College Applications

Explore college applications from top schools.

How to Apply for College

 Wondering how to apply for college? You’ve come to the right place. 

The college application process can feel daunting. For students who are applying to college, understanding the college application process is crucial. That way, once you start submitting college applications, you can feel prepared. 

If you’re applying to college, it’s helpful to break down the process into manageable parts. This can help you learn how to get into top colleges. We’ll look at 10 steps that explain how to apply for college and will help you organize everything from your college list to college application deadlines.  

How to apply for college in 10 steps:

  1. Research colleges and build your college list
  2. Take required tests
  3. Make a college application checklist with application deadlines
  4. Develop your candidate profile
  5. Write your personal statement & supplemental essays
  6. Request letters of recommendation
  7. Build your list of extracurricular activities
  8. Complete the FAFSA
  9. Apply for scholarships
  10. Fill out applications & click submit!

In this college application guide, we’ll demystify college apps and help you understand the college application process. We’ll check out some common college application mistakes, different college application deadlines, school specific applications, international applications, first-gen applications and more. We’ll break down what college apps are and how to complete them ahead of your college application deadlines. Think of this guide as your starting point for college applications help.

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College Application General Information

Figuring out how to apply for college can seem overwhelming. So, we’ve broken down each of these ten steps on how to apply for college below. Of course, the university application process is complex. That said, the more you prepare for university applications, the more likely you are to succeed. So, start thinking about the college application process early

Ideally, you’ll want to start the college application process the summer before your senior year. So, build your college list early. Then, you’ll know what university applications you want to complete and you can focus on creating the best university application narrative possible. The earlier you start, the more time you’ll have to meet the college application deadlines. This will help you avoid making some common college application mistakes. 

Being aware of different college application deadlines is one of the first steps when understanding how to apply for college. You’ll need to think about which college application deadlines you aim to meet when completing your university applications.

The types of college application deadlines and programs include:

  • Early Action
  • Early Decision
  • Early Decision II
  • Regular Decision 
  • Rolling

Early Action and Early Decision deadlines are typically in November or December, while Regular Decision is usually in January. Most Early Decision II programs also use a January deadline. Rolling admissions processes have no specific deadline, but you’ll want to apply as early as possible to give yourself the best chance

Your college list is extremely important in the college application process. As you think about how to apply for college, keep in mind any programs you’ll need to register for or accounts you’ll need to create. Each university application will have its own process. Many may require the Common App or Coalition Application. Others—like Georgetown, for instance—could have their own university application portal. 

Knowing how you are submitting college applications is an important part of planning for the college application process. You may want to create a separate college list with college application deadlines, application requirements, and application formats in order to stay organized. But, we’ll get into more detail later. 

When applying to college, you’ll usually need the following university application items: 

This list, however, is not exhaustive. Remember to check each school’s requirements before you apply. 

Within the actual university application, you’ll have areas where you can share your extracurricular activities, school information, family background, and any awards or honors you may have received. You’ll also submit your college essays, including your personal statement.

We hope this college application guide will give you tools to use while applying to college and submitting college applications. However, remember it is always okay to ask for college applications help. College application guidance can make a huge difference in the university admission process. 

If your goal is to get into top colleges, seek out advice from your family, your teachers, and our expert college application advisors at CollegeAdvisor. With a team of over 400 Admissions Experts and former Admissions Officers, our college application help services offer personalized college application guidance to students across the nation. We’ll help you feel confident throughout the process of applying to college, from building your college list to submitting college applications.

Ready to learn more about how to apply for college? Let’s jump into the step-by-step breakdown of our college application guide.

How to Apply for College – Ten Steps

Step 1: The College List

 The first step in the college application process is creating your college list. Before you start gathering information for your college apps and actually applying to college, you need to research different colleges and universities and decide which schools you want to apply to. 

Submitting college applications can be time-consuming. So, narrow down your list to ensure you have time to manage your college application deadlines. This will help each of your university applications shine.

Do your research

As you begin your research, consider what factors are important to you. This might include academic offerings, setting, campus culture, extracurriculars, research opportunities, size, or location. If you can, try to visit the schools on your college list. College visits are a great way to learn what different schools have to offer before you start applying to college.

If you aren’t able to visit a college in person, don’t worry. There are many alternatives to an in-person college visit. Look for virtual tours like those on CampusReel, seek out webinars, attend info sessions, and do some research. Online resources can help you get to know a school and what they have to offer.

Demonstrated Interest

Certain schools will look for demonstrated interest (DI) in your university application. So, to strengthen your university applications, find ways to get involved and take advantage of offerings for prospective students. Note that not all schools measure DI. So, make sure you do your research. That way, you’ll know where to consider DI in your university applications. 

Students can show demonstrated interest in a number of ways. To show demonstrated interest, you can apply early, visit the school, attend webinars and information sessions, open and read university emails, request an interview, and email admissions officers. About 13.7% of colleges consider DI to be an important part of their admissions process. The United States Naval Academy, for instance, is one of those universities. Other schools, like those in the Ivy League, do not consider demonstrated interest in the college application process. 

Check out more ways to use demonstrated interest to your benefit. Still, remember that DI isn’t always a factor in the “how to apply for college” process– it depends on each school. As with all aspects of the college application process, do your research.

Balancing your list

As you build your college list, make sure you have a balance of safety, match, and reach schools. You’ll assign schools to these categories based on how you compare to the average applicant in terms of academic history, test scores, and extracurriculars. At a safety school, you’ll be above the average qualifications. At match schools, you’ll meet the average qualifications. Finally, at reach schools, you’ll fall below the average qualifications. 

Your safety, match, and reach rankings should also account for each school’s selectivity. More selective schools (like Harvard or Stanford) will be a reach for even the most qualified applicant. So, while applying to college, it is always helpful to include at least one in-state public university as a safety school. You should also consider Ivy League schools a reach no matter your qualifications.

As you begin applying to college, a balanced college list will help you feel confident submitting college applications. This will ensure you maximize your potential while protecting you from potential rejections. 

CollegeAdvisor can help!

If you feel like you don’t know where to start with this first step of our college application checklist, don’t worry. Our college application advisors are here to give you comprehensive college applications help. With expert college application guidance, you can build a college list filled with schools that meet your needs. So, always know that you can seek out college applications help and ensure your college apps shine

Step 2: Standardized Tests

 The second step in the college application process is to take any required standardized tests. These tests generally include either the ACT or SAT

Taking standardized tests is a skill. So, you should consider getting expert tutoring alongside your college application guidance. You can also turn to college application help services. If you can’t access additional support, you can also take practice tests online. 

Study and prepare

High scores can boost your college apps. With this in mind, make sure you study and prepare. This will help you feel as calm as possible come test day. Most students take the PSAT their junior year. This can give you a sense of how you might do on the SAT. It also allows you to qualify for National Merit and other scholarship opportunities. So, make sure you take the PSAT if you have the chance. 

Both the SAT and the ACT are offered seven times throughout the year. So, if you aren’t happy with your initial test scores, you can always take the test again. When applying to college, keep in mind that some schools superscore your results on your college apps. This means they will consider the best scores for every section when reviewing your university application, even if they were from different testing dates. We recommend taking your tests well ahead of your college application deadlines. This will give you time to study and re-test if you choose to do so.

Test-optional policies

The pandemic has also shifted the process of how to apply for college in terms of testing. Specifically, many schools have adopted test-optional policies. These policies allow students to choose whether they want to include their test scores in their university applications. However, if you have high scores, submit them—strong test scores can only strengthen your university application. Additionally, if you do not include test scores, schools will rely more on other factors—such as your GPA and course history—to determine your academic skills.

University applications with test-optional policies allow students to decide if their standardized test scores accurately reflect their capabilities as a student. High test scores can help a student’s college application stand out. However, in test-optional policies, students who decide to not submit their test scores will not be penalized in the admissions evaluation process. This does mean, though, that other parts of your application will carry more weight. 

Test-blind policies are different in that no student’s standardized test scores are considered in the application process. These schools don’t want students to submit standardized test scores, nor do they use them at all within the review process. The UC system, for instance, does not consider standardized tests when making admissions decisions. 

Understanding which schools are test-optional is an important step in the college application process. Do your research when considering how to apply for college, and double-check the requirements as well as the college application deadlines. Then, use that information to decide whether to send your scores.

Step 3: College Application Checklist

 The third step in the college application process is to create a college application checklist. A college application checklist can help you stay organized while applying to college. By following a checklist, you’ll feel ready to submit your college apps by your college application deadlines.

You might have been thinking about how to apply for college since your freshman year. You also might have just begun considering how to apply for college in your senior fall. Of course, the earlier you start thinking about how to apply for college, the more likely you are to get into top schools. However, even if you’re starting your senior year, you can still build a checklist that will help you throughout your college application process. 

Your university application checklist and college application deadlines will be different depending on your age and goals. So, check out our Junior Year College App Timeline and our Senior Year College App Timeline for tips on applying to college. No matter your timeline, we recommend submitting your college apps early—well ahead of your college application deadlines. This gives you time to make your college apps as strong as possible.

Decide when to apply

As you consider how to apply for college, you should think about the different college application deadlines. Some schools have a single college application deadline, like those in the UC system. However, for most schools, you will need to decide if you want to submit your university application Early Decision/Early Action or Regular Decision

Early Decision/Early Action

Let’s break down what Early Decision and Early Action mean. There are two types of early college application deadlines: Early Decision and Early Action. These college application deadlines tend to fall in early to mid-November ahead of the school’s RD college application deadline. Early Decision is binding, which means if you are accepted, you are expected to withdraw any other applications and enroll in that school. Early Action is non-binding, which doesn’t require a commitment to attend the school. Some schools offer Restrictive Early Action, which is also non-binding, but it restricts students to apply to a single school early.

If you are sure what school you want to attend, applying to college ED might increase your odds of being accepted. Early Decision and Early Action programs tend to have higher acceptance rates. However, those statistics can be slightly misleading when first considering how to apply for college and navigating college application deadlines. 

In general, more competitive students tend to apply ED. These applicants show high academic achievement and are well prepared for the college application process. If you aren’t prepared for the early college application deadlines, then applying ED won’t necessarily give you an advantage. 

Before applying Early Decision or Early Action, you need to understand if these policies are binding. Under binding ED programs, you are contractually obligated to attend that school if accepted. However, prepared applicants can save you from having to submit other university applications or manage additional college application deadlines by applying Early Action or Early Decision. However, you should only do so if you are wholly confident about attending a school and can express that passion and interest in your college app.

Students may also want to consider schools with ED 2 policies when thinking about college application deadlines. These policies allow students to send in their university application later while still gaining any advantage they might gain from applying early. What’s the benefit? Students will have received admissions decisions from their ED 1 applications by the time the ED 2 college application deadline arrives. If a student didn’t get into their first choice school but has a clear second choice, ED 2 is a logical next step. 

Regular Decision (RD)

If you aren’t sure what type of school you’d like to attend. In these cases, you’ll likely be applying to college and submitting your college apps by the RD college application deadline. 

Even if you decide to apply RD to all of the schools on your college list, you may be juggling multiple college application deadlines for your university application, financial aid forms, and test scores. That’s where a checklist can help you work toward submitting college applications. This way, you can manage your time, deadlines, testing dates, and application materials.

College applications may also be accepted on a rolling basis, a process known as rolling admission. This means that applications are evaluated as they are received. Admissions decisions are sent promptly after evaluations. 

Applying to schools with rolling admissions is another way to get ahead in the application process. Under a rolling deadline, you will often have a decision earlier than at schools without rolling admissions (depending on when you’ve sent in your application). However, institutions with rolling admissions still have final college application deadlines, so be sure to check those when considering how to apply for college. 

If you’re feeling overwhelmed putting together your college application checklist, college application guidance can make a huge difference. So, if you’re applying to college and don’t know where to start, consider our college applications help services. A college application help service can give you the support you need to manage your university applications and submit them by your college application deadlines. Our college application Advisors know how difficult applying to college can be. They’ll support you through every step of the college application process. 

Step 4: Investing Time in Your Candidate Profile

 The fourth step in the college application process is building your candidate profile for college. Most schools use a holistic review process to evaluate your university applications. This means they look at your university application as a whole, considering each element of your college app and how they relate to one another.

That’s where your candidate profile for college comes in. Your candidate profile is essentially a three-sentence summary of who you are, what you do, and why colleges should admit you. If you’re wondering how to get into top colleges, your candidate profile for college will make all the difference.

So, as you begin your college apps, keep your candidate profile for college in mind. Look at the narrative your extracurriculars, essays, and academics create. Then, find ways to strengthen this narrative so your candidate profile for college stands out. College applications help services can support you as you build a standout candidate profile. 

When applying to college, you want to show off what makes you unique in every college app. This can feel like a daunting task for a single university application. If work with college application advisors, they’ll probably ask you some questions to help you build your candidate profile.

Candidate profile building questions:

  • Who are you?
  • What do you do?
  • What do you care about?
  • What type of learner are you?
  • How do you get involved in your communities?
  • Why should colleges admit you?

These are some pretty big questions to consider. However, they are essential to answer as you learn how to apply for college. A strong candidate profile for college will help your university application stand out to admissions teams. To really help your college apps shine, you should start considering your candidate profile for college by your junior year.

Step 5: College Application Essays

The fifth step in the college application process is writing your college app essays. Many students applying to college dread the essay process. However, to make your university applications shine, you’ll need solid essays

As you begin your college apps and think about how to apply for college, you might worry about how to represent yourself in your essays. Your university application essays may be the first time you’ve written about yourself. However, this makes them all the more important. As our college application advisors will tell you, your essays are your chance to show schools who you are, what you care about, and why you’d enrich their campus.

Each of your college apps may have a slightly different college application format. However, most college apps will require you to write one or more university application essays. There are two main types of university application essays you may encounter while applying to college: personal statements and supplemental essays.

The Personal Statement

The first kind of essay you’ll find on your college apps is your personal statement. Your personal statement is a key part of your university application. It is a longer essay where you’ll choose from a selection of prompts and discuss something about you beyond your courses, grades, and test scores. If you are submitting college applications via the Common App, you will respond to one of seven essay prompts in 650 words or less. Below is the full list of Common App essay prompts that applied to the 2021-22 and 2022-23 application cycles.

Common App essay prompts

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Supplemental Essays

Supplemental essays are shorter, school-specific essays you’ll complete for specific university applications. Most (but not all) college apps will include supplemental essays. These types of essays may include prompts like “Why this school?” or “Why this major?” However, they can also include less conventional, quirky questions like UChicago’s  ‘What’s so easy about pie?” Whatever your topic, make sure your personality shines through in your college apps. 

Supplemental essays are just as important as the Common App essays. Give yourself ample time in the college application process to work on both types of essays. Remember that in the supplements for a university application, admissions officers want to see what you will bring to campus. What makes you a perfect fit for that specific school? You’ll need to create specific, passionate, and detailed responses to each university application supplemental essay. 

Start Early

It will take time, research, and some college application guidance from a peer or mentor to write a compelling essay. So, start drafting your essays well in advance of your college application deadlines

As you start applying to college, you may want to make an essay-specific college application checklist. Make a calendar with your college application deadlines and mini due-dates for the different steps of your writing process.

Then, give yourself deadlines for the following steps:

  1. A brainstorming session
  2. Making an outline
  3. Completing your first draft
  4. Revising and making a second draft
  5. Getting feedback from a peer, mentor, or guardian
  6. Revising and making a final draft
  7. Proofreading for spelling, grammar, and punctuation

As you work through your essay-specific college application checklist, feel free to repeat steps 4-6 as many times as needed until you are happy with your college app essays. Even if you don’t feel like you need college applications help, getting a second opinion on your university application essays is crucial. This will ensure your ideas are clear and compelling to an outside reader.

Writing standout essays is a key part of how to apply for college. One of our most valuable college application help services is our university application essay support. Your college application advisor can help you choose a topic, manage your essay timeline, and give you useful feedback on your college app essays. Then, complete this step of your college application checklist well before your college application deadlines.

Step 6: Request Letters of Recommendation

 The sixth step in the college application process is securing your letters of recommendation. Your letters of recommendation show colleges who you are from an outside perspective—usually a teacher, counselor, coach, or other mentor. These letters are a key part of how to apply for college. 

Not all university applications require rec letters. Depending on the schools on your college list, your letters of recommendation will either be required or optional. Even if your recommendations are optional, we still suggest including them in your college apps. Your teachers can offer valuable insight that will supplement the rest of your university application.

Most university applications will ask you to send one to three letters of recommendation. Typically, you want to ask someone who knows you personally and who will take the time to write a strong recommendation on your behalf. If your college app asks for multiple letters of recommendation, consider asking teachers from different areas of study to show a range of interests. In most cases, you should choose one STEM teacher and one humanities teacher to show how you perform in different areas.

Some things to consider when choosing your university application recommenders:

  • Do they know me well enough to write a strong letter of recommendation? Will it speak not only to my academic abilities but also to my character?
  • Are they eloquent with their written words? Am I confident that their writing will best show off me and my abilities?
  • Do we have a good relationship? 
  • Will the recommendation elevate my application narrative?
  • Is the recommendation relevant to my application (i. e. an art teacher’s recommendation if applying to an art program)?

Many schools will require a teacher recommendation and a counselor recommendation when applying to college. Be sure to give each recommender ample time to write so that you meet your college application deadlines. Counselors will have a lot of recommendations to write, so be patient and give them plenty of lead time. That way, you can ensure your recommendations are as strong as possible.

Ask before the start of your senior year

Be sure to ask your recommenders well ahead of your college application deadlines. If you’re looking for college application guidance regarding letters of recommendation, we suggest asking at least two months before your college application deadlines. All of your peers will be applying to college at the same time you are. So, many teachers will write letters for a large number of students. As our college application advisors will tell you, it’s never too early to ask.

Make the process as easy as possible for your recommenders when you are applying to college. These letters are an integral part of your university application and the “how to apply to college” process. Provide your recommenders with the college application deadlines. Additionally, make sure they have information on where to submit their letters of recommendation. This will streamline the process when submitting college applications. It will also help ensure you meet all of your college application deadlines.

Also, remember that your recommenders are not applying to college for you and may not know everything about your college apps. So, it can be helpful to give them material to include in their letter of recommendation. Using your candidate profile for college (from Step 4 of this college application guide), think about what you’d like highlighted in your letters of recommendation. Remember, your recommenders are dedicating their time and energy to helping you complete this aspect of your college apps. With this in mind, you should do all you can to make the process as easy as possible.

FERPA Agreement

If you are submitting college applications via the Common App, you will be asked to complete the FERPA Release Authorization. This authorization waives your rights to read your recommendations. This means you will not be able to access them once your recommenders submit them as part of your university application.

As part of our college application guidance, CollegeAdvisor recommends waiving your FERPA rights when submitting college applications. This helps schools feel confident that your letters of recommendation are truthful and genuine. Our college application help service can also help you understand more about FERPA. 

Step 7: Build Extracurricular Activities List

The seventh step in the college application process is building your list of extracurricular activities. Think of your extracurricular list as your college app resume. Your list of extracurriculars is your opportunity to detail your activities, awards, achievements, and leadership positions.

As you think about how to apply for college, remember that an “extracurricular” doesn’t need to be a formal club. Your extracurriculars can include anything that shows how you spend your free time. This includes how you get involved in your community, which specific roles and responsibilities you’ve taken on, and what matters to you.

If you’re submitting your university application through a school-specific portal, they may have a slightly different college application format that requires you to submit your extracurriculars in a unique way.

If you are submitting your university applications through the Common App, you’ll report:

  • Activity type
  • Position/Leadership description
  • Organization Name
  • A short description of the activity (including accomplishments/recognition)
  • Participation grade levels
  • Timing of participation
  • Hours spent per week
  • Weeks spent per year
  • If you intend to participate in a similar activity in college

Because your extracurriculars are so specific, make sure you consider how the extracurriculars listed in your university application reflect your candidate profile for college. 

Which Extracurricular Activities Look Best?

As you craft your extracurricular list for your college apps, aim for depth, not breadth. When reviewing university applications, schools look for students who have excelled in their interests and taken on leadership roles. Try to highlight any awards, accolades, and national and local recognitions. This will help you get into top colleges. 

In addition to providing college applications help, CollegeAdvisor has resources to help you find programs based on your interests. For juniors looking for summer opportunities, check out these resources for summer opportunities in the performing arts, economics and business, computer science & technology, and more. For seniors, look for ways to pitch a new idea, take on a new role, or expand your involvement in your chosen activities.

If you’re not sure what to include in your university application, check out our article for extra tips on tailoring your extracurriculars to your college apps. For even more guidance, we recommend investing in our college application help service and working with college application advisors. A college application advisor will give you personalized advice on what to include in your university applications and how to choose the right extracurriculars for you.

Step 8: Complete FAFSA & CSS

The eighth step in the college application process is to apply for financial aid. Applying to college is only part of the overall college process. For many students, financial aid is the only way they can afford to pursue higher education. This makes it an extremely important part of the college application process. 

There are two financial aid applications you’ll need to complete to see if you qualify for financial aid: your FAFSA & CSS profile. Understanding these forms is a key part of how to apply for college. 

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA, is a form that allows students to apply for federal grants, loans, and work study opportunities. It is also used by many schools to determine your eligibility for both state and school aid. The FAFSA becomes available on October 1st and remains open until June 30th. 

The College Scholarship Service Profile, also known as the CSS profile, is an application sponsored by the College Board. Many schools use it to determine a student’s eligibility for non-federal financial aid. The CSS profile opens on October 1st and is generally due sometime between January and March depending on the school. 

If you are planning to complete your FAFSA & CSS profile, it is important to note that most schools have specific financial aid deadlines along with their college application deadlines. For example, Northwestern University requires ED applicants to submit their FAFSA & CSS by December 1st and RD applicants to submit by February 15th. So, make sure to line up your financial aid deadlines with your college application deadlines.

As you complete the process of applying to college, remember the earlier you submit your paperwork, the earlier you’ll receive a decision about financial aid. If you need college applications help or are interested in financial aid college application guidance, check out our Financial Aid Overview and FAFSA 101 webinars. These sessions offer useful tips to help demystify the entire financial aid process.

Beyond providing college application guidance, college application help services like ours can help you navigate your financial aid applications. Your expert college application advisor can help you knock the FAFSA and CSS off of your college application checklist while making sure you get the financial aid you need to attend college. This will boost your confidence when submitting college applications.

Step 9: Apply for Scholarships

 The ninth step in the college application process is applying for scholarships. Unlike other types of financial aid, which considers a student’s financial need, merit-based scholarships offer aid to students based on their achievements. Merit scholarships can include scholarships from individual schools as well as nationally awarded private scholarships of all sizes.

Finding and applying for scholarships may seem like extra work to take on while applying to college. However, in many cases, this part of the college application process is well worth the effort. So, budget time to research scholarships into your college app plan. Then, think about scholarship deadlines in addition to your college application deadlines. This can be the difference between hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.

If you’re looking for a simple scholarship opportunity, College Board offers students the chance to win scholarships just for completing the steps of their college application checklist and applying to college. This includes building a college list, practicing for the SAT, and submitting college applications to two or more schools.

Check out our Scholarship Resource page to find school-specific scholarship guides, including tips for applying for a USC Merit Scholarship, the Coca-Cola Scholarship, and the National Merit Scholarship. If you are planning to apply for a specific merit scholarship not covered in one of our guides, CollegeAdvisor offers college application guidance tailored to your needs. As part of our college application help services, our college application Advisors will help you craft your scholarship applications alongside your college apps to maximize your chances of success.

Step 10: Fill out the Applications and Click Submit

 The tenth step in the college application process is to fill out your university applications and submit by each college application deadline. There are many different types of college apps you may complete while applying to college. This includes the Common Application, the Coalition Application, and school-specific applications. Some schools have their own application portals, like Cal State and CUNY, while other application portals, like ApplyTexas, serve dozens of public and private universities across the state.

While most college apps will ask for similar information, each type of college application format is unique. Depending on which college apps you submit, you may even only use one college application format.

Common App

One of the most widely used college application formats is the Common Application. The Common Application is a popular college application portal, as it lets you apply to over 900 schools. This can help you save time throughout the university application process. So, starting your Common App early can help you meet your college application deadlines.

The Common App includes the following categories: profile, family, education, testing, activities, and writing. You only need to complete each of these fields once, regardless of how many college apps you submit. If you need college applications help, college application help services like CollegeAdvisor can provide valuable college application guidance as you complete your college apps. 

In their university application guide, the Common App recommends you gather the following university application materials before you work toward submitting college applications:

  • A copy of your high school transcript
  • A list of your activities, work, and family responsibilities
  • Test scores and dates from your college entrance exams (SATs, ACTs, etc.)
  • Parent/Legal guardian information
  • Academic honors and achievements

Gather these materials before you begin applying to college. That way, you will feel prepared as you begin the university application process. Once you’ve created your Common App account, you can store your university applications on your dashboard. In your Common App account, you’ll upload materials and edit each of your university applications. You’ll also be able to view any additional requirements.

You may not use the Common Application for all of your college apps. Each university application portal is unique, though many college application formats require similar details. So, do your research  and make sure you understand the steps to submitting college applications well before your college application deadlines. Once again, if you want college applications help, a college application advisor can help you navigate this process. 

Common College Application Mistakes

Applying to college is complicated, and the college application process leaves a lot of room for error. In this “How to Apply for College” guide, we’ve broken down the steps to applying to college and submitting college applications. Now that you have a solid idea of how to apply for college, let’s address some common college application mistakes and how to avoid them. 

Being too general

The first of our common application mistakes to avoid when applying to college is being too general. Admissions officers read thousands of college applications every year. The college application format doesn’t give you a lot of space to tell your story. So, do all you can to stand out. This includes adding as much detail as possible to your college apps. Your university applications should reflect your experiences and show what makes you unique. 

Ignoring the deadlines

Another of the most common college application mistakes? Missing your college application deadlines. The final college application deadline for many schools is January 1st, which falls during the middle of winter break for most students. So, when applying to college, always keep your college application deadlines in mind. Don’t put yourself in a position where you have to rush to finish your college apps, as this can lead to more college application mistakes. So, aim to complete your college apps at least a week before your college application deadlines. That way, you have plenty of time to refine each part of your college applications and make any last-minute revisions.  Submitting college applications on time is key.

Not asking for help when you need it

Finally, the last of the college application mistakes we’ll highlight is not asking for college applications help. Applying to college is a stressful process. College application guidance can make a huge difference as you work out how to apply for college. Investing in college application help services can give you the support you need to succeed and avoid any college application mistakes. A college application advisor can guide you through all aspects of how to apply for college. That way, as college application deadlines near, you’ll know you’ve put your best foot forward. Do all you can to avoid common college application mistakes by being prepared. 

More on the College Application Process

When applying to college, you may need to include other supplemental documents in your university application. Some common supporting documents in college apps are the college resume and college application letters. Understanding each of these items and their importance in the college application process can help when figuring out how to apply for college. This will help you learn how to get accepted to the college of your choice. Factor these supplemental items into your college application deadlines, as completing them will take time. 

College Resume

Let’s continue with the “how to apply for college” process by understanding the college application resume. Your college resume may be better understood by calling it your high school resume. Basically, you’ll use it to show off your extracurriculars and accomplishments from high school. It will complement your university application. 

Your college resume won’t simply list activities. Instead, you’ll want to describe these experiences, albeit briefly. Now, you don’t usually need a college resume when applying to college. However, starting a college resume as early as ninth grade can organize your accomplishments and extracurriculars. You’ll be surprised at how much this will help when navigating how to apply for college in your junior and senior years. Check out some tips on how to write your college resume. 

College Application Letter

Like your college resume, college application letters can also play to your advantage when applying to college. You may have heard of cover letters if you’ve applied to jobs, internships, or volunteer opportunities. Basically, a college application letter is the cover letter for your university applications. The college application letter should highlight why you should be considered for that particular college. A college application letter is rarely required when applying to college. However, when the college application letter is done well, it can help applicants’ admissions odds. Learn more about the importance of a college application letter and how to write one.  

Applying to College as First-Generation College Student

Being a first-generation college student can have an impact on your admissions odds as well as the college application process as a whole. Different universities define a first generation college student in different ways. However, the most common definition is a student whose parents haven’t completed a four-year university program. About 50% of students actually identify as first-generation college students. Luckily, there are many resources available specifically for first-generation college students to facilitate the college application process. 

Navigating how to apply for college and meeting college application deadlines can be a daunting process for all students. Being a first-gen college student comes with its own unique complexities. Many factors may affect your experience when applying to college or when navigating exactly how to apply for college. One big factor in the college application process is the support that you have. This may come from a college advisor or from other people in your life. When applying to college as a first-generation student, the process may seem overwhelming for your family as well as yourself. 

Understanding how to apply for college as a first generation student is important. You should declare your first generation status in your university applications—in fact, not doing so would fall into the category of college application mistakes. Why is this important when navigating how to apply for college? Because there are scholarships and resources available to first-gen students. Even after enrolling in university, first generation students will have resources available to overcome some common first generation struggles. While this support may be less extensive at certain schools, it can at least help ease some of the pressures as first generation students arrive on campus. 

International College Applications

Many students may choose to study their undergraduate degree abroad. For instance, you may be applying as an international student to US universities. You might also be a US student applying to international universities. However, the most important things to consider when completing international college applications are meeting all the requisites and college application deadlines. 

Applying as an international student often involves a bit more research. Let’s take a closer look at international college admissions.

International students applying to college in US

Like first generation college students, international students applying to college in the US will face their own set of challenges. One of the biggest challenges that international students face are standardized tests. In order to meet every college application deadline when completing international college applications, students need to take the ACT/SAT. They must also often take an English proficiency test. 

As a student completing international college applications, you should submit your grades as they are reported in your country. When trying to figure out how to apply for college in the US, don’t worry about trying to convert grades to the US’ high school grading standards. Admissions officers will understand the equivalent comparison when evaluating your academic achievements. 

Letters of recommendation are important for all applicants, especially international students. Admissions officers want to read recommendations that show that you will adapt to the academic environment in the universities in the US. Choose a recommender who knows you well and will highlight your strengths. Be sure to ask them for the letter of recommendation long before the college application deadline rolls around. 

Each college application deadline (Early Action, Early Decision, and Regular Decision) is the same for international students applying to college. However, navigating how to apply for college may take more time than it does for students in the US who are slightly more accustomed to the process and grading system. 

In order to avoid making college application mistakes, reach out to admissions offices with any specific questions that you can’t find answers to on their website. It will also be helpful to attend information sessions and webinars to learn more about the college application process and specifically completing international college applications. 

US Students Applying Abroad

Students who plan to apply to college abroad will face a different application process and education system. However, the allure of completing an undergraduate degree internationally has many students in the US trying to figure out how to apply for college abroad. 

Oxford University is amongst the most popular universities for US students looking to complete college apps outside of the US. Oxford consistently ranks as one of the top universities globally and is #1 in the UK. Students are actually granted the opportunity to study with top experts in chosen fields weekly– an appealing quality for many completing their university applications and international college applications. 

What does the Oxford University application look like? Well, students will fill out their college apps to Oxford as they would for many US universities, via a platform similar to the Common App called UCAS. One main difference for US students applying to Oxford is that they must decide their course of study from the moment they fill out their applications. The main course they choose will dictate their education and degree. Basically, you can’t be submitting college apps to Oxford and not know what you want to study.  For US students, understanding how to apply for college abroad often means having a clear course of study. 

Additionally, Oxford often requires students to take additional standardized tests. You may need to schedule these with your counselor individually, so plan ahead. The Oxford deadline is also often earlier than that of any US schools. 

When applying to Oxford or any other international university, the process is similar to submitting college applications in the US. This means you should start early, understand the process, and complete all the requirements. 

Learning how to apply to college in the US may seem challenging to international students. Similarly, US students completing college apps abroad may feel overwhelmed by a different system. But, remember why you are applying to college internationally. Stay motivated and passionate while filling out your university applications. Finally, start early in order to have plenty of time to meet your college application deadlines. 

Waiting to Apply to College: The Gap Year

How to apply for college, college application deadlines, and even college application mistakes may look different to students considering a less traditional path to further education. All students may not want to go straight from high school into university. For those students looking for an experiential learning experience, a gap year is a wonderful opportunity. So, what would taking a gap year mean in terms of how to apply for college? 

Students have a variety of options should they decide to take a gap year. Firstly, deciding how to meaningfully spend your gap year is key. This can be beneficial when completing college apps the following year. If you know early on that you don’t want to complete your university applications until after graduation (during your gap year), then you will complete the college application process later. This means you will meet each college application deadline a year later than your fellow high school classmates. The general “how to apply for college” process will be the same—just on a different timeline. 

You will want to highlight your gap year within your university applications. What are you learning from your gap year? How is it making you a better student and person? How will you bring all that valuable knowledge to campus? Navigating how to apply for college as a gap year student means showing off how the experience is affecting you. 

However, you may also choose to complete your college applications your senior year but defer your acceptance. That takes away the stress of figuring out how to apply for college during your gap year. This is especially a smart option if you know you may be volunteering abroad, working full time, or just know what college you want to attend. 

Different colleges will have different protocols on deferment. When completing your college apps, be sure that you can defer acceptance and know the college application deadlines for doing so. You may have to commit to enrolling with a deposit. Make sure you get all the details so that you not only meet the college application deadline, but also the enrollment deadline. 

Exploring College Application Examples

We’ve spoken generally about how to apply for college in this guide. You’ll need to meet each and every college application deadline and requirement. And even more than meeting the minimum requirements, you’ll want to stand out from the crowd in order to impress admissions with each of the college apps that you submit. 

Submitting college applications and meeting college application deadlines requires submitting supplemental materials such as essays and letters of recommendation. You may even want to consider including additional materials when completing college apps such as a college resume and college application letter. 

Let’s take a look at a few different university applications so that you can better understand how to apply for college. You’ll notice that the requirements will be similar, but submitting the college applications may be done differently and the college application deadlines will likely vary slightly. Essay and letter of recommendation requirements will vary, as will interviews and standardized tests policies. 

Ivy League Applications

First and foremost, remember that when it comes to building your college list, Ivy Leagues are always considered reach schools. That means that no matter your academic excellence or experience in extracurricular activities, these are highly competitive universities that have low acceptance rates. 

What does that have to do with each university application to an Ivy? Well, while you should take special time and care when completing all university applications, Ivy League schools may be even more time consuming because you want them to shine in a sea of extremely high achieving students. How to apply for college, specifically Ivy leagues, will be a time consuming process. So, students should carefully plan their timelines according to the college application deadlines. 

Extracurricular activities are important when completing every university application. However, when it comes to the Ivy League college application process, it is vital for applicants to excel both academically and in other activities. This means, when it comes to extracurriculars, it’s all about quality over quantity. 

Admissions officers don’t want to see every extracurricular box checked; they want to see consistency, passion, skill, and talent. For example, if you’ve been playing the guitar since a very young age and have now started teaching classes in a local music store or community center, that’s a promising extracurricular activity. However, don’t expect just one extracurricular to impress the Ivies. You’ll need to truly shine in a way that shows intellectual curiosity, leadership, and community involvement. 

If applying to Ivy League schools, make sure to start early on each of your college apps in order to meet the college application deadlines. You’ll want plenty of time to perfect every essay and extracurricular before submitting college applications. Check out these tips from Forbes in order to make your Ivy university application stand out. 

Purdue Application

Next, let’s get into some details on how to apply for college at specific schools. First we’ll look at the Purdue application. Purdue University ranks as #51 in U.S. News Best College lists and as #9 on their Best Undergraduate Engineering Programs list. Purdue has an acceptance rate of 67%. You’ll want to complete the Purdue application to your best ability to impress admissions.  

So, how to complete your Purdue application and make the cut when it comes to admissions? Well, it starts with completing all of the university application requirements before the college application deadline and doing so to the best of your ability. 

When it comes to submitting college applications to Purdue, students must do so via the Common App. Within the Purdue application, students will need to complete one Common App essay and another two Purdue specific supplemental essays

Here are the required materials needed in order to complete the Purdue University application: 

  • Application via the Common App
  • Application fee or fee waiver
  • Purdue specific questions and essays
  • Self reported high school grades
  • Self reported ACT or SAT test scores
  • Proof of English proficiency (for citizens of non-English speaking countries)

UCSD Application

Understanding how to apply for college at the University of California–San Diego is a slightly different process, as all UC schools use the same UC application portal when submitting college applications. This means you’ll turn in your UCSD application via the UC application portal, UC Apply. The college application deadline for the UCSD application (and general UC application) is November 30th. 

How to apply for college at UCSD is similar to applying to other colleges. The most important thing is to make sure you submit your UCSD application by the UC application by the deadline, including all of your required documents. Check out our How to Get Into UCSD guide to best complete your UC application, and specifically your UCSD application, in a way that impresses the admissions team.

Here’s an overview of sections in the UC application: 

To strengthen your odds of admissions, mark various campuses of interest in your UC application. The more campuses you apply to, the better your admissions odds will be. However, if you’re set on UCSD, then only check that campus box. Still, be sure to give yourself plenty of time to stand out with a well crafted UC application. Remember that many students across the country are completing the UC application, so start early in order to perfect yours.

UF Application

The University of Florida requires that students submitting college applications do so via the Common App or Coalition Application. Navigating how to apply for college and the UF application is similar to other universities. This means you need to meet the college application deadline and submit all supplemental requirements. 

UF has an acceptance rate of 30% and is ranked as #29 in U.S. News National Universities list. Academics, extracurriculars, and essays are important parts of the UF application. Check out this guide on how to apply to college, specific to completing the UF application.  

Here’s what you’ll need when applying to college at UF: 

Check out UF’s page to make sure you are ready to apply and have completed all parts of the UF application to the best of your ability. The college application deadline for UF is November 1st, however, applicants have until December 1st to submit their SSAR and until December 15th to submit test scores. 

What Happens After Submitting Your College Applications?

 You’ve sought out college applications help, submitted your university application, and finished applying to college. Now what?

After your college application deadlines have passed, the admissions teams at the schools on your college list will review your university applications. Most schools use a holistic review process, which means they consider every aspect of your college application. No one part of your university applications will disqualify you from acceptance

Demystifying the review process

The review process looks different at each school. Often, your college apps will be reviewed by at least two admissions officers. In the final stage, your university applications will go to the full committee, who will vote on your admissions results. 

While it’s useful to understand the holistic review process, you ultimately don’t have any control over what happens after submitting college applications. So, don’t get preoccupied with what’s happening to your college apps during this period. Instead, stay calm, and try to focus on your studies, friends, and extracurriculars. Do your best not to stress about your admissions decisions. 

Depending on which college application deadlines you follow, you’ll receive your decisions at different times. If you submitted your university application ED, you should hear back sometime between mid to late December. If you submitted your university application RD, you can expect to hear back sometime in March or early April.

Ivy Day

Some schools also release decisions on specific days. If you submitted college applications to multiple Ivy League schools, then you should mark “Ivy Day” on your calendar. Ivy Day is a day, typically toward the end of March, when all Ivy league schools notify students of the results of their university applications.

Unless you applied ED and successfully secured your acceptance, there’s one more college application deadline to have on your college application checklist: May 1st. 

National College Decision Day

May 1st is National College Decision Day. This is the date by which you need to decide which school you will attend. Depending on the results of your college apps, you may have any number of college options. 

Making your final choice is an extremely personal decision. It comes down to what you want, what your family can afford, and where you can see yourself thriving for the next four years. Before you rush to make a decision, make sure you take a moment to feel proud of applying to college. Reflect on the time you dedicated to each university application and all the college application deadlines you successfully met. Finally, be sure to thank those that provided you with college applications help. 

How to Apply to College: Final Thoughts

 The college application process is tough. Each university application will have different requirements and college application deadlines. No matter which schools you apply to, our “How to Apply for College College Application Guide” can provide you with college applications help and resources. That way, you can stay on track to meet all of your college application deadlines.

How to Apply for College – Step 1: The College List

Before you begin the college application process, research colleges and build your college list. Choose a range of colleges that meet your needs. Your college list should include a balance of safety, match, and reach schools.

Creating your college list is the most important step and will help you meet your college application deadlines by prioritizing your top schools. Have fun when building your college list. After all, you’re deciding your potential home for the next four years. 

How to Apply for College – Step 2: Standardized Tests

If you can, plan to take your standardized tests early. That way, you have time to retake them if you didn’t do as well as you hoped.

Check each college’s standardized test policy before applying. Don’t wait until right before college application deadlines to think about the ACT and SAT. You won’t meet your college application deadlines if you’re overwhelmed with standardized tests on top of the rest of the college apps process. 

How to Apply for College – Step 3: College Application Checklist

Make a college application checklist with your college application deadlines, scholarship and financial aid deadlines, and mini-due dates for your college app essays and letters of recommendation.

Organization is key when it comes to meeting college application deadlines. This may seem like a tedious process, but it will work to your advantage in the long run.

How to Apply for College – Step 4: Investing Time in Your Candidate Profile

Take time to develop your candidate profile. Make sure you highlight what you want the admissions team to learn about you in your university applications.

This can be a time consuming process. Look for help and guidance if you find yourself at a standstill. There are experts who can help you with your candidate profile so that you aren’t scrambling to put it all together at the last second in order to meet your college application deadlines.

How to Apply for College – Step 5: College Application Essays

Give yourself plenty of time before your college application deadlines to write your college app essays.

College essays are an extremely important part of college apps and admissions decisions. Writing quality essays that impress admissions officers will take time. Don’t wait until the week before your college application deadlines to start brainstorming.

How to Apply for College – Step 6: Request Letters of Recommendation

Remember to ask for letters of recommendation at least one month ahead of your college application deadlines. This will help your recommenders organize and meet your college application deadlines. Remember that they may have to write multiple recommendations. 

Think about who you want to recommend you carefully. You want to choose someone who knows you well and will highlight your strengths.

How to Apply for College – Step 7: Build Extracurricular Activities List

Build out your college apps with a list of extracurricular activities that reflects what you care about. Highlight all that you’ve accomplished throughout your high school career.

When it comes to extracurricular activities, choose things that you are passionate about. Admissions officers will know if you’ve chosen activities for the sole purpose of applying to college.

How to Apply for College – Step 8: Complete FAFSA & CSS Profile

Complete your FAFSA and CSS profile on time so you can receive your financial aid reward along with your admissions decisions.

This is one of the most important steps when meeting your college application deadlines. The cost of university is high so gaining financial aid if needed is absolutely vital in the “how to apply for college” process.

How to Apply for College – Step 9: Apply for Scholarships

 Take some time during the university application process to research scholarships.

There are lots of scholarships out there, but it takes time and patience to find and apply to them. 

Organization can help in not only meeting college application deadlines, but also scholarship application deadlines. Create a scholarship list with requisites and deadlines to stay organized.

How to Apply for College – Step 10: Fill Out the Applications and Click Submit

Aim to do your final university application check a few days ahead of your final college application deadlines. That way, you can review the college application format and make any last-minute edits.

You’ve probably stared at your university applications non-stop, so taking a second to step away and come back with fresh eyes for a final look before submitting is important. 

This ten-step college application guide will help you work toward submitting college applications that showcase your strengths. However, the college application process is complicated, and it’s natural to want more college application guidance. So, don’t be afraid to ask for college applications help. We know there may be school-specific or you-specific questions that come up along the way. If you feel like you need extra college applications help and support to help you get into top colleges, CollegeAdvisor is here to help.

CollegeAdvisor offers a range of college application help services to help students get into top colleges. If you want college application guidance from expert college application advisors, create an account or schedule a free advising consultation by calling (844) 343-6272.