student in library aisle researching how to apply for different college applications
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Applying For College 101: How To Do It & What You’ll Need

04.05.2022 • 11 min read

Jennifer Rivera

Subject Matter Expert

The article is the ultimate guide on how to apply for college. It provides a list of documents, when to apply, and much more.

In This Article

  1. Types of College Application Policies

  2. Documents You Will Need to Apply for College

  3. How to Apply for College and When to Do It

  4. Which College Application Platform Should I Use?

  5. How Much Does It Cost to Apply for College?

College applications can be confusing and a bit intimidating, especially the first time you do it. So let’s walk through some steps on how to apply for different college applications and go over the differences.

Types of College Application Policies

There are three basic kinds of college application policies. There isn’t a “better or worse” policy in this situation, but it is good to know what kind of policy the colleges you apply to use. That way you can know what to expect throughout the application and admissions process.

Open Admissions

An open admissions process basically means that the college is non-competitive. As long as you have a high school diploma or a GED, you can generally attend. A community college usually uses this process.

Open Admissions is great for students who are looking for a less rigorous college admissions process. It’s also great if you are applying close to the semester start date since the process usually only takes one to two weeks. It’s always best to apply as early as possible though, so you have the best choices for classes.

Regular Admissions

Regular admissions is the most common type of admissions process, which is what makes it “regular”. Many of these schools have a bit more to their college application processes than open admissions do—usually an essay and sometimes letters of recommendation. For colleges using this policy, most have a January deadline for applications, and you will get a decision in March. Check a school’s Admissions page on their website for specific dates and deadlines.

Rolling Admissions

Rolling admissions means ‌the schools review applications throughout the year. There is usually still a final deadline, but instead of having all of your applications due in January, you can spread them out a bit. Within this type of admissions, there are often priority deadlines—where students applying before this deadline get priority consideration.

This is important to know because some of those priority deadlines are earlier than the “regular” deadline of January; some are as early as November 1. Another thing to be aware of with rolling admissions is that some schools have an early decision deadline. If you apply under this process, you are in effect committing to the school if they accept you.

Documents You Will Need to Apply for College

When you apply for college, it’s important to make sure you have all your documents together before you start the process. Nothing can stress you out more than finding out a college needs something that you don’t have!

Here are some common documents most colleges require:

High School transcripts or GED

Every college will require this. Some colleges require official transcripts right away. These usually need to be sent directly to the college from your high school. Others require only an uploaded copy but will require official transcripts after they accept you.

Most transcript services can get your GED scores as well if you didn’t finish traditional high school. If your college doesn’t require official transcripts right away, you can send copies. This can be a great way to save a little money.

Standardized Test Scores

Since the COVID pandemic, fewer colleges are requiring standardized test scores. Check to see if the colleges you are applying to require them or not. These test scores are usually ACT scores or SAT scores. If you are an international student, you may have to take the TOEFL to test your skills in English.

Personal Statement or Personal Essay

This is a staple for many college admissions processes. This statement describes who you are, what you are interested in, and why you are interested in this particular college and program. It’s less a “written resume” and more a story of how you came to be who you are. You might talk about particular challenges you had in your life, or a particular passion you have worked on. It might also be a future goal and a great story about why you want to achieve this goal.

Note, you can also use the same story when writing a scholarship essay.

Letters of Recommendation

These letters are often from high school teachers, your school counselor, or maybe your boss at work to explain why you would be an excellent candidate for college. Your references should structure these letters so that they tell the story about who you are and why you will succeed in college.

Here are some tips when choosing your references:

  • Don’t have your parents write this letter. After all, they are a bit biased.

  • Don’t have someone you don’t know well write this letter.

  • Whoever you choose should be able to tell compelling stories and give good reasons why you will do well in college.

A Summary of Your Extracurricular Activities

This is the time to sit down and map out everything you’ve done over the last few years. Have you volunteered for a charity? Maybe you were in sports? Are you an artist who has exhibited some work? Are you an academic all-star? Did you have any leadership positions like at school, at a job or in sports? These things can help tell an interesting story about who you are.

Now if you are suddenly panicking saying, “Wait, I didn’t do too much in high school,” don’t panic. Odds are that you did several things—just not what people might traditionally think of. Take some real time—like several days or more—and really think this through. Also talk to people who know you. They will probably point out things you have forgotten or haven’t thought of.

The important thing to remember is that all of these documents will form a complete picture and full story about you and you alone. So don’t worry about measuring yourself up against someone else. Tell the story of why you want to do this and why you will succeed.

How to Apply for College and When to Do It

There are two ways to think about applying for college–coming right out of high school or later than that. If you are going back to college in your 30s, 40s or later, no worries, the tips in this article can still make that process a bit easier.So here are some step-by-step pointers on how and when to apply for college:

In this section, we will look at how to do the whole process, starting from about 12 to 18 months before you want to go to college. But if you are way past that mark, don’t worry! There will be tips on how to work within the time you have.

In Your Sophomore and Junior Year of High School/Older Applicants

Visit the colleges you are interested in

If this is feasible, don’t skip this step! Most people want to get a feel for a college before they attend. If you plan to visit colleges, make sure you are letting the admissions department know you are coming. That way they can set up a tour for you and maybe even connect you with some professors in the program you are interested in.

If you are interested in an online college, make sure you “visit” them too. Look through their websites and get all the information you can. For example, if you investigate Outlier, you’ll learn that the college credits are from a top 60 school at a fraction of the cost of regular courses.

Take the tests

If your college requires any tests, be sure to take them. Also, leave yourself enough time to study for the test.

If you are running a bit late

If you can, still do the college visits. If you can’t, set up some time to look thoroughly through their website. Often you can take video tours of campuses. If you are attending the college online, make sure you look through their websites and gather information about the school that way.

You can use information like in the table below to compare schools. Put in different factors that will affect your decision, like location, course costs, internship opportunities, and housing costs.

If you plan to visit colleges, make sure you are letting the admissions department know you are coming. That way they can set up a tour for you and maybe even connect you with some professors in the program you are interested in.

COST PER COURSE$2,400 on average$400
CREDITS3-5 credits from your school3 transferable credits from the University of Pittsburgh
RISKPay full price after the drop deadlineFull refund if you do the work but don't pass
FORMATIn person, Zoom, or pre-recorded lecturesImmersive, interactive digital experience
INSTRUCTORS1 per classMultiple per class
LECTURESSpecific time and placeOn-demand, anywhere
EXAMSSpecific hourFlexible window

Look carefully to see if you actually need the tests. If you do need to take them, contact the admissions office and see if you can submit the test scores after you submit the admissions application. You may not ‌qualify for an early admission spot, but you can maybe still get your application in so they can admit you.

In Your Junior Year of High School / Older Applicants

Start these tasks about 3 to 6 months out from application deadlines.

Make a list of colleges you want to apply to

This is time to test your spreadsheet skills. Make a list of the colleges you want to apply for.

Make sure to put down the following:

  • The cost to attend

  • The cost to apply

  • The program(s) you are interested in

  • The application platform the school uses (more on this below)

  • The due date

  • The admissions decision date

  • The required application materials for admission

Write a draft of your letter of application

It’s likely you will do more than one draft of your letter of application, so now is the time to get started with the first draft. Write this up and give it to people you trust to give you feedback—maybe parents, teachers, etc.

Compile potential reference letter writers

Make a list of people who can write letters for you. Ask them if they are willing to write a letter of recommendation for you for college. If they say yes, tell them you will send them information well in advance.

If you are running late

Do the first two steps in this section as soon as you can. When you contact your reference writers, give them a draft of your application letter. Make sure you tell them it is just a first draft! This will help them think about what they want to write about you.

Early to Mid-Senior Year of High School / Later Applicants

Complete these tasks about 1 to 3 months out from application deadlines.

Write a second draft of your letter of application

Now that you have feedback from your trusted sources, it’s time to write draft two and hand it out to people. Make sure to give them plenty of time to look it over; don’t expect them to get back to you the next day. But if you haven’t heard from them in a week, it might be ok to ask if they need anything else from you to help them finish it.

Gather all your application materials

Now is the time to get together transcripts, test scores, the final draft of your letter, and the contact information for your reference letter writers. Remember, your references usually need to submit their letter after you have submitted your online application. Have all of this handy when you are ready to submit your applications.

If you are running late

These two steps may just have to be condensed. It’s important to take a little bit of time between the drafts of your application letters—even if you can only take a couple of days in between. And obviously you need to gather the application materials, but giving yourself more time is less stressful.

As Application Deadlines Approach

Don’t try to do it all in one day

Applying for college can be exhausting if you try to do too much in one day. When you are applying for college, it’s best to schedule everything out by application due dates.

As much as possible, gather all your information together ahead of time. Find a place where you can be undisturbed for an extended period‌. Also make sure you are in a spot that has good internet!

Which College Application Platform Should I Use?

There are several application platforms you can use to apply for colleges. Using a college platform can be helpful because you can fill out the application once, and then only worry about small pieces that an individual college might want you to add. Here are some of the most common ones:

Common Application

This is the most commonly used, with over 900 schools participating in this platform. It’s also known as Common App.

Coalition Application

This one is newer, and it’s gaining in the number of users. Currently they have over 150 participating schools.

Common Black College Application

The Common Black College Application is used at a number of Historically Black Colleges and Universities or HBCUs–over 60 schools participate in this application platform.

Take a look at the admissions webpage at each of the colleges you are interested in and see what platform they use. If all of your colleges accept the same platform, then you only need to sign onto one of these platforms. But remember, signing up for a platform isn’t the end; it’s only the first step in filling out the application. You may still need to submit specific items required by the various colleges you are applying to.

How Much Does It Cost to Apply for College?

It varies and sometimes by quite a bit. But remember, application fees aren’t the only fees you need to think about.

Here are some potential costs for applying to college:

Application Fees

The first thing you should do is search on the internet for how much the application fees are for each of your schools. You don’t want any surprises. The average is $50 to $90, but that may drop, as many schools dropped application fees during the COVID pandemic. So far many of them have stayed that way. Also, fee waivers may be available if you were eligible for a fee waiver for standardized tests.

Testing Fees

You may be aware of testing fees themselves, but often it also costs money to have your scores reported. For many tests, you can sign up to have a certain number of colleges receive your scores for free, but you have to know what those colleges are before you take the test. If you want to send scores to additional colleges, there is often a cost.

Transcript Fees

Each transcript, when sent from a school, has a cost. That cost varies depending on the school and on the platform they use. Since this is generally the only way to get official transcripts, it’s a fee that is important to know about.

While there are costs associated with college applications, don’t forget to start digging into ways to pay for college, such as looking into scholarships and grants.

Applying to college can be a complex and anxiety-inducing process. But taking the time to really think about what you are looking for and gathering everything together can save you money, time, and stress in the long run. After all, paying for college can be confusing.

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