College Application Process

A High School Senior’s Guide to Applying to College



Applying to college can seem like the most daunting task in your high school career. At this point, you have to start making decisions about where you want to go, how you’re going to pay for your education, and what your major will be. But I’m here to tell you to NOT stress.

Yes, applying to college is important, but what’s more important is that you stay calm and approach the college application process in an organized, low-stress manner.

Let’s narrow it down with a timeline.

Summer Before Senior Year

You’re probably excited to enjoy the last summer before your senior year in high school, but it’s the best time to start researching and visiting colleges that you’re interested in. College Board is a great resource when it comes to comparing schools. The website will be your best friend when researching colleges. Another great resource is TUN’s School Analysis Tool, which you can use to compare a whole host of data for your higher education choices, including: actual annual cost of schools based on different family income levels; post graduation earnings; graduation rate; retention rate; and average debt.

Since you will be spending 4+ years at your college, it is crucial that you understand what you’re walking into. But just looking at the school’s website or using comparison tools isn’t enough — attending open houses for schools you’re seriously interested in is key. When you begin researching and visiting schools, make sure to:

  1. Prepare questions to ask during the open houses. For example, you can ask about the student clubs orthe  various programs offered at the school.
  2. If possible, spend a day or night at the school you’re interested in. This will give you a glimpse of what attending the school might actually be like.
  3. Talk with your parents or guardians about your choices. Yes, you are becoming an adult and where you decide to go to school is fully up to you, but in most cases, your parents/guardians will be the ones who will help you fund your education. Have a talk with them about finances, and see if dorming is an option or if commuting is a better choice. Communication is key when narrowing down your list of schools.

SEE ALSO: 10 Things to do the Summer Before College

Fall of Senior Year

By the fall of senior year, you will already have some idea about the schools you’re going to apply to. At this point, you might have already begun to exhibit signs of senioritis, but remember to still work hard in your classes because colleges do look at your grades from senior year! The key to starting right and staying organized is giving yourself deadlines so that you don’t feel overwhelmed.


  • Start categorizing schools into safety, good match, or reach schools.
    • Safety schools are schools that you’re confident you’re going to get into (and know that you can afford). You can decide whether a school is a safety by comparing your GPA and SAT test scores.
    • Good match schools are schools that are a good fit for you in terms of both academics and finances.
    • Reach schools are schools that are long-shots, but ones you still want to apply to.
  • Schedule an appointment with your guidance counselor and talk about your choices. Your counselor can play a critical role in helping you decide which schools to apply to. After all, it is your counselor’s job to advise and guide you throughout the application process.
  • Mark down all the college application deadlines — exam dates, financial aid documents due dates, last day to submit recommendations, etc. Setting alerts for deadlines is essential so that you never forget! Aim to get all the applications in before Thanksgiving break, or latest by Christmas break.
  • Start working on your college essay. Many colleges utilize the Common App for admission, and if all of the colleges you apply to use the Common App, you’ll only have to worry about one college essay. But if that’s not the case, you can either tweak your essay for other applications or write new ones accordingly. When writing your essay, keep these tips in mind:
    • Try to make yours as unique as possible. Analyze the question and really strive to tell a story that’s uniquely yours. Your dream school will definitely notice.
    • Show your reader instead of just explaining something. Painting a picture will be more engaging.
    • Write concisely with appropriate college-level vocabulary.
    • Make sure someone else— maybe a teacher or a family member— looks over your essay. Another set of eyes can pick up things you would not notice at first.
    • Remember to use spell check and Google (or dictionary) to make sure you’re using and spelling words correctly. You do NOT want to misuse or misspell words in your essay!
  • Complete the FAFSA and CSS.
  • Start asking teachers for letters of recommendation as soon as possible. Make sure you ask someone who knows you personally and can testify to your work ethic and academic capabilities to ensure the best recommendation possible.  

Winter of Senior Year


By now, the senioritis is in full force, but remember to keep those grades up! Start applying to scholarships — the more you apply to, the higher your chance of winning scholarship money. (Here’s a complete guide to scholarship hacks!) Also, if you haven’t done so, apply to FAFSA!!!

Spring of Senior Year


You’ve made it through the college application process — Congratulations! But remember — it’s not over until it’s (actually) over — you still have some to-dos left. First, make sure you stay involved in extracurriculars, and keep your grades up. If you are wait-listed, colleges will look at what you have accomplished between the time you applied and the time they announced their decision. Also, if finance is a concern, make sure to appeal your financial aid package and ask for more aid before accepting an offer.

May 1st is the official decision deadline and now you’ve got your pick of schools to choose from. It can be a difficult decision choosing where to go, but remember that it’s YOUR decision. You don’t want to look back and realize you didn’t choose the school you wanted because of someone else’s opinion. You’re going to spend four years there so choose one that you feel right about. Once that’s out of the way, relax because you’re done with the process and you’re on your way to a new chapter!

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