how to apply to college

Apply for College

How to Apply for College

how to apply to college

Curious how to apply for college? It can be very daunting and scary at first, but do not worry it is easier than you think. Now there is a process to follow when applying to a college or university, but we will explain how it works.

We will discuss the application process, types of college applications, associated fees, admission assessments (SAT, ACT, and CPT), transcript requests, letters of recommendations, writing college essays, high school graduation requirements, funding for college, and much more.

Apply for the FAFSA

Once you decide on a few schools you are considering to attend, be sure to apply for the FAFSA as soon as possible. Read our article on how get college funding, which includes how to apply for the FAFSA. By the way, you have to apply for the FAFSA every year!

You do have to decide on the colleges you are applying for when filling out the FAFSA. If you have not done so yet, you can take the college search test and you can learn how to research colleges on this site.

Some college financial aid is awarded on a first come, first serve basis. Apply as close to January 1 as possible (the day the FAFSA application opens each year). In order for the FAFSA application to be processed, your taxes must be completed. File your taxes as soon as possible and get your FAFSA application submitted pronto.

Research the College’s Application Requirements

Once you decide on a few schools you are considering to attend, visit the college’s website for information concerning their application process. Each school will have their own set of requirements and deadlines. There are also a variety of applications colleges accept.

Online Application

Visit the website of the school(s) you would like to attend and find their online application. Typically, you will create a username and password that will save the application as you work on it over time. Do not be surprised if it takes you a few days to complete all the data fields and requirements. Online applications usually require additional documentation to be either uploaded electronically or sent directly through the mail to the institution in which you are applying.

There is typically a “Save and Continue” or “Save” button at the bottom of each online application section. Make sure you save your information frequently.

Online College Application Tip: Use caution when clicking the refresh or back button. This could delete any unsaved content.

Paper Application

You can always request a paper copy by contacting the Admissions Office via email, phone, or campus visit. Photocopy the application and use it as a template to minimize mistakes. Remember to have someone proofread your paper application for accuracy, spelling, and grammatical errors before transferring the information onto your final copy. Be aware that additional fees may be applied for the processing of paper applications.

Generally Accepted Applications

Do you want to apply to multiple colleges without filling out multiple applications? If so, there are three general applications that are considered valid for participating schools. Fill the application out once and submit it to as many participating schools as you like!

Tip: Although applications are free to access, application fees may still apply for each educational institution for which you are submitting.

  • Common Application: Accepted by over 400 different schools, this application is free to access and has the same basic requirements of most college applications: personal information, essays, and letters of recommendations. You can visit the College Application site for more information.
  • Coalition Application: Over 100 schools have joined the Coalition For Access, Affordability and Success (Coalition Application). Intended to aid students applying at schools offering affordable tuition, this application process can begin as early as 9th grade by providing an advisor and portfolio builder. Visit the Coalition Application for more information.
  • Universal Application: Less demanding than the Common Application, this is an attractive alternative to the more demanding application processes. Check each school’s participation as less than 100 schools consider this application valid. Visit the Universal Application’s website for more information.

Filling out the Application

  • Deadlines: Give yourself enough time to complete the application. Each school has a specific date range when they accept applications. Having a planner or calendar with each school’s deadlines recorded is a great idea!
  • Proofread: Grammar, accuracy, spelling, and completion of all application requirements is important. From the application itself to your written essay, your work should be neat, legible, articulate, and free of errors.
  • Originality: Let your personality shine when it comes to your essays. This may seem like a no brainer, but do not plagiarize your essay. You have how many years of experience? Find something that makes you stand out in a stack of thousands of other applicants.

Application Fees

The average application fee is $50 with some schools charging as high as $90. With the average college bound hopeful applying for around 7 schools, this expense can add up. These fees can be waived or reduced if you qualify for free SAT testing. Also, sometimes fees are reduced if you apply online rather than using a paper application. Applicants with limited financial means may be eligible for NACAC Fee Waivers.

Typical Documentation Requested

Assessments you may be asked to present scores on include:

  • SAT: A college assessment administered to high school juniors and seniors by the College Board, a private non-profit organization in the United States. Students are tested in reading, math, and writing.
  • ACT: A college assessment administered to high school juniors and seniors by the ACT, Inc., a private non-profit organization in the United States. Students are tested in English, reading, math, and science.
  • College Placement Test: Typically administered when students arrive on campus, the results are used by some two to four year colleges to gauge the skill level of each student in particular areas, such as math, science, reading, writing, and even foreign language proficiency. Students who demonstrate a weakness in a particular area may have to take an introductory course in that subject as a prerequisite for other courses in the same field of study.


High school and college transcripts (if a transfer student) are a record of your academic achievements while attending a particular school. When requesting a transcript, make sure you request an official transcript be sent to the institution in which you are applying. Transcripts can take up to a few weeks to receive once it is requested. Make sure you request your transcripts in a timely manner, especially within your application deadline.

Official transcripts are delivered in a sealed envelope ensuring no tampering was done to the record. Schools will typically mail your transcript to the educational institutions directly. If you receive your official transcript in the mail, keep it in the sealed envelope unopened so its status remains official. Once opened, the transcript becomes unofficial.

Unofficial transcripts are good to have on hand for your own personal documentation and knowledge. It is helpful to have a record on-hand so you have a record of classes completed and GPA.

Letters of Recommendation

Letters of Recommendation are a great area for you to shine on your college application. Each school may request a specific person to write this on your behalf, and can include: teachers, coaches, club advisors, and even employers. It is a good idea to check the status of your application to ensure the letter was written and received.

When you ask someone to write a letter of recommendation for you, be courteous and do the following:

  • Provide a printed copy of the Letter of Recommendation form as provided by the school you are applying for
  • Include an addressed and stamped envelope for easy mailing
  • Provide them with plenty of time to fill it out, and let them know when it needs completed by
  • Send a note to the person writing your recommendation thanking them for their time


Many college applications require a writing sample, or essay, to be completed by the applicant. Essay topics can range from one of your choice, a personal experience, or why you want to attend school. Each school has unique requirements and you want to make sure you:

  • Write about the topic assigned
  • Make it personal
  • Stay within the required word count
  • Meticulously proofread for grammar, spelling, and punctuation

Check your High School Graduation Requirements

If you are in high school, also make sure to check out your state’s high school graduation requirements.