College Admissions Guide: Process and Prep
College admissions is all about finding a school that fits you. As an applicant, you are looking for an environment where you can thrive academically and personally, and it is the job of an admission officer to identify students who will make great additions to a unique campus community.
1. College Planning
Your path to college begins your first year in high school as you make yourself college ready. Grades and test scores are important factors in college admission, but admissions officers are also looking for curious and engaged candidates who will round out a diverse first-year class.
Choose your high school classes carefully. Make sure to challenge yourself with honors classes, AP classes, and IB classes when they are available.
Grades matter for all 4 years. When colleges review your transcript, they typically focus on your sophomore and junior year grades but will still see the others.
“Start early,” advise the respondents to our College Hopes & Worries Survey. Focus on getting good grades, and get homework help when you need it to stay on track.
Even if you had a rough first year, there’s still time to turn your grades around. Many schools will reward your upward trajectory.
The PSAT is optional your sophomore year, but your junior year PSAT scores can qualify you for scholarship programs such as the National Merit® Scholarship, which can help cover the cost of tuition and get you into a great college. The best way to prep for the PSAT is to prep for the SAT.
Many selective colleges require you to submit SAT Subject Test scores , and some colleges grant course credit for excellent performance. It’s a good idea to sit for the Subject Tests right after you finish the related classes in high school.
Good performances on AP exams are one indicator for admissions officers of your potential for achieving in college. More than 1,400 colleges and universities accept high scores on AP exams for course credits.
Schools accept both the SAT/ACT equally, so it’s completely up to you which test you take (you can even take both!). The essay sections of both tests are optional, but some colleges may require it.
Test optional schools: Schools that are test optional do not require standardized test scores as part of a complete application. Since your test scores could qualify you for merit scholarships (even at test optional schools), it’s still a smart idea to take—and prep for!—at least one standardized test.
What you do with your time outside the classroom shows colleges who you are and what qualities you’ll bring to campus.
Commitment to a sport, hobby, religious organization, or job over four years of high school is key. Colleges would much rather see you excited about a few worthwhile endeavors than marginally involved with a ton of clubs.
If an after-school job is cutting into your extracurricular time, don’t worry! Work experience demonstrates maturity and responsibility on your college application.
Summer counts, too! Some students enroll in university programs to start earning college credits. Others volunteer or find a summer job. Whatever you do, your summer activities can make your college application rise to the top of a competitive applicant pool.
2. College Search
No two students are exactly alike, and no two schools are exactly alike. What are the features of your best for college?
Conversations with your college counselor about what’s important to you in terms of academics, campus culture, and financial aid will help guide your overall college search.
Research is a must. Attend college fairs, consult our college profiles , and visit campuses to find and compare potential schools. Check out majors, dorms, clubs, career services, and other key features.
You’ll end up with a list of dream, match, and safety schools —any of which i s a great fit for your specific personality and interests .
How many colleges do students apply to? According to our 2018 College Hopes & Worries Survey, 40% of students plan to apply to 5-8 schools, while 30% will apply to 9 or more colleges.
3. College Applications
When it comes time to apply, you’ll have some decisions to make.
Will you apply early? Many colleges allow applicants to submit their materials for an early deadline (sometime in the fall) that falls before the regular deadline (usually sometime in January or February). Learn about early action vs early decision .
The key components of the college application are your transcript, score reports, letters of recommendation, and application essay. Colleges will also ask you to list your extracurricular activities. Learn everything you need to know about college application .
Always check admissions requirements with each individual school. Schools may have different requirements regarding number of SAT Subject Tests or whether they require you to take the SAT or ACT essay.
The Common Application makes it easy to apply to multiple schools, but schools will typically have different supplemental essay topics or test score requirements.
You may decide to interview with an admissions representative or college alumni member to learn more about schools—and to help schools learn more about you.
4. Applying for Financial Aid
Debt has been the biggest concern among respondents to our College Hopes & Worries survey for the past three years. Educate yourself on how financial aid works, so you can make the right choices for you and your family.
Schools usually have their own net-price calculators so that families can get a sense of what their out-of-pocket costs would look like. Check out each prospective school's financial aid website as you research your college list.
Be aware that applying to college and applying for financial aid are two separate processes.
You’ll start with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid ( FAFSA ), which as of October 2016 will be released on October 1 of every year. The form asks for information about your income and the size of your household to determine your expected family contribution (EFC) toward your college tuition.
Schools may also use their own forms, or use the CSS Profile for non-federal aid.
Your financial aid package is intended to meet your need and will consist of
grants and scholarships
Plenty of outside organizations offer scholarships tailored to academic interests, talents, extracurricular activities, career goals, geographic location, and many more factors. Keep an eye on deadlines which could fall as early as the summer before senior year.
5. Choosing Your School
Once the notifications start rolling in, celebrate your acceptances with your college counselor, and make your final decision (typically by May 1, “Decision Day”).
How to decide? 42% of respondents told us they’d choose the college that's the "best for their career interests" and another 40% said they'd choose the college that’s the "best overall fit."
Get excited about the schools that accepted you by talking to real students on campus, learning more about key programs and on-campus activities, and touring dorms and other facilities.
Compare financial aid packages to determine which one makes the most financial sense for you.
If your dream college waitlisted you, don’t despair! You could still be accepted from the waitlist, as students notify the college whether they accept or decline. Check out our college waitlist strategies .
Students may be deferred (their application held to be evaluated at another time) if a college decides they need more information (like senior year grades or test scores) before making their decision.
You may also decide to defer your acceptance for a year to work, travel, or volunteer. Learn more about taking a gap year .