How to Apply for College: Step-by-Step Expert Guide



Applying for college is a monumental moment in every student’s life. While it is undoubtedly exciting, the college application process has so many steps that it can at times feel overwhelming. The key to minimizing the stress attached to applying for college is doing your research. The more you know about it, the easier it will be. 

This article gives an in-depth overview of the entire college application process, from picking your list of schools to understanding your financial aid offer. 

How to choose a college

Early on in the college application process, before senior year, you should create a shortlist of schools that you would like to attend. This is the exciting part. You get to fantasize about where you could potentially spend the next four or five years of your life. 

There are a number of factors to consider when making your shortlist. The first is geography. When you decide where you’re going to college, you’re choosing where you’re going to live for the next four or five years. So, consider things like proximity to family and your hobbies to decide where you’d be comfortable moving to.

“Maybe you’re someone who lives in the East Coast but has family in Southern California. You should look at some schools out there,” Joe Korfmacher, a director of counseling at Collegewise, told TUN. “And if you like snow and snowboarding, maybe consider schools in Vermont or Colorado.”

The second big factor to consider is whether you have a chance of being accepted. Unfortunately, your college options are at least somewhat limited by your grades and test scores. You should apply to a range of institutions, including target schools, reach schools, and far-reach schools, but you should also know your limits. There is no reason to waste your time, effort, and money applying to a school that won’t admit you. 

The third factor that you should consider is what you want to study. If you’re set on a specific subject, you should research schools that specialize in your interest. And if you’re undecided, you’ll want to apply to schools that have a lot of available majors, which are typically large public universities, Eric Endlich, founder of Top College Consultants, told TUN. 

“If you know the subset you’re interested in, you might still be able to narrow it down to, say, STEM-focused schools,” Endlich added. “Or, if you say it’s going to be something in the humanities, you could probably go to a small liberal arts college that offers humanities majors.”

The fourth factor that you want to consider is the culture of a school. You want to end up at an institution where you’ll be able to surround yourself with people who share your interests. 

“If you’re a student who is, let’s say, very politically active and politically progressive and you end up in a school where students are very apolitical or maybe very conservative, you’re going to be very uncomfortable,” said Endlich. 

In addition to taking campus tours and researching campus clubs, a good way to judge the culture of a school is by reaching out to current students or recent alumni who are/were in the academic program or campus clubs that you want to join.

The last factor worth mentioning is cost. Cost is a complex topic. Most students don’t pay the full sticker price for college. The amount of money that you will pay for college depends on a number of factors, including your location, your family’s financial situation, and your academic and extracurricular achievements. 

A school’s sticker price shouldn’t necessarily dissuade you from applying to a school that you want to go to. But, you should be realistic. If your family does not want to or is unable to pay a lot of money for your education, you shouldn’t waste your time applying to a private school on the opposite side of the country. Check TUN’s University Comparison Tool to find out the average annual cost of each college after financial aid. It will give you a ballpark estimate of what you would have to pay for each school. 

For more helpful advice from Endlich on choosing where to apply, check here

When to apply for college

There are multiple ways to apply for college. The four most common admissions paths include regular decision, Early Decision, Early Action, and rolling admissions. 

Regular decision

Typically, Regular Decision deadlines fall around January 1. However, some may be as early as November. For that reason, it is important to check the Regular Decision deadline of every school that you’re interested in attending. This is the path that most students take.

Early decision 

Although it can vary by institution, most schools’ Early Decision deadlines fall on November 1, two months before the regular decision deadline. If you opt to apply Early Decision, you will hear back from schools earlier than you would if you applied Regular Decision. 

The primary benefit of applying Early Decision is that it can increase your chances of being admitted into an institution. However, the fallback is that Early Decision plans are binding, meaning that if you’re accepted, you have to go. 

“Certainly colleges want to bring in classes of students who are going to thrive there,” Ryan Cassell, president of the Southern Association for College Admission Counseling (SACAC), told TUN. “And if a student is applying Early Decision, that is a commitment to enroll. In most situations, applying Early Decision would have a positive benefit on a student’s likelihood of admission.”

Some institutions also offer students the option to apply via Early Decision II. This plan is also binding. The primary difference is the timing. While those who apply via Early Decision I have to have their application in by early November, Early Decision II deadlines typically fall around January 1, the same date that most regular decision applications are due. 

Early action

Similar to Early Decision, Early Action deadlines typically fall around November 1. The only real benefit of applying Early Action is that you will hear back from schools sooner, typically by mid-December. 

“You can find out by December, as opposed to waiting until March or April, so it gives you much more time to get those applications in, continue to do that research, maybe visit the schools again and decide. It gives you more time to make an educated decision on where you want to attend college,” Korfmacher told TUN.

Unlike Early Decision, Early Action plans are not binding. You don’t have to attend the institution if you are admitted. Additionally, schools don’t outwardly give admission advantages to those who apply Early Action. However, applying early does demonstrate that you’re interested in the school, and demonstrated interest is proven to be an important factor in admissions decisions. 

Rolling admission

Schools with rolling admissions give students a window of time to apply. They evaluate applicants as soon as they submit their applications and generally respond about admissions decisions within two months. Typically, schools with rolling admissions don’t have a strict application cutoff date and continue to accept and review applications until the incoming class is full.  

However, schools with rolling admissions policies tend to accept students on a first-come, first-served basis. So, if you’re applying to a school with rolling admissions, it is a good idea to get your application in as soon as possible. 

Which application track is right for you?

For the most part, choosing to apply Early Decision or Early Action is a good move for students who have done their research, are content with the quality of their transcripts as of the first quarter of senior year, and have narrowed down the school, or shortlist of schools, that they want to go to. If that doesn’t sound like you, your best option is to apply Regular Decision. 

However, it is important to note that different schools have different admissions policies. For that reason, it is crucial to research the unique admissions policies of each institution that you’re interested in. 

Coalition vs Common App — which application to use?

There are many college application platforms out there, but the two most widely used are the Common Application and the Coalition Application. Students can use these platforms to apply to many different colleges and universities. They make the application process quicker and easier by letting students fill out one centralized application instead of filling out unique applications for each individual school that they want to apply to. 

Overall, these application platforms are very similar. The primary difference is that many more schools use the Common Application than the Coalition Application, more than 900 compared to about 150. 

The Common Application has also been around longer than the Coalition Application, so it is known to be more user-friendly and less glitchy than the Coalition Application. College counselors and high school teachers are also typically more used to it, which makes it easier to receive help filling out applications. 

The last noteworthy advantage of the Common Application is that it offers seven essay prompts compared to the Coalition Application’s five.

The primary benefit of the Coalition Application, which is short for the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success Application, is that most of the colleges and universities that accept it are committed to increasing accessibility for low-income students. For that reason, many of the institutions on the Coalition Application are known for offering good financial aid offers. 

The Coalition App also has a convenient locker tool that allows students as young as freshmen to start collecting and organizing all of the various documents and information that may be needed during the college application process. 

It is important to remember, though, that not all colleges and universities use the Common Application or the Coalition Application. Some institutions, such as those in the University of California system, have their own unique platforms that all applicants must use. So, again, it is important to research the unique policies of each school that you want to apply to.

For more information to help you choose the application platform that is best for you, check here.

How to write a college essay 

Personal statement 

The personal statement is another name for the main college essay. Your personal statement will be your response to a prompt on the Common Application or Coalition Application, for example. Typically, personal statements are 650 words or less. The Common Application and Coalition Application make their personal statement prompts publicly available so that students can check them out well before application season. 

There are three universal tips that all students should know before writing their personal statements. 

The first tip is to write about yourself. Admissions departments ask you to write an essay because they want to get a better sense of who you are, not only as a student, but also as a person. They want to know about your passions and interests, the way you think, and how you respond to challenges.

Before getting started on the writing process, self-reflect and think about what you truly care about. Don’t tell your whole life story. Instead, you should focus on one or two events or important aspects of your life that have helped shape you into who you are. 

The second tip is to make sure that you’re answering the prompt. You’ll likely have a lot of prompts to choose from. The Common Application and Coalition Application even offer you the opportunity to create your own prompt. The key is to make sure that you stay on topic. Don’t get caught up in the intro or go off on a side-tangent. Creating an outline before starting the writing process is a good way to make sure that your writing is tight and organized. 

The third tip is to not cater to the admissions officers. Don’t make the mistake of writing what you think the admissions office wants to read. Instead, write about the things that are important to you. 

And write in your own voice. Keep the grammar sharp, but don’t write like a robot. Admissions departments are people too. They want to read compelling stories that show feeling and personality.

For more information on writing your personal statement and for examples of personal statements that work, check here and here

Supplemental essays

Many colleges and universities will also ask applicants to answer a few additional essays, known as supplemental essays. Supplemental essays range widely in length. While some prompts may only ask for a few short sentences, others ask up to 600 words. And the prompts are often school-specific. 

Duke University, for example, asks students to answer the following prompt in 200 words or less. “Please share with us why you consider Duke a good match for you. Is there something in particular about Duke’s academic or other offerings that attract you?”

And Brown University poses the following supplemental essay question to applicants. “At Brown, you will learn as much from your peers outside the classroom as in academic spaces. How will you contribute to the Brown community?”

Institutions will also often ask about applicants’ majors and extracurricular activities. Like the personal statement, supplemental essays are tools to help colleges gain more insight into applicants’ personalities and interests. More than anything, colleges and universities just want to make sure that the students they choose to admit will fit well. 

“If you can make your essay align with the school’s priorities and what the school is looking for in a student, that can be really helpful to you,” Sylvia Vukosavljevic, a college admissions consultant with Veritas Prep, told TUN. “It’s a kind of aggressive way of approaching the application if you can really tailor your supplemental essays to schools.”

In terms of writing supplemental essays, you want to continue to use your voice and let your personality shine through. However, your writing should be a bit more technical than it is when writing a personal statement. You need to answer supplemental essay prompts in a way that shows that you’ve done your research and that you’re passionate about the subject. 

Because supplemental essay prompts typically have such low word limits, you want to make sure that you’re writing is tight and to the point. Pick a subject that is very specific, rather than broad. And be sure to outline your essay before starting the writing process. 

For more tips on writing your supplemental essays, check here and here

How to list extracurricular activities

Although academics are without a doubt the most important part of your college application, they are not the only thing that colleges and universities care about. Institutions want to admit applicants who, on top of being stellar students, are passionate about activities outside of school and are engaged in their communities. 

“Admissions folks are looking for students who are going to come to their college and contribute beyond the classroom,” Dr. Belinda Wilkerson, an independent educational consultant and founder and owner of Steps to The Future, told TUN. “The only way for them to know what students will do beyond the classroom, or what they have the potential to do beyond the classroom, is to look at that activities list.”

There’s the common fear that colleges value some extracurricular activities higher than others. But, according to Wilkerson, that’s not necessarily the case. More than anything, institutions want to see that applicants are passionate about their activities. 

“If someone is volunteering at a nursing home and doing that because they think it makes them look good, well, they’re missing out on the whole point of showing who they are,” said Wilkerson. 

“When they see a student who has been playing soccer since middle school, they’re on traveling teams and have really engaged in the sport, that’s a lot different than a student who is volunteering at a nursing home for a little bit and then bouncing to the next thing,” she added. “They really want to know what it is that interests you, what you’re going to bring to campus that will help their college community.”

The unfortunate thing is that most college applications do not give students much space to write about their extracurricular activities. The Common Application, for example, gives students only 150 characters to describe each activity. 

“What I usually recommend to students, and I think a lot of my colleagues do the same, is to really hone in on that description,” said Wilkerson. “This isn’t a space where you have to write complete sentences. This is the space where bullet points or short phrases that are very descriptive of what you do will benefit you more. You only have 150 characters to make that case.”

“For example, instead of saying, ‘I was a member of the Boy Scouts,’ in that description you want to say, “Earned 10 badges; mentored three students; volunteered so many hours.”

For more detailed information to help you list your extracurricular activities, check here and here

Who to ask for letters of recommendation

Colleges typically ask applicants to include letters of recommendation in their applications. These recommendation letters are meant to give admissions officers more context and help them understand applicants from an outside perspective. 

It may be a surprise to some that recommendation letters can play a substantial role in terms of influencing admissions decisions. While a raving review about how you show up to class on time every day eager to learn can help boost your chances of admittance, a negative review can undoubtedly send your name to the “no” pile. 

“I think students are sometimes surprised that when they ask somebody to write a letter of recommendation for them — and the students won’t see the recommendation letters because they’ll wave their rights to that — it is possible that a teacher who they feel like would write some really great things about them could have some reservations about their candidacy,” Kristina Dooley, president of the Independent Educational Consultants Association and founder of Estrela Consulting, told TUN. “So, certainly, if there are some red flags raised in your letter of recommendation, it could break possibilities for admission.”

There are a couple of strategies to help you find the right people to write your recommendation letters. Typically, colleges and universities ask for two or three letters of recommendation. So, your first choice should be a high school teacher who thinks highly of you and has taught you in a subject that aligns with your interests. 

If you’re applying for an engineering program, for example, it would make a lot of sense to have a math or science teacher write that first recommendation letter, Dooley explained. And if you’re looking to enter the humanities, have an English or history teacher write it. 

For your second or third recommendation letter, it’s a good idea to reach out to someone involved with one of your extracurricular interests. 

“If that student is very active, for example, in their church, maybe their youth group leader could write a character reference letter,” said Dooley. “Absolutely, take advantage of that. Maybe it’s a coach. Maybe it’s an academic advisor or a tutor. There are lots of people who can provide supplemental information who haven’t necessarily taught that student in a class.”

The last thing to mention is that you need to do reach outs well in advance. When it comes to writing recommendation letters, teachers and counselors get booked fast. Once they say “yes” to 15 or so students, it becomes harder for them to accept any more.  

Dooley tells her students to ask teachers in the spring of junior year before they leave for summer break. Toward the end of summer or early fall, Dooley advises them to check back in as a reminder. 

For more detailed information about recommendation letters, click here

How to prepare for college interviews 

Interviews are yet another tool to help admissions officers gain insight into applicants’ personalities and passions. They are typically conducted by admissions officers, alumni, or faculty members. The vast majority of colleges and universities in the United States no longer require interviews. Even if they do, interviews are not supposed to have a significant influence on your chance of admittance. 

“As far as whether they can make or break an applicant, I’m not sure I’d go quite that far,” Sara Zessar, the founder of Discovery College Consulting, told TUN. “But, I would say that if an applicant is borderline for admission and they have a really good interview, that could potentially push them closer to an admit. And, if they’re borderline for admission and they have a really bad interview, that could potentially push them closer to a denial.”

Evaluative interview questions aren’t meant to stump applicants. Some of the most common questions are, “Tell me about yourself,” “Why are you interested in this particular university?,” and “What activities are you involved in and which ones are your favorites?”

Be yourself and answer these questions with confidence. Evaluative interviews are meant to be more of a conversation than an interrogation. More than anything, interviewers want to gain insight into who you are beyond your transcript and written application. So, don’t be afraid to show a bit of personality. 

For tips on the questions you’re likely to be asked and how to answer them, check here and here

How to evaluate financial aid offers 

When you’re accepted to a college or university, the institution will typically send a financial aid offer. The offer could include a combination of student loans, scholarships, grants, and work study. It is important to understand the differences between each of these types of financial aid and determine what you would have to pay out-of-pocket. 

Scholarships and grants do not need to be paid back. Typically, these are institutional awards based on either merit (i.e., your academic or athletic ability) or need (i.e., your family’s financial situation.)

Student loans, on the other hand, do need to be paid back. 

Work study is rarer for undergraduate students. Essentially, it provides students with campus jobs, which they work in exchange for money off of tuition. 

“First and foremost, the biggest tip is to not be afraid to ask questions,” Amber Gilsdorf, a college planning consultant with Estrela Consulting, told TUN. “Every college has a financial aid office with financial aid counselors whose job it is to answer your questions. If anything is confusing, do not be shy or embarrassed. Please call that office and make an appointment over Zoom to sit down with a financial aid officer and have them walk you through it item by item and line by line.”

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers a tool called “your financial path to graduation,” which can help you understand your financial aid offer and estimate how much debt you can expect to take on. 

The last important piece to touch on here is that you do have the option to appeal your financial aid offer. If your family has experienced a significant loss in income, you should make that clear. Colleges and universities have their own unique processes for appeal, but most of the time, you are required to write a financial aid appeal letter

For more information on evaluating financial aid offers and appealing your financial aid, check here


Applying to college is a lengthy and complicated process. It is essentially like adding another class to your already busy schedule. For that reason, it is important to be proactive and stay on top of things. And if you fall behind or become confused, don’t be afraid to reach out to your high school counselors and college admissions officers for help. 

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