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When it’s time to start applying to college, there are a lot of moving parts to keep track of. This is your one stop shop for all things college app related.

Different Applications

Let’s talk about applications. Almost every college has embraced online applications in one form or another, but different colleges use different application platforms. Here are some of the ones you’re most likely to see:

  • The Common App: Accepted by more than 800 colleges, this is by far the most widely used application platform.
    • Pros: User-friendly, review entire application before submitting
    • Cons: Errors when copy/pasting essays and supplements, occasional site crashes during high-traffic times
  • The Coalition App: Accepted by more than 140 colleges, this is probably the next most widely used application platform. Some state schools, including the University of Washington—Seattle, the University of Florida, and the University of Maryland—College Park, only accept the Coalition App.
    • Pros: Unique digital locker lets students store and share documents, ability to upload formatted essays and other files to attach to application
    • Cons: Less familiar to admissions officers, so some may still prefer Common App; lacks the same robust tech support as the Common App
  • System-wide Applications: Some university systems, such as the University of California, have their own system-wide application platforms.
    • Pros: Apply to multiple campuses at once
    • Cons: Separate application fees for each campus
  • School-specific Applications: A few schools, like MIT, have their own application platforms.
    • Pros: Tailor responses to each school
    • Cons: Heavier workload since there are more applications to complete

Different Application Deadlines

There are several rounds of application deadlines, each with pros and cons.

Early action programs let you submit your applications early (usually in October) and hear back sooner (usually in December). They are non-binding, which means that you’re under no obligation to attend the school if you’re admitted, and they don’t restrict you from applying elsewhere. Although you get the benefit of finding out your fate earlier, early action programs lack some of the benefits offered by other early programs.

Because they don’t require any commitment on the part of the applicant, early action programs are less useful to colleges—they don’t offer an indication of interest, so they don’t predict the likelihood a student will ultimately enroll. Some colleges have introduced selective early action or restrictive early action programs to solve this problem. These programs are also non-binding, but they limit the schools a student can apply to through other early action programs. These limits help colleges determine how interested early applicants really are.

A third early application option, early decision, is binding—students who apply through early decision programs are obligated to attend the school if they are admitted. Applying early decision is a commitment that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Regular application deadlines typically fall in January or February, and students can expect decisions by early April. Finally, there’s rolling admission, in which schools evaluate applications as they arrive and send out decisions periodically.

So which is best for you? It depends on where you’re applying and how badly you want to attend. On average, applying early offers a slight advantage (early action applicants are about 9.5% more likely to get in, and early decision applicants are about 11.6% more likely to get in), but the numbers differ pretty widely from school to school.

Learn more about early admissions here.

What do admissions officers see on your application?

A typical college application includes a lot of information:

  • High school transcript
  • Test score reports
  • Demographic information
  • Extracurriculars
  • Recommendations
  • Essays

But what do admissions officers see when they look at this information?

Transcripts

Your high school transcripts tell admissions officers which courses you took and what grades you earned. Transcripts also provide context for the information so that admissions officers have an idea of how your school weights grades.

  • Make sure what you enter on your application matches what will appear on your transcript.
  • Use the “Additional Information” section of the Common App if there are significant extenuating circumstances that add important context to your grades. (For example, if a death in the family resulted in a really bad grade one semester.)
  • Don’t worry about a lack of AP classes if your school doesn’t offer them—the transcript provides context for your classes, so admissions officers won’t dock you if your school didn’t offer a ton of AP courses.
  • Most colleges look at your unweighted GPA, so don’t rely on your school’s weighting system to boost your GPA.

Learn more about how college admissions officers view your grades here, and get more info about the role of course rigor in admissions decisions here.

To consistently earn good grades in rigorous courses, it helps to plan ahead. Check out more resources to help balance grades and course rigor in The College Admissions Process from Start to Finish.

Test Score Reports

This includes SAT scores, ACT scores, SAT Subject Test scores, and AP exam scores. The most important of these are your SAT or ACT scores—in annual surveys, admissions officers consistently rank these test scores among the most important factors for admission.

  • SAT and ACT scores allow for apples-to-apples comparisons of students from different schools with different course offerings and different grade weighting systems.
  • Along with grades, SAT and ACT scores act as filters to identify applicants who are least likely to succeed at the school. A particularly low test score can knock an applicant out of the running before the rest of the application is reviewed.
  • The good news: With thorough test prep, you can improve SAT or ACT scores a lot faster than you can improve your GPA.

We have some great resources to help you leverage your test scores to improve your chances of admission at your dream school:

Demographic Information

All applications ask about your family background and where you’re from. This information helps schools achieve diversity goals.

Most people think of race when they hear the word “diversity,” but a diverse freshman class goes beyond race. Admissions officers seek geographic diversity by looking for applicants from across the country and globe; they seek experiential diversity by looking for applicants of different backgrounds, such as first-generation college students; and, yes, they seek racial and ethnic diversity as well.

  • Most colleges strongly believe that a diverse student body improves the educational experiences of all students, which is why they may give some preference to certain underrepresented groups of students.
  • Students are not required to list their race on applications, though there is likely little or no benefit to leaving this information blank.
  • Students from certain geographic areas may have a slight advantage at some schools. For example, colleges whose students are mostly local might seek students from far-flung geographic regions.

Extracurriculars

Your application will include a place to list your extracurricular activities. Your extracurricular activities can say a lot about you, so use this to your advantage!

  • Ignore the common advice to be “well-rounded.” Instead, pursue the activities that you’re truly interested in so that you can demonstrate your passions. Your extracurriculars should say something about who you are rather than checking off boxes on an imaginary list of “what looks good to colleges.”
  • Seek leadership positions in at least one or two groups.
  • Use the character limit provided by your application to make your extracurricular activities pop. The same activity can be a lot more striking if it’s written about the right way.
  • List your activities in order of importance rather than in chronological order. This ensures admissions officers see the ones you care about the most.
  • Check out The College Admissions Process from Start to Finish to learn about how to pick the right extracurricular activities each year.

Recommendations

Recommendation letters from your counselors, teachers, coaches, and mentors offer admissions officers yet another perspective. Admissions officers highly value the input of their fellow educators.

  • Pick your recommenders carefully. Ask people who know you well and who you believe are likely to write compelling letters.
  • Always remember that a recommendation letter is a favor.
  • Ask if the recommender is comfortable writing a letter.
  • Provide the recommender with detailed information, including the evaluation forms available through the Common App or other platforms.
  • Waive the right to view recommendation letters—this lends the letters greater weight because admissions officers believe them to be more genuine.
  • Ask for recommendations well in advance of deadlines.
  • Follow up before the deadline to remind the recommender.
  • Write thank you notes.

Essays

Your application essays are the one place on the application where you have the opportunity to speak directly to admissions officers. Particularly at elite colleges, the essay can set your application above the rest of the pack.

The Application Process

Where to Start: Finalize a College List

Before you can start the application process, you need to know where you’re applying!

Most students apply to several schools—in fact, about 1 in 3 students applies to at least 7 colleges. However many colleges you apply to, you need to include safety schools, target schools, and reach schools.

  • Safety Schools: Schools where you’re almost definitely going to get in.
  • Target Schools: Schools with decently high admission rates where your grades and test scores match up with the grades and test scores of previously admitted students. (You’re “on target” for admission.)
  • Reach Schools: Dream schools where it’s a long-shot that you’ll get in. Any school with a low admission rate is a reach school, no matter how awesome your grades and test scores are!

Learn more about picking the right colleges to apply to here, and read about finding great safety schools here.

Make a Plan

Use our College Application Planner to help you create a detailed plan of action. Having a plan will help ensure that you aren’t rushed to complete applications at the last minute and that you don’t miss any important deadlines.

Demonstrate Interest

Colleges care about yield, which is the percentage of admitted students who actually enroll. They like to admit students they are fairly certain will enroll, so they look for demonstrated interest when they review applications. There are several ways to demonstrate interest in a school:

  • Go on an official campus visit.
  • Follow and interact with them on social media.
  • Open and interact with their emails.
  • Contact the admissions office.
  • Apply through early action (“I like this college”) or through early decision (“I LOVE THIS COLLEGE”)

Finalize Test Scores

Make sure you’ve got the scores you need well in advance of your application deadlines. If you follow the guidance in The College Admissions Process from Start to Finish, you should have no problem getting the scores you need when you need them.

Write Awesome Essays

Give yourself lots of time to perfect your essays by starting the essay process during the summer after junior year. Take advantage of every resource available to you, and make sure you revise, revise, revise!

Request Recommendation Letters

Give your recommenders plenty of notice by asking for recommendation letters a month or two in advance of application deadlines. Remember to follow up once or twice before the deadline.

The Application Itself

All of this leads up to completing the actual application. Most applications are fairly straightforward, but there are some things you can do to make sure your application is as strong as possible:

  • Give yourself plenty of time. Some things, like your address and birthday, are easy to complete. Others, like descriptions of your extracurricular activities, are worth taking some time to do right.
  • Take advantage of the Common App’s review function. The Common App lets you print a finished copy of your application before you submit it, so you can thoroughly edit any errors before you send the final version to colleges.
  • Edit every field thoroughly! Silly typos and other simple errors tell colleges that you didn’t care enough to take the time to review your application.
  • Try to submit several days before your deadlines. The Common App and other online application platforms have been known to experience glitches as major application deadlines approach. Avoid getting caught short by a technical glitch by getting your applications in before the rush.

All of this boosts your chances of admission at your dream school—but what if you still don’t get in? Super selective colleges disappoint even the most qualified students. If you missed your shot at your dream college, check out On the Bright Side: I didn’t Get into the College I Want.