College Application Guide
Updated November 8, 2022
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Submitting polished and informative application materials can help you attend the college of your choice.
Setting yourself apart from other students during college application season is crucial to your success. Colleges and universities continue to see an increase in the number of applicants each year. While admission trends are encouraging, acceptance rates remain competitive and selective. Applicants need solid materials to rise to the top and stand out from others.
This guide for applicants and prospective students offers actionable advice on how to approach the college application process. Preparation for that process should begin early — during your freshman year, ideally — and continue throughout high school. This page explores ways to give yourself an edge in the admissions process.
Application Quick Tips
Take a rigorous course load
Compare and complete standardized tests
Commit to 1-2 extracurricular activities
Get to know your teachers and mentors
Learn the specifics about your prospective schools
Write a thoughtful and detailed essay displaying your personality
Include any optional materials
Audit your social media
Triple-check your application for mistakes
Get your application in early
Connect with admissions counselors
Challenge Yourself Academically
The college admissions process evaluates applicants' readiness for study and potential for academic excellence. Stand-out applications showcase achievement, merit, and previous academic success.
Taking honors classes or AP courses can give you a significant advantage. Most colleges generally prefer applicants with a B in an honors program over those with an A in standard courses because it shows initiative. Many local community colleges also offer courses for high school students that grant college credit, which can similar bolster applications.
Choose the Right Standardized Test
Students should take standardized tests as early as possible, allowing themselves time to prepare, complete the test, and send out the results. Candidates generally take the American College Testing exam (ACT) or the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) during their junior year of high school. Most schools accept either test, but some prefer one over the other, so check with your target schools for details.
These exams both assess college readiness, but they cater to different skill sets. The ACT provides more opportunity for students who excel in language arts, while the SAT focuses more on quantitative reasoning and command of evidence. Many students take both exams and use the higher score in their application materials.
Kaplan Test Prep offers a handy quiz to help determine which test is best for you to take. You can find more study information and prep resources in our guide to standardized tests.
|Test Length||Three hours (or three hours and 50 minutes, with the essay option)||Three hours and 55 minutes, with each section given an allotted amount of time|
|Test Format||Paper or computer-based, with two main sections: mathematics and critical reading and writing, plus an optional essay||Paper or computer-based, with four main sections: English, mathematics, reading, and scientific reasoning, plus an optional essay|
|Scoring||Each section is scored on a 200-800 scale; results generate a combined composite score on a 400-1600 scale||Each section is scored on a 1-36 scale; scores are averaged to generate a composite score on the same scale|
Participate in Meaningful Extracurriculars
Admissions departments often look to extracurricular choices to help assess potential students. When selecting extracurricular activities, candidates should aim for quality over quantity. Demonstrating your passion and commitment to 1-2 activities related to your interests will reflect better on you than including a drawn-out list of disparate activities.
Some applications use a separate section for extracurriculars. If yours doesn't, find a way list them anyway; often, you can do this in your resume or CV, or you can use them in your personal essay. This demonstrates your passion and shows that you can characterize and reflect on your experiences in a meaningful way.
Most students opt for sports or other school clubs for their extracurriculars, but there are also other, more unique options to consider. We've included a few suggestions below.
- Run a small business, such as an Etsy shop
- Learn programming and build a website
- Start a blog or self-publish a book
- Train for and run a marathon
- Raise money for a local political candidate
Solid relationships and mentorships are crucial for college admission.The best applicants take the time to get to know their teachers, counselors, and other mentors in high school, which can pay off in academic support.
During the application process, candidates can reach out to these mentors for recommendation letters and other admission materials. Even when not required, these letters can significantly strengthen your applications. When deciding who to ask to write a recommendation letter for you, choose a mentor who honestly understands your potential for academic success and can advocate for you. Be sure to contact them well in advance of your application deadline — 5-6 weeks, ideally.
Do Your Research
Nothing will send you to the bottom of the pile faster than a rushed application, and getting details wrong demonstrates a lack of care. Take the time to fully research your prospective schools. Browse their websites, review their mission statements and unique characteristics, and review faculty profiles for the department you plan to attend.
Once you've collected it, use this information to hone your admission materials. Nothing signals interest more effectively than demonstrating your familiarity and potential fit with a school.
The personal essay component is often the most important part of your application. Consider the prompt as an opportunity to appear genuine and authentic while showcasing your writing and critical thinking skills.
Admissions officers are most interested in how you describe yourself — your experience, qualifications, and future goals — and taking a thoughtful, reflective approach demonstrates your potential for academic success. Check out our guide on how to write a successful college application essay.
College Essay Dos and Don'ts
Respond to the prompt
Be honest and genuine
Give yourself plenty of time to write
Describe experiences not mentioned elsewhere in your application
Tailor your work to fit each school
Proofread, revise, and edit
Be specific, concise, and detailed
Get feedback from people you trust
Exceed the page limit or word count
Plagiarize or use someone else's work
Write and submit your essay at the last minute
Simply rehash your resume
Copy and paste your essay from previous applications
Rely on spell-check alone
Use clichés or broad generalizations
Rely on casual or colloquial language
Go the Extra Mile
An application that goes above and beyond signals your motivation and helps you stand out from other candidates. There's no need to go overboard, though: Just a little extra can go a long way.
Take advantage of any optional steps or sections in any application. When a college extends the option to provide additional information, it's really asking whether you care enough to do the extra work. Your answer should be yes! If you can supply supplemental materials outlining extracurriculars or other achievements, provide them. If you can participate in an optional interview, do it. The more you can show of your achievements, the better.
Check Your Social Media
Your social media presence can have more impact on your applications than you think. College admissions officers often browse applicants' social media accounts and use their findings to inform decisions. Inside Higher Ed recently reported that 36% of admissions officers check prospective students' social media profiles — up 25% since 2019. In some cases, high-profile schools have even rescinded admissions offers based on social media content.
Social media platforms are, essentially, public interfacing tools. They can allow you to put your best foot forward — or to make public blunders. Maintaining a professional and appropriate social media presence can help your applications along.
Proofread, Proofread, Proofread
Always double- and triple-check everything before you submit. Proofread more than you think you should, and ask friends or family members to review your materials, too. The more eyes you can get on your application materials, the better chance you have of catching mistakes.
Proofreading errors matter. Avoidable mistakes, like including the wrong college name on your essay, can be the difference between receiving an offer or getting rejected. Your strength as an applicant depends on clear, accurate, and polished materials.
Applying early helps to get the paperwork process out of the way, shows initiative, and gives you an advantage over the competition. Most colleges admit about half of their total applicants, but acceptance rates jump significantly for students applying through early action or early decision options.
It's worth noting, however, that some schools have exclusivity rules for early decision, meaning that if they accept you on early decision, you must then choose to attend that school. You can't apply to other schools at the same time. Check with your prospective schools for more specifics.
The admission process doesn't end once you submit your materials. You do not need to keep constant contact with schools, but you don't want to disappear entirely, either. Periodically communicating with your college admissions counselor and other points of contact will keep you updated on the process.
Thoughtfully follow up through email or phone calls, and take advantage of any campus visit days to meet with admissions counselors. If the school does not offer specific visit days, try to set one up through a private appointment.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is Most Important in a College Application?
The most important thing is to make sure that you submit a complete application that reflects you and your potential. Admissions officers review applications as a whole, so yours is only as strong as your weakest section. Always complete any optional sections.
How Do I Make My College Essay Stand Out?
Invest time in crafting a good opening to your essay — one that both grabs your readers' attention and sets the stage for what is to come. Your essay should give admissions officers a sense of who you are, your potential, and your ability to communicate effectively.
What Kinds of Students Do Colleges Want?
Colleges and universities want passionate, thoughtful, well-rounded, and motivated students. As you put your applications together, try to showcase aspects of your high school career or extracurricular experiences that highlight how you contribute to your community.
Do Colleges Care If You Have a Job?
Colleges look for relevant and influential extracurricular activities that relate to your long-term goals, show a commitment to service, or indicate leadership potential. A job is just one way to meet that expectation.
How Can I Impress a College?
A candidate can impress colleges by clearly demonstrating who they are as a person and how they can contribute in a learning environment. Do not embellish your achievements. Instead, paint an honest picture of your personality, accomplishments, and aspirations.
Blake Huggins is a Boston-based writer and researcher with roots in north Texas and southern Oklahoma. He holds degrees in religion and philosophy and writes widely on higher education, healthcare, and the humanities broadly conceived. He earned a PhD from Boston University and has taught college courses in philosophy, writing, and composition.
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