Applying to college can seem overwhelming at first; with so many choices, it might be hard to know where to start. The trick is to begin your search early and break the application process into simple pieces. If you’re a high school junior or senior, this guide will provide you with clear explanations for each of the key components to a successful college application. Use it to keep track of deadlines, access higher education resources, and get tips on submitting the best possible applications.
For a stress-free and successful college application process, you should begin looking at schools during your junior year of high school. As you identify good possibilities, you’ll need to take a few steps to ensure that you’re ready to apply. This guide will outline those steps, including:
- Taking admissions exams
- Writing personal statements and entrance essays
- Getting letters of recommendation
- Doing interviews and campus visits
In addition, you’ll find a plethora of resources to help you on your journey. If you’re applying to a 2-year or technical program at a community college, or an online program, you’ll have different requirements than if you apply to a 4-year university. While all applicants typically need to submit an application, transcripts, and some type of test score (ACT, SAT, or an independent test from the school), 4-year school applicants have more materials to submit, often including an essay and letters of recommendation.
Luckily, over 600 colleges and universities accept the Common Application, which is designed to facilitate easy application to multiple schools. You’ll include oft-requested information about your demographics, family, education, activities and awards, then send that one application to different schools. Even if a school doesn’t accept the Common App, much of the required information is similar, so you’ll be able to easily transfer application details.
Let’s get started!
Admissions Exams and Prep
The majority of colleges require some type of entrance exam; the SAT, ACT, and AP exams are the most commonly sought. Many schools also provide a list of supplemental exams you can take to round out your application, such as SAT II Subject exams. Some schools, especially community colleges, require placement tests like the COMPASS in order to get into certain programs like nursing or law enforcement.
While a test score doesn’t tell the whole story of who you are as an applicant, schools take these exams seriously, so it’s crucial that you prepare to do your best.
Advanced Placement (AP) exams test your knowledge of an academic subject, based on high school study in an AP course, in order to determine whether you’ve earned college credit. Though not required in order to take the exam, taking the AP course raises your chances of doing well on the exam, and colleges look favorably on AP courses as part of your transcript, even if your score isn’t perfect. If you’re looking to both demonstrate your commitment to challenging yourself and earning credit before choosing college classes, you should definitely take AP exams.
Exams typically include both multiple choice and short answer questions in the given subject, and you’ll usually spend 2-3 hours testing. There are 38 total courses and exams, falling under the categories of Capstone, Arts, English, History & Social Science, Math & Computer Science, Sciences, and World Languages & Cultures. Each exam is scored on a scale from 0-5, and depending on your score, you may be allowed to bypass an introductory college course. Usually, you need a 4 or 5 to get credit; some schools accept 3’s.
A few details about AP exams:
- Test dates: First two weeks of May
- Registration dates: Your school must order the AP Exam materials in March; to register, you’ll need to talk to your teacher before then. January is a good time to ask.
- Fees: $89 per test; your school may have additional administrative fees. If you qualify for financial aid, you can get a $26 or $28 fee reduction from College Board.
- Test administration: Your school will set up a testing center and distribute the materials to you on paper.
Once you’ve taken the test, you’ll need to wait two months to get your score; they’re available online in July. To prepare, you’ll need to study the materials from your AP course. You can also use sample test questions from College Board.
This test, officially the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, is designed for high school sophomores and juniors, though you can take it as early as middle school or as late as senior year. It helps you prepare for the SAT by giving you clear feedback on your academic strengths and weaknesses, and it makes you eligible for college money by entering you into the National Merit Scholarship competition.
The PSAT has sections on Writing Skills, Critical Reading, and Math, mirroring the sections on the SAT. Each section is further broken down:
- Writing Skills includes multiple choice questions on identifying sentence errors, improving sentences, and improving paragraphs.
- Critical Reading includes multiple choice questions on sentence completion and passage-based reading.
- Math includes questions on numbers and operations, algebra and functions, geometry and measurement, data analysis, statistics, and probability, all given through either multiple choice or “grid-in” responses.
Each section is scored from 20 to 80, so the highest score overall is a 240. Your score report shows you what you got wrong and why, identifies trends in your performance and provides a predicted SAT score.
Details about the PSAT:
- Test dates: Mid-October
- Registration dates: Schools must register the year prior to the exam; to take the test, talk to your counselor in September.
- Fees: $14; your school may charge additional administrative fees.
- Test administration: There are no specific testing centers; you’ll test at your school.
To be eligible for a National Merit Scholarship, you have to score in the top 2-3 percent of all test-takers for the year. If you’re a semifinalist, you can fill out the Scholarship application in order to enter the competition for college funds.
One of the best ways to study for the PSAT is to use the Student Guide. You can get one of these from your school counselor.
The most widely-used college admissions test in the country, the SAT is meant to measure your reading, writing, and math skills to predict college readiness. It’s pointedly focused on skills rather than logic or abstract reasoning. This is likely the most important test you’ll need for college applications.
When you test, you’ll spend 3 hours and 45 minutes completing 10 sections:
- A 25-minute essay
- Six 25-minute sections (mathematics, critical reading and writing)
- Two 20-minute sections (mathematics, critical reading and writing)
- A 10-minute multiple-choice writing section
The reading section has 67 multiple choice questions, math has 44 multiple choice and 10 grid-in, and the writing section has 49 multiple choice questions plus one essay. Each section is scored on a scale from 200 to 800, with the highest score possible being 2400. A quarter point gets taken away for each incorrect answer. Your raw score is scaled against all other test takers to determine where you fall between 200 and 800.
However, that’s only true for another two years: as of 2016, College Board will be changing the SAT. Importantly, they’ll be eliminating the practice of deducting points for incorrect answers, and they’ll be separating the essay from the rest of the test, so the score total will drop to 1600. In addition, some questions’ focus will change, there will be a greater emphasis on analysis and understanding of content, and the College Board will offer more free preparation materials. For more details, see the College Board’s full explanation.
Most students take the SAT during spring of their junior year, but the test is offered seven times per year. Details about the test:
- Test dates: One test in October, November, December, January, March, May, and June.
- Registration dates: Approximately a month prior to desired test date. However, you’ll need to prepare to submit a photo either online or by mail along with your registration, so plan ahead. Homeschooled and international students should register well ahead in order to secure a spot.
- Fees: $51. Fee waivers are available for those on Free or Reduced Lunch or who otherwise qualify for federal aid. You can also request a fee waiver to submit your SAT scores to up to four colleges.
- Test administration: The SAT is administered at high schools and colleges, for the most part, but may also be held at community centers. You can search for the closest testing center on the College Board site. The test is given with paper and pencil.
The average SAT score, nationally, is 1500 out of 2400. Low scores are considered those below 1100; to get into a selective school, you’ll need closer to 1800 or above. To make sure that you get the score you want, prepare. If you start studying early, you’ll be ready to give the test your best shot. The following resources can help:
- Free SAT practice test from College Board
- The Official SAT Study Guide
- SAT vocabulary list practice
- Khan Academy free study help
- Number2 free test prep courses
- For-cost preparation courses:
It’s wise to invest several hours a week, over the course of at least 2-3 months, into studying for the SAT. If you struggle in one area, focus on that, but don’t neglect areas you think you’re strong in; make sure you look at how the questions are phrased so you’re prepared to show your knowledge. While it’s easy to break the bank on SAT prep, look into free resources first, since there are innumerable online practice sites with valuable material. Only sign up for a paid course if you know you struggle with standardized tests or can’t motivate yourself to study alone.
Most colleges and universities don’t require SAT II Subject tests, but many recommend them, and good scores can boost your admissions profile. Additionally, highly selective schools may require two or more subject tests. If you know you’re interested in a particular field, taking the SAT II test will show colleges that you’re committed to that area.
Each subject test is an hour long and covers a specific academic subject like Biology, U.S. History, or French. There are 20 tests in total, and the vast majority of questions are multiple choice, with some grid-in for math exams. Subject tests are scored on a scale from 200 to 800.
Much of the registration process is similar to that for the SAT. You’ll need to register online, with a photo, approximately a month in advance, and testing centers will be established at high schools and colleges across the country on selected dates.
Subject exams are given on the same seven test dates as the SAT I, but certain subject tests are only given once or twice per year. Language exams with a listening portion, for instance, are all given once in November. Check early if you hope to take a specific exam. In addition, you may not take the SAT I and SAT II tests on the same date, but you can take multiple SAT II tests on the same date.
Fees for SAT II tests are as follows:
- $24.50 for basic registration
- +$24 for Language with Listening test
- +$13 for all other subject tests
You can get a fee waiver if you qualify for Free and Reduced Lunch or other federal aid.
The ACT, like the SAT, is used by a significant portion of U.S. colleges and universities to test your content knowledge. It’s comprised of four sections: English, mathematics, reading, and science. It takes 2 hours and 55 minutes to complete, plus breaks, and includes 215 multiple choice questions: 75 in English, 60 in math, 40 in science and 40 in reading. In addition, you can choose to take the writing exam which, while not required, is a good idea.
Each section on the ACT is scored between 1 and 36, so your composite score is the average of those four scores. The national average ACT score is between 20 and 21, with students hoping to go to selective colleges needing scores of 26 or higher, in most cases. There is no penalty for guessing, and your score report, released approximately three to eight weeks after your test–ranks you nationally compared to other test takers in sub-areas like rhetorical skills, plane geometry, arts/literature and others.
ACT test details:
- Test dates: One test in September, October, December, February, April, and June.
- Registration dates: Approximately five weeks before each test.
- Fees: $36.50 for the test without writing; $52.50 with writing. You may qualify for a fee waiver to cover the test and sending your score to up to four colleges.
- Test administration: The ACT is given at high schools and colleges across the country. Search on the site to find the location nearest you. The test is given with pencil and paper right now, but ACT will offer online testing beginning in the spring of 2015.
Many students debate whether they need to take both the SAT and the ACT. To decide, you’ll need to look at the schools you’d like to attend and their requirements as well as consider your strengths as an applicant. If you’re strong in science, you should consider this test, since the SAT won’t show your skill in that area. On the other hand, if you struggle with timed tests, the SAT may be better for you, since the ACT requires many more questions in a shorter time period than does the SAT.
As with the SAT, there are plenty of study resources, and you should plan to spend several hours a week studying for the ACT in the months leading up to it. Try free online resources first, as well as making sure to use the practice test questions:
- ACT official online prep
- ACT free sample test questions
- ACT test prep guide
- SparkNotes free ACT prep
- Number2 ACT companion prep course
- Princeton Review free practice ACT tests
- Kaplan Prep Course
- Sylvan Learning’s Prep Course
Personal Statements and Essays
Test scores are a start, but many college admissions officers say that applicants’ essays or personal statements are really what tips an application from mediocre to good or good to great. Your essays are where you show the college who you are; you can highlight an important trait, a challenge you’ve overcome, or exactly how you’ll contribute to the school. In addition, you’ll show off your writing skills and critical thought processes. Think of those essays as a collaborative tool for you and the admissions officers; you’re both searching for a good match between student and school.
If you’re doing the Common Application, you’ll respond to one of five essay prompts, capped at 650 words, during 2014-2015:
- Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
- Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
- Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
- Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
Many schools also require a personal statement, which can vary widely from school to school. Some schools will leave it open-ended, asking you to provide a picture of yourself in 300-500 words, while others will ask specific questions such as:
- Describe a challenge or obstacle you overcame. What did you learn?
- Why do you want to go to X school?
- What’s a personal accomplishment, characteristic, trait, or quality that you’re proud of? Why?
The majority of essays will not exceed 600-800 words; some may be just 250 words.
On the other hand, some colleges are famous for asking quirky or downright weird questions of their applicants:
- “This is what history consists of. It’s the sum total of all the things they aren’t telling us.” – Don DeLillo, Libra. What is history, who are “they,” and what aren’t they telling us? (University of Chicago)
- What do you hope to find over the rainbow? (University of Virginia)
- Give us your top ten list (Wake Forest University)
If you’re wondering how a response to those essay questions might read, take a look at a few sample essays from both ends of the spectrum:
- Connecticut College’s “Essays that Worked“
- Hamilton College “More Essays that Work“
- College Board’s Sample Essays, both good and bad
To get your essay on one of those “best of” lists, start slowly and make sure to follow a few best practice tips:
- Let the college know who you are, not who you think they want you to be. One of the biggest mistakes applicants make is trying to fit a mold; admissions readers are looking for someone who stands out.
- Ask yourself the right questions to figure out which topic to choose. Don’t try to write about something you don’t know; if you’re not familiar with an idea used in one prompt, for instance, choose a different prompt.
- Don’t repeat the rest of your application. It’s easy to find your test scores and awards; write about something that admissions officers aren’t going to find elsewhere.
- Tell a story. The best essays are compelling, moving the reader to empathy. Don’t be afraid to reflect on both your successes and your failures.
- Be specific. You might have a lot to say, but if it’s not organized, it’s not going to make much of an impression. Stick to your main point and really sell that.
- On that note, find a unique angle for your essay; catch your reader’s interest early and commit to a particular voice for your writing.
- Get help from a teacher or counselor in proofreading and revising. Just don’t overdo it–remember, the essay needs to come from you.
- Make sure you’ve paid attention to things like word count and the question. It seems silly, but many students fail to actually answer the correct question.
- Proofread, then double check, then proofread some more. Nothing will send your essay to the discard bin faster than clear laziness.
Letters of Recommendation
Many colleges and universities, especially 4-year institutions, require letters of recommendation for admission. Typically, schools ask for 2 letters, which may be from a teacher, counselor, employer, or other adult who knows you well. Always avoid getting letters of recommendation from family members. Even if your school doesn’t require letters, it’s wise to send one or two, if you have an adult who is willing to write about you.
These letters are another way in which schools get a picture of who you are both academically and personally. For that reason, you should ask teachers who you’ve known for a while or who know you well, as opposed to simply those in whose classes you’re excelling. Likewise, if you’ve been working at the same out-of-school job for a while and have a good relationship with your boss, he or she could be a good candidate. A great recommendation can do wonders for applicants whose personal characteristics don’t necessarily come through in test scores or transcripts.
When asking an adult to write you a recommendation, follow a few common sense tips:
- Ask, don’t demand. Teachers and counselors are typically quite busy, so a student who says “I want you to write me a recommendation” won’t be as well received as one who asks “Would you consider writing me a college recommendation?” or “Would you feel comfortable recommending me to a college?”
- On that note, ask early. Two weeks is the minimum amount of time you should allow for teachers or counselors to complete a letter.
- Be ready to help that teacher or counselor. You’re not in charge of deciding what goes in the letter, but you can ask whether that adult would like any information about you that they don’t have. If it’s an English teacher, for instance, he or she might not know that you also do community service and play recreational basketball. Offering your rÃ©sumÃ© or personal statement could supplement the letter.
Almost all colleges and universities will require that these recommendations are sent without your review. This is to ensure that the adult recommender is free to express his or her opinion as well as indicating that you’re willing to stand by that recommendation. Because the adult will need to send those letters, be sure to provide necessary materials: pertinent deadlines, forms, and any specific requirements or prompts for the letter. You should also provide addressed and stamped envelopes, if needed, or instructions for online submission.
If a teacher or counselor has agreed to write you a letter, try not to pester him or her about it immediately. Make sure you’ve provided the key information and then be patient. However, if you haven’t heard back within a week of your deadline, it’s wise to double check with your letter writer by way of a brief, gentle inquiry:
- “Thanks for your willingness to write me a letter of recommendation to X school. I just wanted to make sure you know that the deadline is this Friday, and double check to make sure I had given you all the information you need.”
- “I’m checking to confirm that you’re able to write me a letter of recommendation to X school by the deadline this Friday. I appreciate your help!”
Once the deadline has passed, if you haven’t heard from your teacher or counselor, feel free to follow up with a similarly brief note. Finally, when those adults have written and sent your letters of recommendation, be sure to thank them. A thank you note for each writer is appropriate and a good idea; some students give small gifts, such as coffee cards or candies, as well, but a sincere thank you is most important.
Interviews and Campus Visits
Finally, interviews are one more way to demonstrate your interest in a college and highlight the personal qualities that may not show up on a transcript or in a test score. Most colleges and universities don’t require interviews, but if your application is in the middle of the pack, taking the opportunity to tour the campus and speak to an admissions officer could tip the odds in your favor. Alternatively, if you can’t travel across the country to interview, many colleges offer interviews by Skype or with alumni interviewers in your area.
The other side to interviewing and visiting campus is that it gives you a better picture of the school. After all, if you’re going to spend two to four years of your life at one school, it’s good to be sure you like it! Take the time to come up with questions of your own. What do you need to know about the school to be happy there? Are there specific aspects of academic, social or athletic life that you’re curious about? Having questions ready both shows your interest in the school and lets you gauge how easily you’d adjust to campus life.
Keep in mind that interviewing at every school is not a good idea. Instead, interview if and when:
- You know you want to go to X school and would like to do everything possible to make yourself stand out.
- The school strongly recommends an interview, even if it’s not required.
- You’re only applying to a few schools.
- You have several top choice schools and can’t decide between them; interviewing may help.
If you have decided to interview, make sure you prepare; the last thing you want is for the interview to hurt your application. Keep the following in mind:
- Dress appropriately, stop fidgeting and look up. Much as we’d like to believe they don’t, appearances matter. When you meet the interviewer, give him or her a firm handshake, and as you interview, make sure you speak audibly and project confidence.
- Practice answering interview questions; talk to yourself in a mirror, or get a friend or family member to practice with you.
- On that note, research the college beforehand so you can clearly explain why you want to attend; this is almost always a question.
- As with the college essay, remember that admissions officers want to get to know you, not Joe College Student. Don’t give clichÃ© responses simply because that’s what you think they want to hear.
- If you’re interviewing at more than one school, it’s smart to start with the schools that are lower on your list. Save the best for last, since you’ll get better at interviewing as you go.
- As mentioned above, prepare questions about the school.
- Send a thank you note or email. Everyone appreciates it.
Finally, hard as it might seem, relax. Admissions officers like working with students; it’s their job! Take a couple deep breaths, smile, and be yourself.
For more information on the college admissions process, use the resources below. You’ll find college admissions websites, articles by admissions officers and professors, and a variety of student guides.
- College application mistakes to avoid: Admissions officers talk about blunders.
- US News college application guide: Tips and tricks, help with essays, strategies for boosting your application profile and more.
- College admissions officers want you to know these 8 things: NY Times collected tips for applicants.
- A college admissions primer: Tips on preparing to apply from college admissions experts.
- Five tips for the A-minus student: Strategies to help the average student stand out.
- College essay tips: Admissions officers at BC, Wellesley and Wheaton offer their advice.
- How to write a college essay: MIT admissions officers provide advice on making your essay shine.
- Tip sheet for essays: An admissions officer at Connecticut College provides some insight into the entrance essay.
- Bates College admissions: Tips for a great application, from one of the east coast’s most selective liberal arts schools.
- Harvard admissions: If you’re using the Common Application, this gives you some tips on making the most of that document.
- Yale admissions: Tips for putting together your application, from letters of recommendation to extracurricular activities.
- University of Miami admissions: Seven key tips, as well as links, to help you have a stress-free application season.
- Know your college tests: Helpful breakdown of the various major entrance exams.
- Understanding college admission tests: Analysis of how entrance exams affect your chances at schools.