Your Guide to College Applications

A Note from BestColleges on the Coronavirus and College Applications

The impacts of COVID-19 on higher education extend beyond current college students; incoming first-year students now have to navigate changes to campus tours, exam requirements, and admission deadlines. Institutions that have traditionally conducted pre-admission interviews continue to transition to phone or video conferencing.

High school graduates have to rely on virtual tours and information sessions this year, as almost all schools have temporarily suspended in-person campus tours. While admission components remain largely unchanged, many colleges continue to extend application deadlines and waive entrance exams due to the closure of many test centers and the cancellation of many testing dates during the pandemic.

With each college handling the situation differently, students should seek information online and contact their prospective schools individually to keep track of new deadlines and application requirements.

We continue to provide students with information and resources related to the impact of COVID-19 on college life. Read our latest Coronavirus Resources for Students guide for more details.

“Students should always apply to more than one institution and consider applying to several schools in the following categories: dream school, safety school, and a low-cost institution.”

Dr. Gordon Chavis, Associate Vice President of Enrollment Services, University of Central Florida

Applying to college can seem overwhelming at first. With so many choices, candidates may not know where to start. Make sure to begin your search early and break the application process into simpler pieces.

This guide provides high school juniors and seniors with clear explanations about the key components of a successful college application. Use it to keep track of deadlines, access higher education resources, and receive tips on submitting quality applications.

For a lower-stress and successful college application process, you should begin looking at schools during your junior year of high school. When identifying prospective schools, you'll need to take a few steps to ensure that you're ready to apply. This guide will outline those steps, which include:

Types of College Applications

In the past, each college maintained its own application, which students completed individually. While some public and private schools still feature distinct applications, many four-year universities and community colleges use platforms that allow students to complete one application for multiple schools.

Students typically complete college applications through an online platform or on the school's website, but most institutions also supply paper applications. Community colleges may have different requirements than four-year universities, including supplemental essays and letters of recommendation. However, students usually need to submit official transcripts and some type of standardized test score (e.g., SAT, ACT, or ACCUPLACER).

The Common Application

Nearly 900 colleges and universities accept the Common Application, which makes it easier to apply to multiple schools. Each candidate includes information about their demographics, family, education, activities, and awards, and then sends a single application to different schools.

Even if a school does not accept the Common App, most programs require similar information, allowing you to easily transfer application details. The Common App also provides a helpful application guide for first-time students.

Admissions Exams

A Note from BestColleges on the Coronavirus and College Entrance Exams

Although SAT testing has been canceled for June, U.S. students have the option to take the test beginning in August. The ACT has announced changes to its schedule and testing policy, but has not cancelled test dates. Additionally, the ACT plans on providing at-home tests as early as August.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted students around the world and will require colleges and universities to adjust their admissions standards. Some institutions may even cancel ACT/SAT criteria altogether. Contact your school's enrollment advisor for further details and stay up to date here at BestColleges.

We are also working to provide information and resources to students about the impact of coronavirus on college life. Read our latest Coronavirus Resources for Students.

“Many institutions have no preference between students’ submitting the SAT or the ACT.”

Dr. Gordon Chavis, Associate Vice President of Enrollment Services, University of Central Florida

Start your college application process by taking at least one college entrance exam. Many colleges require some type of entrance exam, with the SAT and the ACT being the most common. Many schools also provide a list of supplemental exams you can take to round out your application, such as SAT subject tests.

Students should plan to take their entrance exams during the spring of their junior year; this will give them enough time to retake tests (if necessary) before needing to submit college applications the following school year. While a test score comprises only part of your application, some schools take these exams very seriously.

Guide to College Entrance Exams

Application Checklist

Applying to college can be stressful, but having an organized checklist to guide you can streamline the process and keep you on track to meet deadlines. We've compiled a comprehensive checklist that covers the components you'll need to complete the application process.


Application Materials

  • Acquire Your Official High School Transcripts: Students typically must self-report their classes and GPA.
  • Create a List of Honors and Achievements: Presenting your academic accomplishments helps to boost your academic merit.
  • Compile a List of Extracurricular Activities: Organizing a list of your jobs, clubs, and volunteer work can help you stand out in a competitive field.
  • Obtain All Standardized Test Scores: Check if schools require the SAT, ACT, or any other program-specific exam scores.
  • Gather Letters of Recommendation: Try to obtain these documents from teachers and counselors early in the application process.

Personal Statements and Essays

Grades and test scores commonly come to mind as the most important aspects of an application packet. While academic merit remains a top consideration, intangible factors can also play a crucial role.A personal statement allows colleges to assess students beyond their academic achievements. Typically ranging from 250-650 words, these essays allow applicants to differentiate themselves by demonstrating their creative skills and writing ability.

“Students don’t need to write an essay trying to say what they believe the reader wants to hear. Be thoughtful, creative, and authentic.”

Dr. Gordon Chavis, Associate Vice President of Enrollment Services, University of Central Florida

While each college may require a unique supplemental essay, many use prompts from the Common App. These prompts generally include questions about overcoming obstacles, formative experiences, how your background has shaped you, and achievements that led to personal growth.

How to Write a College Application Essay

Letters of Recommendation

Many schools — especially four-year institutions — require letters of recommendation for college admission. Typically, schools ask for two letters, which may come from teachers, counselors, employers, and/or mentor figures. These letters attest to your character, both academically and personally.

Establishing strong connections early in high school with a few teachers can make it easier to ask for letters of recommendation. Always avoid submitting letters of recommendation from family members.

How to Write a Letter of Recommendation

Interviews and Campus Visits

Visiting campuses can go a long way towards helping students decide where they want to go to school. In addition to helping assess whether the environment is a good fit, these tours may actually boost your candidacy by demonstrating your interest in an institution.

Some schools keep track of student visits and consider this in their admissions processes. However, larger universities or Ivy League schools do not usually track student visits. Many colleges also require a formal interview with an alum or admissions officer — especially Ivy League schools and other private universities. Most questions help interviewers develop a perception of you based on your interests, strengths and weaknesses, and aspirations. While most evaluations do not directly lead to a final decision, an engaging interview can certainly help your candidacy.In addition to the few dozen schools that require formal interviews, others offer them as optional components. If you're applying to one of these schools, we recommend taking advantage of the opportunity to interview. Taking this extra step to demonstrate your interest can positively affect your chances of getting an acceptance letter.

College Interview Tips

  • Do Your Research

    Questions vary by school, but students should prepare for common prompts, such as why you want to attend that particular school.

  • Prepare With Personal Questions

    Bringing your own questions shows your interest in an institution.

  • Look for Information on Specific Programs

    If you're considering a specific degree, research the program's course offerings and prepare with questions that focus on that particular area of study.

  • Perform a Mock Interview

    Try to connect with a high school counselor to become more comfortable with interviewing. If this is not a viable option, practice answering interview questions with a friend or family member.

  • Dress Appropriately

    This is the easiest way to make a great first impression and attests to your interest in a school.

  • Follow up With an Email

    Make sure to thank your interviewer for their time.

Advice From a College Admissions Officer

Preparing for college applications doesn't have to be a strenuous task. Learn more about how you can proactively approach the admissions process, along with tips to improve your candidacy.

Dr. Gordon Chavis

Dr. Gordon Chavis


Dr. Gordon Chavis served in the admissions departments of the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, the University of Colorado Boulder, and the University of Central Florida before assuming his current role as associate VP of enrollment services at the University of Central Florida.

In the fall of 2019, Dr. Chavis joined the CollegeBoard's Enrollment Leaders Group. He holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a juris doctor from Georgetown University Law Center.

What are your thoughts on the Common App?

One of the greatest benefits of using the Common App is that students can apply to multiple institutions using the same application. Many institutions accept multiple types of applications, and the Common App helps reduce the anxiety associated with applying to multiple institutions.

Should students take both the SAT and the ACT, or just one?

Many institutions have no preference between students' submitting SAT or ACT results. The tests evaluate knowledge in particular subject matters and differ in significant ways.

Without taking both tests, a student does not know whether they will perform better on one or the other, so I recommend taking both. Institutions will use the score that most benefits the applicant. If candidates cannot afford multiple test administrations, they can obtain a fee waiver from the SAT, ACT, or their high school college counselors.

How many colleges should students apply to?

That is a personal and family decision, especially as it relates to affordability. Students should apply to a broad range of colleges and universities, keeping in mind the admission criteria for each of them. Candidates should thoroughly research the colleges and universities they are planning to attend.

They should feel confident that attending any of the institutions on their list of schools would be a good fit for them. Students should always apply to more than one institution, and consider applying to several schools in the following categories: dream schools, safety schools, and low-cost institutions.

How many extracurriculars should students include on their applications?

I recommend students list all of their extracurricular activities on their applications so that the admissions committees can gain a better understanding of their interests. Students should know that the quantity of extracurricular activities is less important than the quality of their experiences.

Being heavily engaged in one activity and demonstrating extensive leadership can be just as impactful as being slightly engaged in multiple activities. College and university leaders are looking to build a community of students, and the community usually has a wide variety of extracurricular and co-curricular activities within which students can become engaged.

What application mistakes do you see students commonly make?

Students often do not take time and care in presenting themselves and their accomplishments in the most positive light. Other common mistakes include submitting an incomplete application, not proofreading to avoid spelling errors, including the name of a different college or university in the essay, procrastinating, and not adhering to application deadlines.

What are some ways a student can make their application stand out?

Students should always put forth their best effort in submitting a college application. Their applications have a limited time in front of an admissions committee, which reads through hundreds of applications. As a college builds its community of students, they want to see all the things an individual student would contribute to the campus community. Thoroughly answering the questions on the application means ensuring that the reader learns a great deal about you and what is important to you.

 What essay advice would you give a student?

If an institution asks specific questions, answer those questions. Be authentic and creative in your answers. Take the time to think about your responses and always proofread. And do not include the name of a different college or university in your response!

What are some truly unique or impressive essays you've read?

The most impressive essays are those that are well-written and allow the reader to get to know the student. There is no right or wrong essay answer. Students don't need to write an essay trying to say what they believe the reader wants to hear. Be thoughtful, creative, and authentic.

How much do college admissions interviews matter? Should you do a college admissions interview even if it's not required?

The degree of importance of the admissions interview varies depending on the college or university that requires the interview. Please check with the individual institution.

Is it harder to get into college today?

Yes and no. We often hear college representatives say that most of us could not gain admission to a college if we applied today. That's probably true. It is also true that the number of students submitting applications to colleges and universities is increasing — often 10+ applications per student — which causes a great deal of competition for admission.

However, according to the most recent Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education report, the actual number of high school students is decreasing nationally. Therefore, there will likely be more spaces available for more students to gain admission to many colleges and universities. Unfortunately for many students, that may not be true at the nation's most selective colleges and universities.

Any additional advice you think is important for students to know about the college application process?

Begin thinking about colleges early in your high school career. While students may not be laser-focused on colleges in ninth or 10th grade, their academic and extracurricular pursuits can impact their college application several years later. Make wise choices about your high school coursework.

Meet with a college counselor periodically to discuss goals and make certain that your decisions are moving you toward them. Most importantly, maintain a balance. Take things seriously, but do not obsess over the college application process. Be a student, live every day fully, and if you're ever in doubt, ask an admissions representative for advice. We are here to help.

Additional Resources

Everything You Need to Know About the Common App

Explore helpful information and tips related to using the Common App.

What College Applicants Are Getting Wrong

This site provides common mistakes, as reported by college admissions officers around the country.

Five Factors College Admissions Officers Really Care About

The Seattle Times collected these crucial tips for applicants.

College Essay Tips

Admissions officers at Boston College, Wellesley College, and Wheaton College offer their advice.

Six Steps to Ace a College Interview

These tips from a former Cornell University alumni lend insight into the interview process.