The College Application Process

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The Savvy Student's Guide to College Education—Chapter Three

The Big Picture

Once senior year arrives, it's time for you to build a plan to complete your college applications. Using what you've learned as juniors by researching colleges and visiting college campuses, your first list of colleges will probably be between 6-8 schools, with each school on the list meeting a special need of either being close to home; a college where your chances of admission are above average; a college that's affordable, or a college you just plain love.

After completing the list, you'll want to think about the plusses and minuses of applying to any of your colleges under an Early Action, Early Action Restricted, or Early Decision, program. The deadline dates of each application will help you decide which application to work on first—but no matter when the application is due, you want to order official copies of test scores in late August or September, to make sure they arrive on time at the colleges that require them.

Once you've built your list and know the deadlines, it's time to complete the applications, including any essays and interviews that may be required by some colleges. The key to success with these parts of the application is to keep the approach conversational, since the goal of both is for the college to get to know you as a person, and as someone with more to offer than just good grades and test scores.

If you haven't already done so in spring of your junior year, the start of senior year is also the time to ask for letters of recommendation from your teachers, making sure to give them ample time to write a quality letter. One of the biggest advantages you can give a teacher letter of recommendation is to waive your right to see the letter.

Once an application is submitted, keep a close eye on your e-mail account. You may not use e-mail very much, but most colleges will acknowledge receipt of an application by e-mail, and e-mail you to ask for more information if they need it. Be sure to look in your junk mail folder, since a great deal of college e-mail ends up there.

Colleges will notify you with a decision to admit, reject, defer, or waitlist your application. With the exception of a rejection, each decision requires you to take additional steps in the admission process. In some cases, you can appeal a rejection, but this is rare.

With strong campus visits in the junior year, and a clear plan for completing applications in the fall of the senior year, you can make the most of the college application process, and still enjoy homecoming, prom, graduation, and all the other events that make senior year great—all while getting ready to begin a new chapter of your life in college.

In the chapter on selecting the right college, we talked about the importance of fit—finding colleges that have the right mix of programs and atmosphere that will challenge, support, and excite you. By looking at college websites and taking campus tours in your junior year, you start to understand what makes one college different from another (size, location, school spirit), and what makes some colleges seem like a better fit for your goals and interests.

Knowing what you're looking for in a college makes the application process that much easier. By taking a little time to get organized in the fall of senior year, you'll have plenty of time to prepare strong applications colleges will take seriously, while visiting even more college campuses, and enjoying the activities and traditions that make senior year awesome. This will make senior year enjoyable and productive, giving you all the time you need to find colleges that are perfect for you, without worrying too much.

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Before You Apply---Building a College List

You'll want to begin your senior year with a list of 6--8 colleges you're interested in. This list may change throughout senior year, but it's important to have a good starting list based on the qualities you're looking for in a college. This will give you a way to evaluate any new colleges you may hear about or visit in your senior year, and that can help you decide if a new college should be added to your list, or even replace another college on your list.

Six to eight colleges may seem like quite a few, but it's easy to build your list if you create it two colleges at a time. The first two colleges that go on your list are colleges you'd like to attend that are in the state where you live, or close enough to where you live that it would be easy to come home if you needed to.

In the fall of senior year, it might seem like the last thing you want to do is go to college somewhere close to home, but it's important to keep that option open, in case an unexpected family situation requires you to start your college career nearby. In addition, the cost of attending a public college or university as a state resident often reduces or eliminates the need to take out student loans (more about that later), and many state colleges offer honors or residential programs that will offer a quality learning experience with small class sizes and direct access to professors. It's important to keep this option open during senior year, and that's why these two colleges are a must.

The next colleges that go on your list are two colleges you'd like to attend where your GPA and test scores are above the average GPA and test score at that college. In addition, these colleges have to admit more than 20 percent of all students who apply. Your chances of admission are very good at these colleges, and it increases the chances you may qualify for a merit scholarship—money you don't have to pay back once college is over. In looking for colleges that meet this requirement, students can once again look for colleges that offer strong honors or residential programs for top students, but these colleges can be anywhere in the country, or in the world.

The next two are colleges you'd like to attend that require the least amount of borrowing or financial aid. Cost can be a very big factor in deciding which college to attend, and you can't always tell how much aid you will receive from every college. By looking at a college's cost of attendance and their net price calculator (both on the college's website), you can get a good idea which ones will cost less, and leave you with the least amount of debt once you graduate. These go on your list.

The last two colleges are schools you would just love to attend. These may be schools that are so popular, you can't be sure you'd be admitted, or they may be schools where your grades and test scores are below those of the average admitted student, but you really like them. Since you never really know about admission and affordability until you apply, add these colleges to your list—and if there are more than two, add those as well, as long as you know you'll have time to submit a strong application to all of them. (And what about that college you really like, but can't explain why? Put it on the list.)

As you put your list together, you may find a college that fits in more than one category—for example, there may be a school in your state that has a very low tuition where your grades and test scores are above their averages. If you're interested in that school, put it on the list. That may mean you end up with only four or five colleges on your list, but since they all fill at least one important role, your list is perfect.

Other students run into the opposite problem, where they have so many schools they simply love, they end up with a list of more than six or eight—and sometimes, their list is twice that long. If your college list has 10 or more schools, it's time to think carefully about the time and the money involved in submitting so many college applications. Given everything else you have to do senior year, will you really have time to put together a strong application for each of your colleges? Can you afford the extra $300--$500 you might need in application fees?

Finally, if you apply to, say, six dream colleges, will you be ready to accept the colleges' decisions if they all say no—and if all of those rejections come on the same day? It's more than OK to be brave and take chances; just remember to make a back-up plan in case your dream school doesn't come through for you.

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Applying Early

Once you have your starter list put together, it's time to decide if you want to apply to any of your colleges through a program where you get your admissions decision earlier than the spring of your senior year. Early programs give students more time to make their final college choice, and for many students, that lets them enjoy more of their senior year, knowing their future plans are all in place.

There are three kinds of early programs:

Early Action

Early Action programs allow you to apply by a specific date (usually in November or December) and hear back from the college in about 8--10 weeks, well before the typical response date in late March or early April. If you're admitted as an Early Action (or EA) student, you still have until May 1 to decide which college to attend, and it doesn't have to be the college that admitted you through an Early Action program. The advantage here is that you hear back from the college earlier than usual, but you still have plenty of time to make a final college choice. Many colleges offer Early Action as an option, and you can apply EA to as many colleges as you'd like.

Early Action Restricted

Early Action Restricted (EAR) offers the same advantages of Early Action, but if you apply through a Restricted program, that's the only early program where you can submit an application. Colleges that offer EAR want to make sure you've really thought about your decision to apply early, and that you know enough about the college to feel that it would be a very good fit for you.

The rules of EAR can be a little hard to follow. Some private colleges that offer EAR will allow you to apply to other public colleges as an Early Action candidate, while other colleges place different limits on your Early Action applications that are unique to their college. The website of the college will explain what limits apply to their EAR application programs—but it isn't a bad idea to talk to a counselor or call the college if the rules aren't clear.

Early Decision

Early Decision programs also have early deadlines, but in this case, if you're admitted through an Early Decision program, you must attend that college. Once a college notifies you that you have been admitted as an Early Decision (or ED) applicant, and they meet your financial aid needs, you must withdraw your applications from all of your other colleges. You don't get to find out if other colleges admitted you, or how much financial aid they would have given you. Once your ED college says yes to you, and if they meet your demonstrated financial need, your college application process is over.

If ED sounds like an option for only a few students, you're right. There aren't many students who start their senior year knowing what one college they absolutely want to go to more than any other college, who are willing to promise to stop looking at other colleges if their first choice college takes them as an ED student. Because ED students are so interested in one college, ED colleges usually admit a larger percentage of ED applicants than they do students who apply through the regular admission process.

Since ED makes your chances of admission greater, it may sound like something you want to do—but remember, if the college admits you ED, you have to go there. If this college is one of many you like, ED may not be the option for you. It's kind of like buying new clothes. You may love the first thing you see, but do you love it so much, you're willing to buy it before seeing anything else?

Many colleges also admit a larger percentage of their applicants through an Early Action program, but being admitted as an EA applicant doesn't mean you have to attend that college. Since EA programs allow students to hear back from the college early, while still having until May 1st to make a final college choice, more students apply to EA programs than ED programs. Some colleges offer both EA and ED, while others don't offer either. Be sure to check the application descriptions and deadlines for all of your schools.

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Ordering Your List

Now that your initial college list is complete, it's time to decide which application to complete first. To do that, visit the website of each college, and enter the following information in the table below:

College Application Tracker
Use this Google Docs table to track your college application process.

Using this table as your guide, begin work on the application that is due first. You might think you should start on the application with the most essays, but if that application isn't due until late January or December, you'll have more time to work on those—and you don't want to miss the deadline of an easier application.

In completing this table, make sure you know which of your colleges have a rolling admissions program. These colleges include most public colleges, and they often have a very late application deadline (like February 15 or March 30), but rolling admissions means they make decisions on applications in the order they are submitted. This usually means that students applying in October or November will hear back in December—and if there are more students admitted then, that will make it harder for students to be admitted who apply later in the year. This is even true for very large colleges that have rolling admissions deadlines—the longer you wait to apply, the harder it can be to get admitted. As a general rule, students should apply to rolling admissions colleges no later than October 15. There may be some exceptions to that rule, so check with your school counselor.

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Ordering Test Scores

No matter when an application is due, you'll want to have official results of your ACT and SAT scores sent in August or September to the colleges that require them. These orders can sometimes take up to a month to be delivered to the colleges, and no college that requires test scores will review an application without a copy of the results sent directly from the testing company. It doesn't matter if your application comes after your test scores arrive; colleges will hold on to your test scores until June of your senior year.

If you've already had your scores sent when you took the test, you don't have to send them again. In addition, some colleges will require you to send the results of every ACT and SAT test you've taken in 11th or 12th grade, while other colleges will let you decide which test scores to send. Check the admissions requirements of each college, and also see if the college will superscore your test results, by taking the best scores from different test dates to give you the highest possible test result. For example: you scored 24 on the Math section and 27 on the Science section of the ACT in April, but in June, you scored 26 on Math and 23 in Science. A college that superscores the ACT will take the 27 from the April Science test, and the 26 from the June Math test. If a college does that, be sure to make sure you're sending all of your best scores.

If you aren't sure what test scores to send, it's better to send the results of every test you've taken. No college I know of penalizes students for low scores if they've sent in higher scores—and if you forget to send in all of your results to a college that requires them, they may deny you admission just because you didn't give them everything they asked for. You've worked too hard for that to happen—so, when in doubt, send all scores.

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Kinds of Applications and Their Contents

There are three kinds of college applications:

Basic Application

A basic application asks you to supply some personal information (name, home address, date of birth), some information about your high school (name, address, expected date of graduation, GPA, senior year schedule), and some information about your college plans (intended major, will they live on campus, full-time or part-time study).

Enhanced Application

An enhanced application asks for the same information, and requires you to submit either an essay or teacher letters of recommendation.

Holistic Application

A holistic application asks for the same information as a basic application, as well as one or more student essays, and one or more teacher letters of recommendation. Some holistic applications will also require an interview.

We'll talk more about the do's and don'ts of essays and interviews in another chapter. For now, it's safe to say you should just be yourself—and give some thought to covering up your tattoos at a first interview.

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Teacher Letters of Recommendation

There are three keys to getting effective teacher letters of recommendation. Since the main reason you're going to college is to learn, colleges want to find out what it's like to work with you as a student in an academic class. That's why letters of recommendation need to come from a teacher who has worked with you in your junior or senior year, and has taught you in an academic area (English, Math, Science, Social Science, Language).

If you're going to major in art or music, the college may want a letter from your teacher in that area as well, but you will still most likely have to submit a letter from an academic teacher, too. If a coach or a boss wants to tell the college about what it's like to work with you, it's usually OK to send one extra letter, but only one—check with your college.

Since writing a good letter of recommendation takes time, it's important to give the teacher advanced notice. Many students will ask teachers in the spring of junior year. This doesn't mean the teacher will write the letter then, but it does give them a chance to schedule a time to write the letter and still get it into the college on time. If you have to ask in the fall, make sure you give the teacher at least three weeks to write their letter and submit it to the college.

Finally, a good letter of recommendation is written about you, but it isn't written to you. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) allows you to see your letters of recommendation after you've been admitted to the college, but most colleges ask you if you want to waive that right when you first apply.

It's wise to waive your right to see your letters. Some teachers feel a little nervous about writing a letter of recommendation you will eventually see, and that can affect the quality of the letter. In addition, some colleges wonder why you don't trust the teacher you've asked to write your letter of recommendation, and that can affect your admission. It's best to pick a teacher you trust, and waive your right.

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After You Apply

Most college applications are online, so the first thing you want to do once you apply is make sure the college has received your application. Colleges will usually send you an e-mail within two or three days after you apply to let you know they've received your application. This e-mail will sometimes end up in your junk mail folder, so check it often, since this is also where your e-mail notice of acceptance could end up! If you don't hear from the college a week after you've applied, call the office of admission to make sure they've received it. E-mail and phone calls may seem a little old school, but that's how most colleges communicate with students, so make sure you're comfortable using both.

Once you know the application has been received, all you can really do is wait to hear from the college, while keeping your grades up and enjoying your final year in high school. The only time you should contact the college before you hear back from them is if they ask you for additional information, or if you have a change in your senior year schedule. Some colleges will also ask you to let them know when you are suspended or disciplined at school after you apply. If they ask about this, you need to tell them, but you should first discuss how to do this with your counselor. (And do I really have to remind you it's better not to get suspended at all?)

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Kinds of Decisions

A college can make one of five decisions on your application:


Admission means they have accepted you as a student, provided you graduate from high school and continue to earn the same grades you've been receiving. Admission often means you'll have to submit an enrollment deposit, something you can do any time until May 1st.

If you plan on living on campus, you may have to make a housing deposit earlier than that, and either way, you'll probably have to attend some kind of orientation program. Read all of your admission information closely, and make a list of all of the information and deposits you need to submit to the college. If it's going to be hard on your family to find money for the deposits, call the college and ask what your options are; they may be able to waive the deposits.

Provisional Admission

Provisional admission means the college has accepted you, provided you meet some additional requirements. This usually means you're allowed to enroll, but you have to maintain a certain GPA in your first year of study. It may also mean you have to participate in required study skills or tutoring programs—or in some cases, start going to college in the summer. If you're offered provisional admission, make sure you read and understand the terms of admission.


Rejection means the college has not accepted you for enrollment. In many cases, rejection decisions are made because the college simply has too many qualified applicants, and not enough room to admit all of them. In other cases, the college has reviewed your application, and has determined that you would not be a successful student at that college.

Rejection isn't easy to take, but very often, this has nothing to do with you—it's all about the college not being big enough to take in every student they like. This is why it's important to build a good-sized list in the start of senior year. When it comes to music, you may like some bands more than others, but everyone likes more than one or two bands, and for different reasons. This is why your playlist is diverse, and it's why your college list should be, too.

If you receive a rejection notice, and you aren't sure why you were rejected, you can usually contact the college for more information, but it would be a good idea to talk with your counselor first. Very few colleges offer an appeals process to reconsider an application, but if you realize there's something you didn't tell the college that might affect your admission status, they may reconsider your application.


Deferral means the college needs more information before they can make a final decision on your application. Deferrals are usually given to students who apply Early Action or Early Decision, and the college feels they need to know more about you. In many cases, the college will ask for your current grades in your classes, and perhaps a new set of test scores. In other cases, the college will let you send in the additional information they've requested, as well as any other information you'd like them to consider.

If a college lets you submit additional information, be sure to take them up on the offer. Write a brief letter of 3--4 paragraphs that includes updates on what you've been doing since you submitted your application. This would include any new grades, but it would also include your work in clubs, sports, and activities, any awards you may have earned, or anything else you would like to share with them. This is also an opportunity to send another letter of recommendation to the college, if you have a letter you didn't already send, or if there is another teacher who could write a strong letter on short notice.

Once you submit this additional material, wait another 5 weeks or so. If you haven't heard back from the college, send another brief note that states your interest in the college, and gives them any additional updates. (And don't send them selfies with you wearing gear from that college. That usually comes across as cheesy.)


Waitlisted means the college will be happy to admit you as a student, as soon as they have room for you. Since not every student who is offered admission accepts the offer, this can create room for the college to move students off the waitlist, and accept them for admission.

If a college waitlists you, they will want to know if you would like to remain on the waitlist and still be considered for admission. If you do, this may also be a time to send them additional information about your accomplishments since the time you applied, and an additional letter of recommendation. Some colleges will accept this material, and others won't—read your waitlisted letter to see what your college allows you to submit.

If you decide to stay on the waitlist, it's important to put in an enrollment deposit at another college by May 1. Most colleges will review their waitlisted students in early May, and if you aren't offered admission at that point, you want to make sure you have a college to attend---that's why putting in a deposit at another college before May 1st is so important. If you are offered admission after May 1 as a waitlisted student at another college, just notify the college where you've put in a deposit that you will be attending another college. You can ask for your deposit back, but don't be surprised if the college denies your request.

Many students think applying to college is a complicated process. With a little advanced planning, and a clear understanding of what you're looking for in a college, you should be able to work on one application a weekend, staring in September, and be finished applying to colleges by Thanksgiving—and a little work always beats a lot of stress.

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More Resources

College Application checklist—College Board

College Application Checklist—NACAC

Student Rights and Responsibilities

Ordering ACT Test Scores

Ordering SAT Test Scores

College Admissions Glossary

Early Action and Early Decision Admissions

Admission Decisions: What Counts

Top 15 Mistakes to Avoid in Choosing a College

Colleges and Universities: Choosing the Right Fit

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