion.

How and When to Apply for College

StepWhat’s InvolvedWhen to Do It
Visit CollegesStart by going on a “gas-tank tour” to visit nearby colleges. Sign up for campus tours to learn about their academics, resources, and school culture.First and second years of high school
Compare CollegesCompare colleges on factors like tuition, financial aid, reputation, and location.Sophomore and junior year
Complete and Gather MaterialsAsk for letters of recommendation, take SAT and/or ACT tests, take AP exams, and write personal statements.By the end of junior year
Apply for CollegeApply to your chosen colleges.Check the deadlines. Most land around the middle of senior year, though things like early decision can affect this.

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Common Questions About Applying to College

When Should You Start Applying for College?

Students can start preparing their application materials as early as they want, but the process begins in the fall of senior year. Most deadlines fall between January and February, so learners should give themselves enough time to complete their applications.

How Many Colleges Should I Apply To?

The Common App can make applying for college easier, but the general application process can be costly and lengthy. Learners may want to start with a list of 4-6 colleges that they want to attend and then go from there.

Should I Apply to College Early?

Applying for college early offers several advantages for students. Early applicants may find the admission requirements easier to meet. They can also receive responses sooner, allowing them to apply to more schools, if needed.

What Do I Need to Apply to College?

For most college applications, candidates need to provide high school transcripts, recommendation letters, and ACT or SAT scores. They may also need to write personal statements or answer essay questions.

Is It OK to Use the Same Materials for Different College Applications?

Students often use the same materials for different applications, as applicants can send transcripts and test scores to all prospective schools with little effort. However, some colleges have unique requirements that candidates must address individually, and it’s important to always double-check any personal essay prompts to ensure that your essay answers the brief.

Should I Apply to a College If My Grades Are Lower Than Their Usual Ranges?

Applying for college with lower grades than required is a risky prospect because it might mean losing out on your application fees, but it can pay off. For many schools, grade ranges are a guideline, not a rule; candidates with lower grades but extenuating circumstances, strong test scores, or a diverse resume may still earn acceptance.

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