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Applying to College: What to do and when to do it

Decide where you want to apply

Even if you have your eye set on just one college, it’s a good idea to apply to multiple schools. There’s no magic number, but you may want to consider five to eight realistic options. Be sure to have a discussion about what your family can afford before searching out your options. Once you have your family's ballpark budget in mind, you can focus on finding schools with a net price within that range.

A general guideline for number of schools:

  • One or two “reach” schools (tough but still possible to be accepted).
  • A few on-target schools (you’re likely to be accepted based on grade point average (GPA) and Scholastic Assessment Test/American College Test (SAT/ACT) score requirements).
  • Two or three “safety-net” schools (a good fit and very likely that you’ll be accepted).

Once you know where you’d like to go, plan a campus tour. Before you go, make a list of questions to ask on your college visit.

Be prepared to complete the application

While admission requirements can vary from one college to another, these tips can help you be more prepared for the application process: 

  • Get your academic scores. Know what steps to take to have your SAT® or ACT® test scores sent to your colleges of choice. Most colleges require score reports to be sent to them directly from the testing agency.
  • Request your high school transcripts in advance or know how to get them. Often, college admissions offices ask that the transcript be sent to them directly from the high school.
  • Have two or three recommendation letters ready to be sent with your application. Students often ask their teachers, coaches, employers or counselors to write a letter. (Be sure to give them ample time to do so.)
  • Write a personal essay. Most colleges require students to submit an essay that showcases their character and personal qualities. (There is usually a word limit, so be sure to check each school’s requirements.) Keep diversity in mind - colleges look for students with different viewpoints, backgrounds and experiences.
  • Be ready to highlight your work and volunteer experience when completing an application. Think in terms of your leadership skills, initiative and commitment to service and social responsibility.

Be aware of testing and application fees – and waivers

The application process requires more than an investment in time. College application fees can add up quickly, especially when they run about $50 to $90 per application. (Another reason to make a college short list and to choose wisely.) There are also fees associated with taking the SAT or ACT test.

But, if you can prove that you have a financial need, you may be able to have some of the fees waived. Exact requirements to qualify will depend on the waiver process you’re using. For example, it may be beneficial to check into the requirements for the following:

Give yourself a timeline

Your final years in high school are packed with competing priorities. You naturally want to make the most out of your junior and senior years, but you also need to focus on the future. With so many demands pulling you in different directions, one of the best ways to stay on track with the college application process is to follow a timeline.