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Published: Jun 22, 2023 13 min read
Illustration of a young man writing a college admissions essay on a graduation cap desk
Kiersten Essenpreis for Money

Essays! Forms! Grades! Recommendations and test scores! Applying to college can feel like a never ending to-do list. Pressure to get into the “best colleges” can increase the stress that many applicants feel as they plan their next step in life.

But the truth is that there is no “best” college for every student — just schools that fit you well, not at all or somewhere in between. And despite what you hear about the acceptance rates at very prestigious universities, most colleges aren’t nearly as hard to get into. Casting a wide net — including some dream colleges but also several other realistic options — is a great way to find what’s the best fit for your interests and budget.

Breaking down the college application process into digestible steps can help you stay calm and organized while you survey the options, decide which schools suit you best, apply for admission and financial aid, and make your final decision.

Who knows? You might even find yourself having fun as you choose the place where you’ll spend the next four years.

How to apply for college: step-by-step

Applying for college is a process that can start as early as freshman year for high school students (though if you're getting a later start, that’s OK, too). It’s also a process with several phrases. Here’s a breakdown of the most important steps.

Step 1: Build a college list

The very first step requires you to do some homework: You need to research different types of colleges, while considering the subjects that interest you and the learning environments that fit you best. This will help you determine how well individual colleges meet (or don’t meet) your preferences.

Cast a wide net at the beginning of your search. Consider big schools and small ones, campuses in rural and urban areas, and schools that excel in your areas of interest. And don’t overlook trusty community colleges.

Be sure to look at the academic profiles of current students so you can find campuses where your GPA and test scores fit in. You might be surprised to discover good options where you weren’t necessarily expecting to find them.

Begin in ninth or 10th grade, if you can, by looking at schools in your geographical area. A “gas tank tour” can give you a good sense of the schools within driving distance. Call in advance and schedule a tour of each school you visit. Ask questions about what it’s like to be a student there.

Even if you can’t travel for an on-campus tour, there’s still plenty you can learn from home. Look at colleges’ websites, which often show virtual tours and campus pictures. Check out the degree programs each school offers, as well as individual class listings and extras such as athletics, Greek life or study abroad. What appeals to you? What doesn’t? Talk with family members and school counselors about your impressions and see if they can help you develop your selection criteria.

As you explore these options, you’ll develop a sense of the kinds of schools that appeal to you. You might be surprised to find that you like schools you didn’t expect would impress you or that the early front-runners have faded.

Ideally, you want to try to assemble a list of your top choices by the end of your junior year of high school. But even if you start the college application process during your senior year, it’s still important not to skip this exploration step.

Step 2: Take the SAT or the ACT

The pandemic fueled longstanding concerns about the fairness of standardized tests, and now hundreds of colleges have stopped requiring that students submit ACT or SAT scores. In most cases, these colleges adopted a “test optional” policy, which means you can still take the exams and submit your test scores if you feel they will help your case. In some cases, a school may be “test blind,” which means it won’t look at your scores even if you submit them. In California especially, many universities are now test blind.

However, many colleges still require that you take the SAT and/or ACT. And more than a dozen states require high school students to take one of the tests to get their diploma. These conflicting rules may cause some confusion about what’s required. It’s always a good idea to check in with a high school guidance counselor for clarity if you're unsure.

Though not as important as they once were, high ACT or SAT scores can increase colleges’ interest in admitting you.

If you do decide to take one or both tests, keep in mind that many applicants like to take the exams more than once to try to improve their scores. Because of that, it’s helpful if you start in the spring of your junior year, so you still have plenty of time to sign up again before your applications are due.

Step 3: Ask for letters of recommendation

Many colleges will ask you to submit letters from important adults in your life that talk about your positive qualities as a student and a person. Favorite teachers or mentors are often happy to write recommendation letters, or you could ask a coach or person involved in another extracurricular interest. Give people as much time as you can to write your letter, as they may be writing letters for other students as well.

Step 4: Work on your application essay

Most colleges expect you to write an essay, also known as a personal statement. A school’s application guidance typically contains each year’s essay prompts. You could be writing about anything from a formative experience during your childhood to why you’d be a useful person to have around during a zombie attack. You want to start on your college essay early enough to have time to edit and revise it before your application is due.

Step 5: Assemble your application materials

Generally speaking, you’ll need to submit the following:

  • An application for admission
  • Your official transcripts
  • SAT and/or ACT test scores (if required by the college)
  • Letters of recommendation
  • An essay
  • An application fee

The application for admission is typically a straightforward form that asks for basic information about you. This is also a place to talk about the interests and extracurricular activities that don’t show up on your high school transcript. Your transcript, meanwhile, shows all the classes you’ve taken and the grades you’ve earned. Application fees vary from nothing at all to around $100.

About 1,000 U.S. schools use the Common Application — aka Common App — which is an undergraduate college admissions application that you can fill out once and submit to every college on your application list. That can save you time, especially because it lets you write just one essay. Similarly, the Coalition App aims to streamline the process, but it is tailored more toward students from underrepresented backgrounds.

Admissions committees need your complete packet by their admissions deadlines. These typically fall sometime in November for applicants applying via early decision, which is an admissions policy that commits you to attending that school if it admits you. If you’re applying via regular decision, most deadlines are in January or February. Some colleges have rolling admissions, meaning that they evaluate applications as they arrive. Find out your schools’ deadlines. Note them in writing and give yourself plenty of time to gather your application components.

All of these materials will help a college assess if you’re able to do the academic work they require and whether you’ll be a good fit for their community.

Step 6: Apply for financial aid

If you and your family can afford to pay the rack rate at the college of your choice, you’re in a lucky minority. Most families rely on a variety of financial aid to pay for college: About 85% of full-time undergraduate students received financial aid for the 2019-20 academic year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The average grant and scholarship aid for full-time students at four-year schools was just over $14,000.

To get financial aid, you’ll need to first fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, universally known by its acronym: the FAFSA. Almost all U.S. colleges and universities use the FAFSA in determining financial aid; many state, local and private scholarship agencies also use it.

The FAFSA will provide you with an “expected family contribution,” which is a measure of your family’s ability to pay for college. That figure, often called “EFC,” will determine what sort of financial aid you receive to pay for tuition, room and board, and other estimated college expenses. Specifically, the difference between a school’s sticker price and the expected family contribution is the amount of need-based aid a student is eligible to receive in the form of government grants, grants from individual colleges, work-study jobs or student loans. (Parents can also take out federal student loans called Parent PLUS loans to help their kid(s) pay for college).

Families need to fill out the FAFSA for every year a student spends enrolled in college. For the 2023-24 academic year, you have to submit the FAFSA by June 30, 2024, though nearly all schools want the information earlier.

Depending on where you apply, you may also need to fill out the CSS Profile. It’s an extra application required to access institutional aid from about 250 colleges (most are private and highly selective schools). Schools set their own CSS deadlines, so find out if you are applying to one or more schools that require it here. Then be sure to check on the deadline for when they need the information.

How many colleges should students apply to?

There’s no firm answer to this question. If you’re applying to highly selective colleges — ones that reject the vast majority of applicants — you’ll want to apply to multiple schools to increase the chance that at least one of the schools you’ve chosen will admit you.

Many students who apply to highly selective schools also apply to at least one less selective school as a “safety.” Safety schools should be colleges where your GPA and/or test scores are comfortably above the average the school reports for incoming students. It’s also possible to get into more selective colleges — and save money — as a transfer student from one of your “safety” picks.

One survey of first-year students in 2019, conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, found that 18% of respondents applied to nine or more colleges.

If, on the other hand, you’re confident you have the grades, test scores and recommendations that will gain you acceptance at a less selective school, you might only need to apply to one college.

But most applicants fall somewhere in between those two extremes. About 40% of respondents to the UCLA survey reported applying to between two and five colleges.

Applying to College FAQs

What are the hardest colleges to get into?

The California Institute of Technology, Columbia University, Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton and Stanford are among the most selective colleges in the nation, admitting only 4% of applicants.

Does the SAT or ACT waive fees for low-income students?

Yes, lower-income students can take both of the exams for free. Find eligibility requirements for SAT fee waiver here and for the ACT here.

How do I get an application fee waiver?

Colleges will waive the fee to apply for low-income students. Many schools automatically waive application fees for students who have already received SAT or ACT fee waivers. If you did not, you should call a college and ask about its fee waiver policy or talk with your guidance counselor. Note that many colleges will also offer fee-free application periods that aren't dependent on financial need.

Can I withdraw an application?

Yes, you can withdraw an application if you no longer want to attend. The applicant portal on a school's web site may offer you the option of withdrawing your application. If not, contact the school's admissions office.

When are college applications due?

Application deadlines for colleges vary. In general, applications are due sometime in November for early decision applicants. Applications for regular decision admission are due in January or February. Look up the exact deadlines at the schools where you're applying.

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