A Comprehensive Guide to College Admissions and the Application Process

There are many moving parts that go into applying for college, such as writing essays, acquiring recommendation letters, requesting transcripts, interviewing with admissions officers, and reporting test scores. Needless to say, it takes time, effort, and organization to ensure that your college application stands out and nothing gets in the way of meeting critical deadlines.

Getting Started

At the end of the day, you want to attend a school that fits you – one where you can thrive academically and be happy at. With that said, it’s smart to make a list of a few schools that you think would be a good fit. Applying to 5-8 colleges is recommended. Create a list of:

  • Dream schools – colleges that you know will be a challenge to get into
  • Safety schools – colleges that you have a strong likelihood of getting into
  • Back-up schools – colleges that you feel very confident will accept you

TIP: Aiming for at least 1-2 schools in each category will increase your odds of getting into at least one, or ideally more, giving you more options to choose from come April of senior year!

The Application Process

There are several key components to consider when starting the application process. While it may seem daunting at first, breaking it down and starting early helps! Ideally, college-bound students should spend the summer before senior year visiting a few of the schools they are interested in, conducting online research, and getting insight from college forums and counselors.

Getting Ahead of the Game

Speaking of early, Early Decision and Early Action are options that allow students to apply for a college ahead of time and get the admissions department’s decision before traditional applicants. If you are the type that gets anxiety from having to wait longer to hear back from your dream school, then you may want to consider this path. The early admissions approach gives prospective college students the peace of mind if they are accepted, and more time to plan for the move to the school. Contrarily, if not accepted, people get more time to approach or come up with Plan B. Early applicants may also get increased consideration because colleges tend to accept a higher percentage of them than they do traditional applicants.

One thing to note about Early Decision is that it is binding. This means that if the college accepts you, you are obligated to attend it, and will not be eligible for more financial aid. Early Action differs from Early Decision in that you can submit your application early with no obligation to attend that college. If you are in between a couple of schools on your “top list,” then Early Action may be a better choice!

The Common Application

The Common Application is widely used and accepted by more than 700 colleges and universities, making it a convenient option for college-bound students. You can simply fill out one application and send it out to several schools. This can be a big time-saver if you are planning to try for multiple institutions!


While you can submit as many applications as you want, keep in mind that each application will cost anywhere from $35 to $90. With that said, it’s a good idea to refer back to that list of dream, safety, and back-up schools to help you decide which ones are worthy of applying for. Students from low-income families can consult college admissions offices to request an application fee waiver. Terms and conditions apply, so the waiver is not guaranteed, but worth trying for if you think you may qualify!

Writing Your College Essay

In addition to your common application, a solid college essay is an important part of the application process. The essay gives prospective students the opportunity to shine, and distinguish themselves from others. So, you want to take the time to make sure it is well-written and reflects your strengths and personality! Many get intimidated by this step, but it’s really not as scary as it may seem. At the end of the day, you want to make sure that the essay is about you. Think about the essay as a way for admissions advisors to get to know you, relate with you on a personal level, and hear your perspective on a given topic. Don’t be afraid to have fun and inject as much of “you” as you can into this!

Tackling a College Interview

Not every college will require an interview. However, for the ones that do, it’s usually in February, and another opportunity for college-bound students to make a personal impression while having valuable face-to-face interaction with an admissions officer. Whether you are a natural or not with interviews, it’s smart to take time to practice and prepare for this so that you can best differentiate yourself from others in a way that you can’t in your college essay.

The Final Decision: What’s It Going to Be?

By the time March and April of senior year rolls around, schools have made the majority of decisions, and students hear back from college admissions. Schools with rolling admissions may even send out letters sooner. After hearing back from most or all of the schools you’ve applied to, it’s time to make a decision! Typically, students are given a few weeks to commit to a school. May 1 is a popular deadline for most colleges.

The decision-making process can be difficult if you’ve been accepted into several schools on the top of your list. If this is the case, it’s a good idea to sit down and weigh out the pros and cons of each. Consider aspects like the institution’s prestige, academic offerings, location, cost, alumni success, and your personal priorities and goals while making your final decision. If you have only been accepted to only one or a couple of the top schools you’ve applied to, then your decision may be a no-brainer! We advise using the same criteria to thumb through the pros and cons of each school in order to decide on one that’s best suited for you.

On the other hand, if you have not been accepted by your top schools, don’t be discouraged! You can always appeal the admission decision if you feel that you can prove there was information missing or overlooked. Attending a community college for two years and then trying to transfer to your dream school may be another viable option and a cost-effective one! These days, plenty of students opt to stay home to save money on room and board and get general education classes out of the way at community colleges before going to a four-year college. Typically, community college courses are more affordable, too.

Regardless of the admissions outcome, there’s an opportunity for everyone. Though it can be a stressful time for many to-be high school graduates, it’s crucial to keep your head up and make the best of the opportunities being presented to you. Remember that what’s meant to be will find its way!