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Your guide to applying for college


    Applying to college is a big deal for high school students. The process has so many unique aspects, and every student will have to navigate it in their own way. However, some parts of the college application process are consistent, and knowing what to expect is half the battle.

    From college entrance exams to essays and applications, here’s what you need to know about the process.

    Choosing a college to apply to

    The most significant decision you’ll make throughout the process is choosing a college. This decision is highly individualized and can feel overwhelming when considering all of the options.

    Here are a few things to think about when making your decision:

    The college’s location

    Where do you ideally want to be located? Do you like winter and snow, or do you prefer a warmer climate? Do you want to stay close to family and friends or venture somewhere new? There’re a ton of factors involved when choosing a college location.

    Say you’re deciding between Wyoming and Los Angeles. In this case, your transportation options will differ significantly. One location might demand a car, while in another, you might have access to excellent public transportation. And this is just one consideration you’re going to have to make.

    Here’re some things to keep in mind as you think about location:

    • Cost of living
    • Transportation options
    • Distance from home
    • Culture
    • Diversity

    The financial commitment required by a college

    There’s a big difference between the cost of a community college and a private university. Understanding these differences and what you and your family can contribute is a great starting point for picking a college that meets your financial needs.

    According to a Department of Education analysis per the White House, the typical undergraduate student with loans now graduates with nearly $25,000 in debt underscoring what a big part of the decision this is.

    When choosing schools, you can look at their estimated cost of attendance and determine whether it’s affordable — with or without financial aid. You can get this information on a school's website or via their financial aid office.

    It helps to be informed about the cost of each college you’re considering, if only to ensure it financially makes sense.

    A college’s academic offerings

    Another important decision for college-bound students is deciding on an area of study. If you’re one of the lucky ones that already knows what you want to study, your next goal should be finding a school that offers that major or minor.

    Schools list their education departments and class offerings on their websites. If you’re ever unsure whether a particular school offers what you’re looking for, don’t hesitate to contact their admissions office and ask questions.

    Other factors to keep in mind

    Other than these three factors, there’re many other things you should consider when choosing a college. From the size of the school to its college campus, it’s worth doing as much research as possible, including making campus visits or doing virtual tours, to determine if a school is the right fit.

    When you should apply to college

    Every school has its own deadlines for applications. That said, many of them are in the fall or winter of your senior year of high school.

    Make sure to start your applications in the summer before your senior year. This’ll give you time to gather what you need, write college essays, and reach out to teachers and others for recommendations.

    Early decision deadlines

    If you know what school you want to attend and want to apply for early decision, that deadline will likely be in November of the year before you’d be enrolling. To avoid missing the deadline, you’ll need to check with your school of choice.

    Regular decision deadlines

    Most colleges’ regular decision applications are due sometime in January or February of the year you’d be enrolling. You’ll want to check with the website or admissions office for each school you’re applying to via regular decision to ensure you have the correct date.

    What you need to apply to college

    Each college has its own application process, but most are comprised of similar components. Contact admissions offices with any questions to ensure you have everything you need to complete the applications.

    Here’re some of the most common things you’ll need as you begin your college applications.

    High school transcripts

    Your high school transcript is a record of your academic performance in high school. It shows each class you took and the grade you received, giving college admissions officers an idea of your academic history.

    Generally, you must order your high school transcript from your school’s administration office, which can take a few weeks. Make sure you order it early and get a few extras if you plan to apply to more than one college.

    Standardized test scores

    Both the SAT and ACT have similar practices for submitting test scores to the schools you’re applying to.

    You’ll have the option to add schools to your SAT and ACT when you first take the test. If you don’t know what schools you’ll be applying to at that point, don’t worry. Later into the process, you can log into your online account for either of these tests and request that your test scores go to the colleges you’ve chosen.

    Letters of recommendation

    Most college applications will ask for one or more letters of recommendation. These should come from teachers, high school advisors, or your guidance counselor. It’s best to pick people with whom you have a close relationship and who know you as a student and individual.

    Give people plenty of time to write these letters. If your application is due in November, ask for the letters in June or July. Let them know to whom to address the letter and give them examples of things to include, including your accomplishments, positive personality traits, and your classroom performance.

    College application essays

    College application essays are one of the most important aspects of the college application process. You should give yourself plenty of time to answer the prompts to make your essays feel personal and authentic.

    If you need help, don’t hesitate to reach out to trusted advisors who can give you feedback on how to improve your essays. This is a part of the application process you want to spend the most time on to ensure the essays are grammatically correct, that you’ve answered the prompts fully, and that what you write is compelling.

    Documents you need to apply to college

    Here’s a list of what you’ll likely need to submit with your college applications (although remember, this list will vary depending on the school):

    • The application form
    • Essays and/or a personal statement
    • High school transcript
    • School profile
    • ACT or SAT exam results
    • Recommendation letters
    • Extracurricular activities resume
    • Fee waiver form (if applicable)

    It’s best to contact admissions offices if you have questions specific to a college application so you get accurate information for that particular school.

    Consider the cost of applying to college

    College application costs vary by school. Harvard, for instance, charges $85 for its application. The University of Michigan charges $75. Remember that this application fee doesn’t factor in associated costs such as ordering transcripts, shipping costs, or ACT/SAT testing fees.

    If the cost of the application fee is too high and is preventing you from being able to apply to a college, you can speak to admissions offices about getting fee waivers.

    Applying for financial aid

    Some students might not realize that you can complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) before applying to college. The application opens each year on October 1st for the next academic year. Filing the FAFSA® will determine your eligibility for federal financial aid, including grants, federal student loans, and work-study programs (along with other types of aid).

    Once you’ve filed the application, it’s then sent to each school you’ve listed on the application (you can add schools after you’ve filed the application, too). Once you apply to a school, and if you’re accepted, schools will generate an aid award letter outlining any aid they can offer you for your first school year. The aid award letters will also alert you if you aren’t going to be eligible for aid.

    The aid award letter can be a huge help when deciding which college to attend. Not only can you compare aid packages from each school, but you can estimate how much you’ll have to spend out of pocket. This information can help you make a smart financial decision for your future.

    Final thoughts

    Applying to and ultimately getting accepted to college is undoubtedly a challenging experience. You can make the experience feel less stressful by staying organized. Consider creating a college application checklist or calendar highlighting all the important dates and documents you need to remember so you can stay on top of everything.