What Do I Need to Apply to Online College?

Learn how to apply to online college quickly and conveniently, and get a decision fast. Plan ahead and explore tips for a stress-free application experience.

portrait of Meg Whitenton
by Meg Whitenton

Published on September 29, 2021 · Updated on April 5, 2022

Edited by Amelia Buckley
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What Do I Need to Apply to Online College?


The advent of online learning has revolutionized the college experience. Students can choose to complete their entire degree online, beginning with the application process. Many colleges have improved upon the traditional application process to offer faster, more convenient application options.

Accredited schools typically require similar application materials for online and in-person undergraduate programs, including official transcripts, essays, letters of recommendation, and an application fee. Graduate program applications often include additional prerequisites.

Many students wonder, "what do I need to apply to an online college?" Find out below.

College Application Materials for Online College

Exploring how to apply to online college starts with gathering application materials. Students should begin the collection phase of the process as early as possible to save time and reduce stress when submission time rolls around.

The following materials are commonly required for a standard college application. Students who apply online can often upload and submit supporting documents electronically.

Official Transcripts

Official transcripts are commonly requested by college admissions administrators. Official transcripts are original, watermarked documents. They are mailed directly from one school to another in a sealed, signature-verified envelope.

In contrast, unofficial transcripts are scanned for email delivery, or copied from the original documents. Students can request transcripts from their school's registrar by completing a form online and paying a processing fee.

Test Scores

Standardized test scores are another common requirement for online college applicants. Schools often require aspiring undergraduates to submit scores from tests like the SAT or ACT, while graduate programs may require GMAT or GRE scores. Individual schools decide whether to uphold a strict policy when it comes to minimum standardized test scores.

Some schools waive this requirement for students who exceed a minimum GPA or possess abundant work experience. Others may accept AP scores or prerequisites in lieu of standardized test scores. Applicants who have not taken any of the commonly required standardized tests may pursue schools with a "test-optional" or "test-flexible" admissions policy. A growing number of schools are moving away from test score requirements.

Many online colleges also require English language proficiency tests, such as the TOEFL, to test the language skills of international applicants.

Personal Statement

Personal statements can be used to demonstrate a student's ambitions for a college program and showcase their writing skills. Not all online programs have this application requirement.

Aspiring undergraduates may be asked to respond to a prompt that mimics a college-level writing assignment. Graduate applications tend to request broader statements, exploring a student's career and/or independent study goals. Successful college essays may discuss:

Summary of Extracurricular Activities

While extracurricular activities can enhance a college application, some colleges may not value these activities as highly as others. Schools may also use extracurriculars to try and better understand how an online student connects to their community and peers. Keep in mind that it's typically better to pursue quality extracurriculars that you're passionate about, as opposed to focusing on quantity. Common extracurriculars for high school students and older learners include:

List of Academic Honors and Achievements

Students should be sure to highlight their academic honors and achievements on their online college application. Common examples of appropriate accolades include membership in the National Honor Society, National Merit Scholars, and AP Scholars.

Many undergraduate applicants choose to include their class rank and/or honor roll status. Applicants may also be asked to write and submit a resume, which can outline both professional and academic achievements. This requirement may be more common among graduate-level options and programs targeting older learners.

Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation can help provide college administrators with additional insight about an applicant's character and potential. Some online programs do not require letters of recommendation. But if they do, letters from a student's mentors, teachers, or counselors can help round out a student's application by highlighting their achievements and successes.

Students may also ask a trusted employer, coach, or religious leader for a recommendation. Try and give letter-writers several weeks to complete the request.

How Do I Apply to Online College?

An online college typically conducts its application process through an online portal. Although some online colleges may use centralized application systems, like the Common App, other online schools require students to submit individual applications to their specific institution.

Whether applying to online schools individually or through a centralized platform, experts advise students to apply to 4-12 schools. This strikes a balance between having a diverse slate of options and feeling overwhelmed.

Students should be mindful that schools may have different admissions policies (open, standard, early decision, or rolling admissions) and decide which option aligns with their needs. They can also consider other factors, including flexibility, residency requirements, and learning style when choosing an online program. In many cases, the online application process expedites the timeline for enrollment decisions.

Application Timeline

Applying to college requires advanced planning. High school students who intended to submit regular applications should begin working on college applications at the start of their senior year, at the latest. They should start by mid-to-late junior year if they plan to submit an early decision application.

Students interested in a school or program that has an open admissions or rolling admissions policy can often apply at any time throughout the year. However, returning students may need to apply by a school's set priority deadline. Many schools with these flexible admissions timelines return an offer of enrollment or decline admission in 2-8 weeks.

Types of Admissions Policies
Admissions Format When to Apply? Decision Timeline
Open Admissions As early as possible in advance of the next enrollment term Many schools accept and enroll students in 1-2 weeks
Regular Admissions Most schools impose a January deadline Most schools return a decision in March
Rolling Admissions As early as possible; applications accepted throughout the year Schools typically return a decision in 4-8 weeks

Application Fees

While individual costs vary, online colleges typically charge an application fee of $40-$60. This fee may vary based on a variety of factors, including a school's reputation and level of competitiveness. For example, some Ivy League schools may charge around $100 to apply. Scholarships do not typically cover application fees, although students who demonstrate financial need may qualify for fee waivers.

Do's and Don'ts of Applying to Online Colleges

Do's

  • Start gathering materials early.
  • Give sources several weeks to write letters of recommendation.
  • Ask someone you trust for feedback on your personal statement.
  • Triple-check deadlines and pace yourself.
  • Explore application fee waivers, if applicable.

Don'ts

  • Don't procrastinate and leave your application to the last minute.
  • Don't forget to proofread your essay.
  • Don't copy and paste the same personal statement into multiple applications.
  • Don't rush the writers of your letters of recommendation.
  • Don't take the SAT or ACT right before your applications are due.

Frequently Asked Questions About Applying to Online College

Do I need to complete standardized tests to apply to an online college? true

Not necessarily — many schools have a test-optional policy. Additionally, although undergraduate programs commonly require applicants to submit standardized test results like the SAT or ACT for admission, students may qualify to waive this requirement. For example, applicants may be exempt if they meet minimum GPA or AP course requirements.

Similarly, some graduate programs waive GMAT or GRE test requirements for applicants with extensive professional or high-level academic experience. Other schools may enact a universal test-optional or test-flexible policy for all applicants and programs.

How much does it cost to apply to online college? true

While costs vary by school and program, most online colleges charge an application fee of roughly $50. Online community colleges and vocational schools tend to charge less than high-profile universities. Additional charges may also apply, such as requesting and mailing official transcripts and taking the SAT or ACT.

Is online college worth it? true

Online college can offer a variety of conveniences over a traditional program, making an online degree a worthwhile investment for many students. Students who enroll in an online program can often choose from full-time or part-time study options, attend 100% online or hybrid classes, and view live or pre-recorded course content.

Learners can study from anywhere with an internet connection. They may also be able to more easily maintain their work and family obligations while earning an online degree. Beyond exceptional flexibility, many online colleges also offer greater affordability. For example, out-of-state learners who take their courses online may qualify for in-state tuition rates.

How long does it take to apply to online college?

Students can save time and money by applying through a centralized platform like Common App. If an online school does not offer a centralized application option, most applications take roughly 30 minutes to complete once a student has written their personal statement and gathered the necessary application materials.

I applied to an online college. When will I hear back?

The turnaround time for online college applications varies, though many schools return a decision in 2-8 weeks. The speed of the admissions process depends on what type of enrollment a student is seeking and the school's policies.

Most students applying through the standard admissions process who submit their application by the deadline (usually January at the latest) hear back in a couple of months (by the end of March or early April).

Schools with open or rolling admissions policies tend to return an enrollment decision in less time — sometimes as early as two weeks after processing a student's application.

Feature Image: nazarkru / iStock / Getty Images Plus

College applicants have to juggle a lot of deadlines, making it difficult to keep track. Learn what to do if you miss a college application deadline. Attending graduate school allows you to conduct research and gain critical skills for your career. Learn about the pros and cons of earning a graduate degree. With so many distractions at home, it can be difficult to remain focused on your studies. Discover some essential study habits for remaining productive at home.

BestColleges.com 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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