Everything you need to know about the college application process

Got questions about applying for college?

It’s college application season! This can be an exciting time (and a confusing one, too!) for a lot of people. There’s a lot that goes into a college app. Whether you have it all figured out or need a few pointers, here’s the rundown on some college application FAQs.

What should I look for in a school?

You’ll want to go to a school that suits your academic needs and makes you happy, right? Here are some things to keep in mind when picking schools you think you’ll thrive at:

  • Majors and minors: The school for you definitely has to have programs that you’re interested in.
  • Cost: The total price is a huuuge deciding factor when it comes to the school you pick.
  • Class size: Are you feeling a big campus with large lectures, or are you into a smaller campus vibe with more close-knit classes?
  • Location: Do you want to stay close to home, or are you ready for an adventure somewhere far away? Would you live on- or off-campus?
  • Campus life: Are you into sports or Greek life? Theater or student government? Extracurriculars are super important to keep in mind.
  • Post-grad opportunities: You’re going to college to get more knowledge, but what about your next steps? Whether it’s straight into the workforce, going to graduate school, or something else, it’s important to know that the schools you’re interested in can put you on the right path.
  • Academic + mental health support: Everyone needs help sometimes. Tutoring services, mental health counseling, and more are things to consider if you think you’ll need it.

The number of schools you apply to is totally up to you, but admissions experts recommend applying to between four to 12 schoolsfootnote 1. All of these schools tend to fall between three categories: reach schools, safety schools, and match schools. Here’s what these mean:

  • Reach schools: A reach school is a school where your chances of getting in are slim, but not impossible. The school’s acceptance rate might be really low, or your GPA and test scores might be below their average. It’s not a guarantee that you’ll be accepted, but it’s always worth a shot!
  • Safety schools: A safety school is a school where your chances of getting in are super high. Your GPA and test scores are likely much higher than what they’re asking for, and their acceptance rate might be pretty high, too. You could be a shoo-in for acceptance, so this is a safe option.
  • Match schools: A match school is a school where you meet the criteria for acceptance. Your GPA and test scores are within their desired range, so this is the type of school you can feel comfortable applying to.

What do I need to submit with my application?

As you start getting your applications ready, there are some other hoops and hurdles to get through. As simple as it would be to say, “I want to go here” and click a button, there are some other things you need to send to up your chances of getting accepted:

  • High school transcripts: This is definitely a non-negotiable–you have to send your transcripts so that the admissions team can see what your grades are like.
  • Short answer and essay responses: A lot of schools have their own questions they need you to answer to get an understanding of who you are and why you want to go to their school.
  • Letters of recommendation: Who doesn’t want someone to hype them up? If you’re required to submit a letter of rec, consider a teacher, counselor, manager, or someone else who has known you from an academic or professional lens to explain why you’re amazing.
  • Application fees: Unfortunately, some college applications aren’t free. Prices vary depending on the school, but those fees can add up. However, there are ways for you to get your fees waived—make sure you do some research on this. For example, if you received a fee waiver for the SAT® or ACT®, you might be able to get a fee waiver. And pro tip: sometimes if you go on a campus tour, they’ll give all attendees a fee waiver for the application.
  • OPTIONAL: Resume: Resumes aren’t always required from schools, but if you have work, volunteer, or extracurricular experiences that make you stand out, feel free to add that to your application.
  • OPTIONAL: Standardized test scores: Lots of schools no longer require you to share your SAT® or ACT® scores, but if you’re feeling especially proud of yours, feel free to submit them!

What should I write for my essay?

This is the hardest part of the application process for a lot of people—it definitely was for me. It’s challenging to sit down and write one of the most important essays you’ll ever write, but the hardest part can be picking a topic. Luckily, most college application programs have specific questions they’d like you to answer, so it takes the guessing out of the equation. For questions where you have a choice, pick the one you feel the most comfortable and confident answering. Here’s a list of essay prompts from the Common Application®, a popular college application program, to give you an idea of what to expect.

When should I apply?

When you should apply depends on the application deadlines of the schools you’re interested in. Here are the main deadlines that are widely used across the country:

  • Early Decision: “Early decision” deadlines tend to be in early to mid-November (November 1st is a common date for early decision). Applying “early decision” is binding—if you get accepted, you’ll be obligated to go to that school. Because of this, you’re only allowed to apply “early decision” to one school. If you’re super sure of which school you want to go to, this is a good time to apply and make the process move quicker.
  • Early Action: “Early action” deadlines also tend to be in early to mid-November (November 15th is a common date for early action). “Early action” is similar to “early decision” in terms of the timing, but the biggest difference is that applying “early action” is not binding. You can apply “early action” to multiple schools, and you’re not obligated to go to any schools you get accepted to. You’ll have until College Decision Day, May 1st, to notify a school that you’re committing to going there. This is a good option for students who want to get their applications out of the way early, but don’t want to commit to one school just yet.
  • Regular Decision: “Regular decision” deadlines are usually in early January to mid-February. This is the average time when students apply for college, as it gives them more time in the fall to get their application and all of the accompanying materials together.
  • Rolling Admission: “Rolling admission” has varying deadlines depending on the school. Some don’t even have a deadline at all—they’ll take applications until their incoming class is full. This is when the admissions office reviews applications as they get them. Once they complete their review, they’ll send their decision shortly after. The entire process typically takes four to six weeks. This is a great option if you want to get your admission decision quickly.

How do I apply?

Let’s get into the good stuff—the actual applying part. Some schools still accept snail mail applications, but for many, it’s easier and a lot more streamlined to apply online. There are a few online programs for students to turn in their applications:

  • The Common Application®: The Common Application®, often referred to as the “Common App®,” is an online application for incoming undergraduate students to apply for college. It has more than 1,000 colleges and universities across the world for you to apply to, and you can apply to multiple schools all in one place. Because of this, this is one of the most common (no pun intended) programs for students to use.
  • The Coalition Application: Like The Common App®The Coalition Application (The Coalition App) is a program for incoming college students to apply for school. The main difference between this and the Common App® is that the Coalition App is catered toward 150+ schools that are vetted to help make college more affordable for students demonstrating financial need.
  • The Common Black College ApplicationThe Common Black College Application is a program for incoming college students to apply to more than 50 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) instantly for a one-time fee of $20footnote 2. For students who are interested in applying to HBCUs exclusively, using this application may be easier and quicker than using another program and potentially paying more in application fees.
  • School-specific applications: Some schools choose to keep their applications separate from an all-encompassing program like the ones listed here. For example, Georgetown University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are just a couple of schools that have individual applications you can access on their websites. Other schools, like all nine campuses of the University of California, have an application portal for the entire school system.

What happens after I turn in my applications?

You’ve turned your applications in! Now comes the hard part—the waiting game. The amount of time it takes for a decision to come through your inbox varies and each experience is different, so don’t compare the timing of your decisions to your friends’.

If you realize that you made a mistake on your applications, don’t worry. Reach out to the admissions office of the school(s) you’ve applied to and let them know as soon as you can before the decision is made.

When you get your decision back, you’ll likely be told one of four things: you’ve been accepted, you’ve been rejected, you’ve been waitlisted, or you’ve been deferred.

  • Accepted: You got in! If you applied early decision, then this is your school—if not, then this is one of your options. You should be getting a financial aid offer and other materials in the mail shortly after your acceptance. But make sure you “accept” your acceptance. The school will want to make sure that you know you got in. If you don’t confirm, they can give your spot away. If you get accepted, you may even be asked to do a college interview for an admissions officer to put a name to a face—you may also be able to get some extra scholarship money!
  • Rejected: Unfortunately, you didn’t get accepted to this school. But don’t worry! There may be other schools you get into that are the right fit, or you can always try to transfer to this school after spending some time at another school.
  • Waitlisted: If you’ve been waitlisted, this isn’t bad news! This means that the school thinks you’re a great fit and wants you to go there, but they didn’t pick you this round. It’s possible that they didn’t have enough room in their incoming class, but you can still get accepted later on in the application period.
  • Deferred: Being deferred means that a school needs to spend some more time going through your application to make a decision. If you applied “early decision” or “early action,” you’ll likely hear back from them during the “regular decision” period.

You've got this

The college application process can feel super scary and very complicated—but it doesn’t have to be! Give yourself plenty of time to work everything out and give yourself some grace along the way. Good luck!

P.S. While you’re working through your college apps, make sure you’re working on submitting the FAFSA®, too! You don’t have to wait until you’ve been accepted by a school to turn one in—the sooner you apply, the more financial aid you could get.

footnote Sallie Mae does not provide, and these materials are not meant to convey, financial, tax, or legal advice. Consult your own financial advisor, tax advisor, or attorney about your specific circumstances.

footnote External links and third-party references are provided for informational purposes only. Sallie Mae cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information provided by any third parties and assumes no responsibility for any errors or omissions contained therein. Any copyrights, trademarks, and/or service marks used in these materials are the property of their respective owners.

footnote FAFSA® is a registered service mark of U.S. Department of Education, Federal Student Aid.

footnote CSS Profile, SAT, Advanced Placement, and AP are trademarks registered by the College Board, which is not affiliated with, and does not endorse, this website.

footnote 1. https://www.bestcolleges.com/blog/how-many-colleges-apply-to/#:~:text=Every%20year,%20prospective%20college%20students,applications%20to%204%2D12%20schools.

footnote 2. https://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/articles/what-to-know-about-the-common-black-college-application

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