Prospective students should begin their college searches by identifying the characteristics of their ideal schools.
Visiting college campuses is a great way to build that knowledge, and these visits can also help you understand each school's application process.
The process for applying to college is pretty standard at most schools. Typically, you take the required tests, write any required personal statements, then submit an application and continue to focus on your high school studies. It's a good idea to keep an eye on your email, in case the college requests additional information about you while considering your application.
This page will explore the process of applying to college in more depth, helping you make sure you check all the right boxes and maximize your chances of getting into your dream school.
Is Getting Into College Hard?
Most schools admit nearly two-thirds of the students who apply for college. Thus if you apply on time, submit all required information, and have strong grades, it is likely that most schools will grant you admission.
While many seniors fear the college application process, it's actually pretty straight-foward, so long as you plan ahead. It can be difficult to find time to apply with so many other important events happening during your senior year, but when it comes to the task itself, you already have all the information you need: your name, address, the school you attend, your senior schedule, and the unique perspective you bring to your education.
Half the battle with college applications is scheduling. Find time to sit down and focus on working through your college application checklist, and the rest will be easy.
Knowing what you're looking for — and where you can find it — makes shopping more enjoyable. This is also true for shopping for colleges. Everything you've learned and experienced in school and in life means you are an expert in how you learn and where you feel comfortable; it also means you're qualified to judge whether schools are the right fit for you.
Every student should seek a school that helps them learn more about themselves and their interests, while still challenging them and providing support.
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.
First, take that knowledge for a test drive. Ninth- and tenth-graders can begin to develop their college knowledge by taking what's called a "gas-tank tour": a drive to visit nearby schools. Most people in the U.S. are within a day's drive of at least a few nearby colleges, and that's where your tour begins.
Visit as many varied schools as you can. Consider large and small colleges, schools that focus on 1-2 majors, universities in the city, and schools in the country, and keep a record of your feelings about each campus and school style. If you can't physically visit a school, check out its website, where you can often find campus pictures, curricula listings, and testimonials from current and former students.
As you explore options, you'll develop a better feel for your ideal college, and it might surprise you. For example, you may have started out looking for a school with an active campus and lots of school spirit; once you've visited a few campuses, though, you may find yourself more drawn to schools that offer lots of internships or a chance to study in another country. Similarly, you may have thought you wanted to go to a college that's a long way from home, but after visiting a nearby college, you've had a change of heart.
Allow yourself to be open to changing your initial plans — this is all part of the process. Don't worry if you don't know everything you want in a college (or your major) right away.
What Makes a Good College?
Important factors to consider when selecting schools include size, location, and campus culture. Knowing what you want to study also helps, because then you can check out the credentials of that specific program, but if you don't know at this point, that's fine too.
Don't limit your search based on cost alone; there are lots of ways to make expensive schools more affordable, and you don't want to rule out your perfect school based on price when you could pursue a scholarship. Even if you don't want to attend a pricey school, visiting one might introduce you to a special program or a student activity that does appeal to you, and that will give you better insight into what you're looking for in a college.
To make the most out of your college visits, start with this video, which gives you a quick overview of what makes a good tour. This video delves into greater detail. You can also use a checklist to help structure your visits.
One last piece of advice: Always write down your thoughts as soon as you're done visiting and before you talk with your parents, to keep your opinions separate from theirs. Their perspectives are important, but you're the person who's going to school!
Once you have a few college visits under your belt, you can expand your college search beyond local campuses. An online college search tool can provide you with all kinds of information about colleges throughout the world. These suggestions can lead you to each college's website, where some colleges even have 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. 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 admissions departments.
How to Apply for College
As you approach the end of your junior year of high school, you should begin compiling a list of 4-6 top-choice prospective colleges. 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. For example, every school requires a copy of your high school transcripts, which you can request through your high school records office. Your school usually sends them directly to the college. Below are a few other items to make sure you have.
Many colleges require a college entrance examination, although some schools have begun to drop this requirement. The two most popular college tests are the ACT and the SAT, which measure what you've learned in high school. While similar, they do have some important differences. 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 — or you can 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 junior year.
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 of recommendation allow the college to get a better sense of who you are beyond your grades. For example: Do you ask lots of questions? Come to class prepared? Take the lead in group activities? Show interest in learning? A letter of recommendation can answer all of these questions.
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.
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.
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 work.
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
|Step||What's Involved||When to Do It|
|Visit Colleges||Start 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 Colleges||Compare colleges on factors like tuition, financial aid, reputation, and location.||Sophomore and junior year|
|Complete and Gather Materials||Ask 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 College||Apply to your chosen colleges.||Check the deadlines. Most land around the middle of senior year, though things like early decision can affect this.|
Frequently Asked Questions
When Should I 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.