It’s Application Time: a How to Apply to College Guide

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Congratulations on your decision to go to college.  By now, you’ve probably toured some campuses and started doing some research online. Now the fun really starts – it’s application time!

The How to Apply to College Process

Most people find the experience overwhelming, but don’t panic. Like any other large task, the application process can be broken down into smaller, more manageable steps. This guide provides an overview of the college application process and some helpful suggestions for seeing it through to fruition.

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Typically, the work involved in selecting a school and applying begins with PSATs and ends by April or May of your senior year in high school when you receive your acceptance/rejection letters.

Here’s a quick overview of the how to apply to college process:

  • Determine what kind of school is a fit for you
  • Research and select your target schools
  • Complete the application
  • Write the Essay
  • Interview (sometimes optional)
  • Receive response letters and decide

Finding a Good Fit

You’ll read here on Value Colleges that College is where you’ll learn skills that will carry you into a career you can be proud of; practice learning and adapting so you can roll with all the unpredictable changes that come in life; develop your mind so you can see a solution to every problem. So you want to make the right choice, but with so many options, where do you begin?

Socrates said, “Know Thyself.” That’s good advice for when it comes time to compile your target list of schools. Do you have a burning desire to become a video game developer or are you more broadly focused? What is your answer to the question “Where do you want to be in 10 years?”

Have trouble coming up with answers to those questions? Don’t go it alone. Talk to your family members, trusted advisers, teachers, coaches- anyone who knows you or works with you. There are also books available and a myriad of resources on the Internet to help you see the picture of who you are and what you want more clearly.

Narrowing it Down

Once you’ve taken the time to think about personal qualities and goals, begin thinking about what kind of school you want to attend and what kind of institution is going to be a good fit. This will help you start narrowing the list. Here are some sample questions to get you started:

  • Are you interested in a two-year or four-year college?
  • Do you want to stay close to home or is moving farther away an option?
  • Is the size of the school important to you?
  • Is there a major you are interested in or will you wait before picking a major area of study?


The Cost of Education

Do you plan to apply for financial aid or scholarship money? Everyone knows a college degree increases employment prospects and compensation, but you will naturally want to incur the least amount of debt possible. Be sure to read about our Top 50 Universities with the Lowest Debt.

Do not downplay the role scholarships can play in your student career. There are literally thousands of them being offered by schools, private companies, organizations, rotary clubs, and churches. Our Top 50 College Scholarships for 2015-2016 is a good start for those looking to get assistance with their tuition bill. Finally, remember to check deadlines and always apply early. You may find early admission scholarships available only to early application submitters from the institution you are applying to.

Diversifying Your Applications

According to Forbes Magazine, there’s no point in applying to more than 10 to 15 schools as long as you take the time and do the research to polish those applications.  A well-known rule of thumb to ensure you farewell is to apply to a few stretches, a few good fits, and a few safety schools.

Stretch, dream, or reach schools are schools that you may get accepted to, but the chances are slim. They’re considered a possible long shot. Chances are, your test scores, class rank, and SATs would fall at the bottom of the class that was accepted prior year at these institutions.

Best-fit or match schools are those schools where your test scores, SATs, and class ranking are a perfect match with last year’s freshman class. Chances are very good that you will get accepted when you apply to a few best-fit schools.

Safety schools are those colleges where your chances of getting accepted are high. While there is no sure thing when applying to schools, safe schools represent your best bet. Your scores and rank should exceed last year’s freshman class.

Karen Ekman-Baur, a counselor with Unigo suggests: You might consider, for instance, applying to two “reaches”, and two “safety” schools, with the rest of your applications going to schools at which you estimate having about a 50/50 chance of being accepted based on your high school grades, standardized test scores, extracurricular activities, and other significant factors.

How to Apply to College – First, Timing is Everything

When you apply Early Decision you are basically committing to that school; if you get in you have to go there. Many people apply Early Decisions when they clearly have a first-choice school.

Early Action is different in that you are not obligated to attend the school if you are accepted. Many people like to apply to a few schools this way because, if they are accepted, they do not have to complete any more applications. Early action is nice because you are not committed to attending those schools as you would be under the Early Decision process.

Sometimes individuals who apply Early Action and are not admitted will be deferred to Regular Decision. Make sure you are familiar with the policies regarding application deadlines for each of your target schools – they are not all the same.

If you submit Early Action or Early Decision applications you will do so before the regular deadline (usually in January or February) and you’ll hear back soon after that. Most students apply Regular Decision. If you apply Regular Decision you will typically receive your offer or rejection letter sometime in March or April.

Completing the Application

You’ll complete the application on the school’s website or with the Common Application. If you’re not familiar with the Common Application, Wikipedia tells us: the Common Application (informally known as the Common App) is an undergraduate college admission application that applicants may use to apply to any of 625 member colleges and universities in 47 states.

If you’re still wondering if you should use the Common Application in your college process, sources say it’s worthwhile. U.S. News & World Reports urges: The Common App is a powerful tool, so use it! The Common Application offers students the ability to complete one application and essay and send it to multiple member schools, as opposed to having to complete each individual college’s application. Furthermore, The Common Application can be done online, which helps students stay organized. Students need to keep in mind that many colleges have supplements that also need to be completed. This could mean writing additional short essays, so make sure to budget appropriately.

Whether you are using the Common Application or submitting through the school’s website, make sure you read all of the instructions carefully. You will be asked to provide information such as the school you attend, your grade point average (GPA), test scores, awards received, and information about any extracurricular activities.

Essay Writing

The college to which you are applying will give you prompts for your essay and you may get to choose which one you will write.

Here is a process you can follow:

  • Remember to think about the prompt and brainstorm the topic
  • Create an outline and develop your first draft
  • Read and revise your draft
  • Edit your draft for spelling and grammatical errors
  • Share your draft with someone who can give you quality feedback
  • Create your final draft
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The Interview

The interview is your opportunity to show a prospective school who you are and convey your genuine interest in going there. Practice and be as prepared as possible.

The New York Times provides these suggestions: conduct mock interviews to practice handshake, eye contact, voice inflection, and knowledge of a particular institution.

You’ve Sent Out Applications. What’s Next?

At last, the business of choosing target schools, interviewing, and submitting applications is all done. At this point, you get a well-deserved breather. It’s time to keep the focus on school work so your grades don’t drop and look forward to receiving your responses.

You’ll likely receive some rejection letters and some acceptance letters. Once you receive an acceptance from a school, follow their instructions to indicate that yes – you will attend, or no – you will not attend. You will need to respond in this way to every acceptance letter you receive.
If you respond in the affirmative, make sure you look at the required deposit information and send it in on time. The deposit essentially secures you a seat in the class come the fall.

The Waitlist

In the event that you receive a letter informing you you have been waitlisted, it means the board of admissions at that school feels you are a good fit, but they are not able to accept every applicant. If it is one of your first-choice schools, you will have to decide if you would like to stay on the waitlist in the hope that you will be accepted later.

In order to insure you will attend a college or university, notify another school where you have been accepted (your “runner-up” to the school where you were waitlisted) that you will attend. Be sure to send the deposit money securing you a seat by the deadline they specified.

If you get into your first-choice school and decide to attend, you will need to notify the “runner-up” of your decision and you will lose the deposit you sent in earlier.

No matter what college you choose, you’ve made the decision to invest in yourself and your future. So, make the most of it!

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Aya Andrews


Aya Andrews is a passionate educator and mother of two, with a diverse background that has shaped her approach to teaching and learning. Born in Metro Manila, she now calls San Diego home and is proud to be a Filipino-American. Aya earned her Masters degree in Education from San Diego State University, where she focused on developing innovative teaching methods to engage and inspire students.

Prior to her work in education, Aya spent several years as a continuing education consultant for KPMG, where she honed her skills in project management and client relations. She brings this same level of professionalism and expertise to her work as an educator, where she is committed to helping each of her students achieve their full potential.

In addition to her work as an educator, Aya is a devoted mother who is passionate about creating a nurturing and supportive home environment for her children. She is an active member of her community, volunteering her time and resources to support local schools and organizations. Aya is also an avid traveler, and loves to explore new cultures and cuisines with her family.

With a deep commitment to education and a passion for helping others succeed, Aya is a true inspiration to those around her. Her dedication to her craft, her community, and her family is a testament to her unwavering commitment to excellence in all aspects of her life.

Find your perfect value college is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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