How to Apply to College

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Are you wondering how to apply to college? Let’s start with a big picture summary, then look closer.

The whole college application process in a nutshell:

  1. You prepare and send in your applications to your colleges.
  2. Colleges evaluate your application.
  3. You get decision letters back. They will say you are Accepted, Denied, Wait-listed, or Deferred. (explained below)
  4. Once you decide to attend a college, you will pay a non-refundable deposit to indicate your intent to attend.
  5. Next, you apply for financial aid, find a dorm, find a roomie.

Then, you attend your first college class!

That’s the basic timeline. Now let’s look more in-depth at the application journey.

College Application Process

Pick your colleges:

Starting in 9th or 10th grade, try to get an idea of which colleges interest you. What colleges are in your state or elsewhere? Everyone knows about top schools like Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Princeton, and your major state schools, but there are many more out there that may turn out to be amazing for you. So do some research!

In the 11th or 12th grade, it’s time to start narrowing down your choices based on what’s important to you. Learn about the college’s strongest programs. Visiting the college in person always helps so you know what it looks and feels like. Once you’ve done some research, it’s recommended that you pick colleges in three categories: “Safety schools,” “Match schools,” and “Reach schools.”

Safety schools are those that you are almost positive you’ll be accepted to, because your GPA and SAT/ACT are above the average for students admitted there. Match schools are those that you are most likely to get into, although it’s not a sure thing. Reach schools are those that you wish you could get into, but it’s very unlikely that you’ll get in.

How are you supposed to know which ones are safety, match, or reach schools? Search on or to find out the average scores of the students that are admitted into that school.


Go to each college’s website, then the “Admissions” page, and check the application deadline for Freshmen (or International, if you are an F-1 student). Jot down the dates for both Regular admissions and Early Decision/Action. Also pay attention to the SAT/ACT score submission deadline. These will be your finish-lines.

Get Organized:

Grab a nice binder, insert some dividers, and label each divider after each college you’re applying to. Write down the deadlines for each college on the divider page. Write down a checklist of required materials for each college, so that you can check them off when you’re done with them.


☑ Main application

☑ Supplements

☑ High School Transcript mailed

☑ SAT/ACT Score report submitted

☑ Teacher Recommendations

Any time you have a conversation with a school counselor or the admissions office at the college, write down notes and put it in the binder. You never know when that information might come in handy.

Early or Regular:

Regular deadlines tend to be around December and January of your 12th grade year for most colleges, and Early deadlines tend to be around October and November.

If at all possible, try to apply early for the college you’re most interested in. Early Decision and Early Action applications are great because 1) you get to hear your results sooner and 2) you have a higher chance of getting accepted to the college!!!

At the same time, however, applying Early often has a requirement. This differs by college, but you can tell by the terms they use for it: Early Action or Early Decision. Generally, the term “Early Decision” means that your application is binding–if you are accepted, you must attend the college. Accordingly, you may only apply by Early Decision to one college. “Early Action” usually means it’s non-binding–you are not required to attend that school if you are admitted, and you may apply to other schools early without any conflict.

What happens when you break the Early Decision agreement? Well, it’s an ethical agreement, not a legal one. But if one college finds out that a student applied to more than one college at once, they might call the other colleges, and the student may lose both acceptances. College admissions offices often communicate with one another and share their early applicant list, so it wouldn’t be that hard for them to find out if you had done so, as this article by explains.

Preparing your college application:

The college application itself can be a paper application, but most students apply online.

Nowadays, most colleges allow you to use the websites CommonApp or MyCoalition to fill out your college application. This is so that you can fill out one application that can be sent to several schools, instead of having to fill out the same information over and over. You will still have to fill out “supplement” forms for each school, though. Some schools don’t use CommonApp or MyCoalition at all, and require you to fill out their own unique application.

What is asked:

  • Personal information (name, DOB, address, etc.),
  • Parents’ information (name, DOB, address, educational attainment),
  • Your high school classes and grades,
  • Extracurricular activities and hours,
  • Awards and achievements,
  • SAT/ACT scores,
  • Citizenship/Immigration status,
  • Several short answer questions, &
  • One or more “personal statements,” aka college essay.

This last part is one of the biggest challenges that you will face when filling out the college application. They ask you things like “What experience have you had in your life that had a lasting impact on your perspective on the world?”

Additional documents required:

  • Your high school transcript (the original, sealed in an envelope. You can ask for this at your counseling office and it takes a few business days),
  • Teacher recommendations
  • SAT/ACT score reports (you ask the test companies to send your scores to the colleges),
  • Counselors’ school reports.
  • Supplement pages: Sometimes colleges will ask you to answer more Short Answer or Personal Statement questions in addition to the ones listed on the CommonApp or MyCoalition applications.

Make sure you submit the application before their deadline! I discourage sending it in on the last day… But if you must, make sure to submit it before the cut-off time! (11:59pm in your local time zone)

College Decision Letter:

After your submit your application, and all of the supplements and score reports are in, all you can do now is wait for the decision letter.

Admissions committees will examine your application and compare it to those of other students, evaluating whether you are the kind of student that they are looking for. They usually have a sophisticated system of rating applications. Remember that they receive tens of thousands of them every year. So they go through several rounds of elimination, narrowing down the list until they end up with the number they will admit. Then they send out their letters.

One of the most nerve-wracking moments in a person’s life is the moment they open up that letter. Will it begin with “Congratulations” or “After consideration…”?

What if I’m wait-listed or deferred?

“Accepted” and “Denied” are pretty cut-and-dry, but what does it mean to be “Wait-listed” or “Deferred“?

If you receive a letter saying your application was deferred, it means it will be reconsidered and decided on at a later date. It’s an agonizingly uncertain outcome, but, on the bright side, it means the admissions committee was impressed enough by your application that they thought it deserved a second round of scrutiny. If you applied as Early Action or Early Decision, your application has basically been converted to a regular application. You are now released from the Early decision contract. If you applied as a Regular application, then the school probably wants more information before making their final decision — such as senior year final grades or additional test scores. The sooner you can get it to them, the sooner you may get a final answer.

If are wait-listed, it means the college has decided to put your application on a separate “wait list,” where you are basically a stand-by student that they will call on if an someone else who was accepted has declined to attend. A wait-list decision is unlikely to be influenced by any additional documentation, so it’s not recommended to send any in.

Financial Aid. What the heck is it and how can I do it?

If you’ve been accepted (Congratulations!) and have made your decision to attend a college, the next matter at hand is money.

Colleges cost a whole lot to attend nowadays. Thankfully, the government and the college are willing to give or loan you some of the money, if you apply for it. We call this Financial Aid. In this day and age, you basically have to get financial aid to be able to afford college, unless your parents are made of money. In order to qualify for any sort of financial aid, you must first fill out the paperwork, in the form of FAFSA, and sometimes, the CSS Profile form.

You can fill out the FAFSA form here. Make sure to have your parents

Some Tips:

  • Get organized! Make a binder.
  • Ask for teacher recommendations at least a month in advance. If you ask your teachers to write a recommendation for you in a week, they will not write you a good one.
  • Start brain-storming college essay topics from 10th grade. Try to pick an interesting life experience that you can write about. (To read more go to “Writing your college essay”)


  • If the application deadline is Oct 15, can I take the Oct SAT? (Even though it takes 3 weeks for scores to come out?)

Most of the time, yes. It does differ by college, but most of them will accept SAT/ACT scores from the month of the deadline, even if it means they would receive the scores after the deadline.

  • What is Super-scoring the SAT or ACT?

Most colleges do what is called “super-scoring” on the SAT and ACT. It means they allow you to take the SAT or ACT multiple times, then will evaluate you based on the “super score” which combines the best section scores from all of the times that you took the tests.

  • How many times can I take the SAT?

You can take the SAT and ACT as many times as you want. However, I recommend taking it no more than 3 times. After that, you start to look like a serial tester. Besides, why take it so many times when you can take practice tests at home for the same effect? If you want to take the test under a more “official” setting, you can take a test with us at Sky High Tutoring for free!

  • Do colleges see all of my scores on the SAT? Or do I pick and choose?

Collegeboard, the company who administers the SAT test, allows you to practice “Score Choice,” meaning you get to pick which scores are sent to colleges. However, remember that many colleges SuperScore. So make sure to think about that and pick the tests that will combine to give you the best SuperScore.

Have any other question? Let me know below, and I will be happy to answer them! I may even add them to the FAQ portion.

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