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A Complete Guide to the College Application Process

Find answers to common questions prospective college students have about deadlines, essays and more.

By Kelly Mae Ross, Staff Writer?March 8, 2018
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By Kelly Mae Ross, Staff Writer?March 8, 2018, at 11:15 a.m.
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There are multiple application platforms students can use to apply to college, such as the Common App and the Coalition Application.(mixetto/Getty Images)

The college application process can seem intimidating, especially if students don't have parents or siblings who have already been through it and can offer advice.

Since there are so many steps, such as writing an essay and obtaining letters of recommendation, experts say a good way for students to get started is to create a to-do list during their junior year of high school.

"Once you can see it visually, the number of tasks and a schedule to do them, it simplifies a lot of things," says Christine Chu, a premier college admissions counselor at IvyWise, a New York-based education consulting company. "It will take away a lot of the anxiety."

Though there is often prep work that happens beforehand, students generally begin filling out college applications the summer between their junior and senior year of high school, experts say.

Here's what prospective undergraduates need to know about completing a college application.

What Are the Important College Application Deadlines?

High school seniors have multiple deadlines to choose from when applying to colleges.

First are early decision deadlines, usually in November. Students who apply via early decision, or ED, will hear back from a college sooner than their peers who turn in applications later. ED admissions decisions often come out in December.

However, students should note that ED acceptances are binding, says Monica Gallego Rude, a director at Collegewise, an admissions consulting company headquartered in California. That means an accepted student must enroll at the institution.

"People need to be very certain that this is the right choice for them if they're going to pick early decision," Gallego Rude says.

Some schools also have a second early decision deadline, ED II, which is also binding. The difference is in the timelines. ED II deadlines are usually in January, Chu says. And ED II admissions decisions often come out in February.

Early action is another type of application deadline that tends to be in November or December. Similar to early decision, students who apply via early action will hear back from schools sooner. The difference is EA acceptances aren't binding.

Students can also choose to apply by a school's regular decision deadline, which can be as early as January 1. Students who apply regular decision generally hear back from schools in mid-to-late March or early April.

One other admissions policy to be aware of is rolling admissions. Schools with rolling admissions evaluate applications as they receive them and release admissions decisions on a regular basis. These schools may have a priority filing date, but they generally don't have a hard cutoff date for applications. The institutions continue accepting them until all spots in the incoming class are filled.

In deciding when to apply, as well as how many colleges to apply to, students will want to consider financial aid implications. Experts say if money is a concern, as it is for many families of college-bound students, applicants should choose nonbinding deadlines – EA and regular decision. This will enable families to compare financial aid offers from multiple schools.

Students generally have until May 1 to decide which school they will attend and pay an enrollment deposit.

Which College Application Platform Should I Use?

Students have several options when it comes to college application platforms.

One popular choice is The Common Application, which is accepted by more than 750 schools, including some located outside the U.S. Students fill out the Common App once and can then submit it to multiple colleges.

However, in addition to the main application, Common App schools often have a supplemental section, says Chu. The supplement sometimes includes additional essay questions, so students may need to budget time for more writing, experts say.

For some students, the Common App is a "one-stop shop," says Gallego Rude – meaning they can apply to all of the schools they are interested in with this one application.

But not all schools accept the Common App, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Georgetown University in the District of Columbia.

Other application options include the Coalition Application, a newer platform accepted by more than 100 schools; the Universal College Application, accepted by 23 schools; and school- or university system-specific applications. For example, the University of California system has its own application – the only platform accepted by UC schools – and students can apply to multiple campuses with one application.

Students can visit a college's website to determine which applications are accepted. Also, the Common App, Coalition Application and Universal College Application websites list their partner schools.

What Do I Need to Know About the College Application Essay?

As part of the application process, most colleges require students to submit at least one writing sample: the college essay. This is sometimes referred to as a personal statement.

"Usually the writing piece on the application feels very challenging," says Amy Jarich, assistant vice chancellor and director of undergraduate admissions at the University of California—Berkeley. "And that's kind of by design, right. It's a short, tiny amount of real estate for a pretty significant set of remarks."

There's usually a word limit of around several hundred words. For example, the main essay on the Common App cannot exceed 650 words.

Regardless of which application platform they use, students will usually have multiple essay prompts to choose from.

"The application essay prompts are broad and open-ended, and I think that's sometimes what challenges students the most," says Niki Barron, associate director of admissions at Middlebury College in Vermont. "But they're open-ended for a reason, and that's because we do really want to see what students choose to write about, what students feel is important."

Experts say students should try to tell a story about themselves in the essay and that this doesn't necessarily mean writing about a big, impressive accomplishment.

Barron says the most memorable essays for her are those that focus on more ordinary topics. "But they're done in such a self-reflective way that it gives me so much insight into who a student is as a person and gives me such a sense of the student's voice," she adds.

What Are the Other Key Components of a College Application?

Here are other parts of the college application that prospective students should be ready for.

? Personal information: In the first portion of a college application, students will have to provide basic information about themselves, their school and their family.

? High school transcript: Colleges will also ask for an official high school transcript: a record of the courses students take and the grades they earn.

The majority of the time, admissions offices ask that a transcript be sent directly from the high school rather than from the student, says Geoff Heckman, school counselor and department chair at Platte County High School in Missouri. Students usually submit a transcript request to their school's counseling office.

? Standardized test scores: Many – but not all – schools require applicants to submit SAT, SAT subject test or ACT scores. These scores are usually sent by the testing companies.

SAT test-takers are allowed four free score reports each time they register for the exam. Students can select which schools they'd like their scores sent to before or up to nine days after the test, according to the College Board, which administers the standardized test. The fee for each additional score report is $12.

Similarly, students who sit for the ACT can send their score to up to four colleges at no cost for up to five days after they take the test, according to the ACT website. Additional score reports are $13 each.

? Letters of recommendation: Colleges often ask students to submit two to three letters of recommendation.

Students should seek out recommenders – often they have to be teachers or counselors – who know them well and can comment not just on their academic abilities but also their personal qualities and other types of achievements, says Chu.

It is a good idea for students to provide recommenders with a copy of their resume to help them cover all these bases, says Heckman, who was a finalist for the American School Counselor Association's 2018 School Counselor of the Year award.

Students should request letters of recommendation well in advance of the application deadline – Chu advises at least two months beforehand.

"The more time students can give the authors of those recommendations, I think the more thorough and helpful those recommendations are going to be for us," says Barron.

Do I Need to Submit a Resume?

While it varies from school to school, Gallego Rude says many colleges have shifted away from requiring resumes. On some applications, it may be optional for students to upload a resume.

But much of the information generally contained in a resume – such as awards, work experience and extracurricular activities – is asked for in other parts of a college application, often in an activities section.

In this section, Barron says that students should detail all of the ways they spend their time outside of class. This includes structured activities like sports or school clubs as well as family obligations, such as caring for siblings, or part-time employment, she says.

How Much Do College Application Fees Cost?

There's no set price for college application fees, which experts say typically range from $50 to $90 per application.

"So if students are applying to a number of colleges and universities, they can add up," Gallego Rude says.

How Can I Get a College Application Fee Waiver?

There are several ways students from low-income families can submit college applications for free.

Students who received SAT or ACT test fee waivers are eligible for college application fee waivers from the testing companies. The College Board sends four such waivers automatically to students. Not all schools accept these waivers, but many do.

Similarly, the ACT has a fee waiver request form students and school counselors can fill out and send to colleges. The National Association for College Admission Counseling also offers a fee waiver request form.

In addition, eligible students can request a fee waiver within the body of some college applications, including the Common App.

There are other times schools waive application fees, and not just for low-income students. Students can sometimes get an application fee waived by participating in instant decision day events at their high school or on a college's campus.

Another possibility: Some colleges will send a code to prospective students that allows them to apply at no cost. "So students should be on the lookout in their email inboxes," says Gallego Rude.

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