The Complete College Application Guide

September 16, 2021

The college enrollment season is a busy time for students and parents alike. Make the process easier with these tips on how to apply for college.

Parents and students both have a lot to do during a child's senior year in high school. There are college essentials to pack, budgets to save money in college to make, scholarship applications, the high school graduation ceremony, and more. Then common applications for schools can involve a lot of different parts like essays, reference letters, and portfolios. 

How To Apply For College

The first thing you want to do when starting the college application process is start getting ready early. You might think you have until your senior year to apply for college, but there is plenty you can do now to make sure you're ready and have the advantage when it comes time to submit your application. 

Start looking into colleges as soon as possible, pursue all your interests, job shadow lots of different people, take part in internships, study for the ACTs or SATs, take AP courses, take other high school college courses, keep your grades up, and be involved in your community through volunteering or fundraising

All of these things will help you gather the experience and skills you'll need when it comes time to apply for colleges. 

Step 1: Make a list of colleges 

Choosing a career can be really challenging. Thankfully you don't need to choose a specific career before you can pick the colleges you'd like to attend. A lot can go into your pick of colleges. You might want to go to college in a specific state, you might want to be near family, or you might know what general field you're interested in and choose your college based on that. 

Research different universities and make a numbered list of all the schools you're interested in, #1 being your favorite school. 

Step 2: Make a to do list 

Once you have a handful of colleges in mind you can go through the application requirements for each one and start making a to do list for each school. Open up a spreadsheet, document, or notebook and start listing everything you need to do to apply at each college. Also make notes of all the important dates that correspond with these tasks and put these due dates on a calendar with reminders. 

Step 3: Gather what you need

Many common applications for college will include some forms to fill out about yourself and your previous schooling. But many applications will also require several documents for submission. There are several things you might need for a college application like: 

  • Personal statement 
  • Letters of recommendation 
  • Resume 
  • Cover letter 
  • Portfolio 
  • College essay 
  • High school transcripts 
  • Scholarships 
  • Scholarship essays 

Make notes in your to do list of all the documents you need to gather for each application. If you need help figuring out how to write scholarship essays, a college essay, or a personal statement, you can talk with your school's college admissions counselor or English teachers. They can help give you the hands-on guidance and feedback you need to write great college essays. 

How to Get High School Transcripts

High school transcripts are something that every application will require. Your high school transcripts will be filed at your high school's office. The easiest way to get your high school transcripts is to visit or call your high school's main office and request them. They can send you a paper or electronic copy, or even send them directly to the college you're applying to. 

You might need to provide some information for them first, like a personal ID to identify yourself, your mailing address, or the address or email of your college's office of admissions. 

How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation 

A letter of recommendation can also be called a reference letter. A letter of recommendation for college admission can be listed as an option or a requirement. Either way, including at least one letter of recommendation is a great way to set yourself apart and ensure the admittance office that you are as great as you say you are. 

Step 1: Decide on who to ask

First you want to decide who to ask for a letter of recommendation. Letters of recommendation can provide additional proof of things found on your application, your resume, your transcripts, or your essays. It can also provide key first-hand accounts of these same things. This is why you don't want to ask just anyone. 

You want to ask people who can help strengthen the rest of your application. So if you have great grades, ask one of your teachers to testify to how hard working you are as a student. If you did a lot of community service, ask someone who worked alongside you at the fundraiser to help testify to your work ethic as a volunteer. 

Step 2: Approach them with a prompt

To get the most out of your letters of recommendations, it's a good idea to ask for something specific. Don't just ask someone for a letter of recommendation, ask them for a letter of recommendation that highlights something specific. This will also make their job a little easier because they'll have more of an idea of what to write about.

When asking someone to write you a letter of recommendation, approach them in person or via email and outline the following points: 

  • Explain what the letter of recommendation is for
  • Explain why you chose them to write this letter
  • Outline the things you would like the letter to highlight 
  • Any deadlines they need to know about 

Letter of Recommendation Request Example: 

Dear Angie, 

I am currently in the process of applying for colleges and a part of this is providing a letter of recommendation from someone who can highlight the experience and skills outlined in the rest of my application. 

One of the things my college applications outline is my time volunteering for your annual fundraiser. If you have some time, I would greatly appreciate a letter of recommendation from you that can effectively outline some of the volunteer work I've done for your fundraiser. 

Whether you are able to fulfil this letter of recommendation request or not, please let me know as soon as possible. I would like to have my college application finished by 5/5/2025 and would need the letter within this time frame. If there is anything else I can do to help, please let me know as well. Either way, thank you for everything you've done for me.

Sincerely, 

Jane Smith 

If they accept your letter of recommendation request, it's also a good idea to ask them to send you the letter as a PDF with their signature, and on the official stationery of any organization or company they represent. 

Step 3: Say thank you

Afterward, be sure to say thank you. They have just provided you with something invaluable to your academic future and career. You don't want your thank you to be so generous that it feels like a bribe, you just want it to be very genuine and sincere. Give them a card and write something about the experience you've had together or outline all that they have taught you or helped you to learn. 

College Application Deadlines

So when are college applications due? Be vigilant because you might be able to submit your application a lot sooner than you realize. Most colleges will start allowing people to start submitting their applications as early as August the year before the applicants plan to enroll in classes. This doesn't mean you have to submit in August, but you can start submitting if you're ready. 

Deadlines usually start around November the year before you plan to enroll in classes and can go until February the year you plan to enroll in classes. There are also 4 different kinds of college admission deadlines to be aware of. 

Regular decision deadlines mean that applications are due on the regular due date, usually sometime during the beginning of the year you'd like to enroll. 

Rolling decision deadlines mean that the applications are reviewed as they are received and applicants are notified of their status a few weeks after they submit. 

Early Action Vs Early Decision

Many college admissions might allow prospective students to apply early. But there are 2 different kinds of early applications to be aware of. 

Early decision deadlines mean that the applicant is required to attend that college if they are accepted. 

Early action deadlines mean that the applicant is not required to attend that college if they are accepted. 

So if you know for certain that you want to attend College A if possible, then go ahead and submit your application by the early decision deadline. But if you would really like to keep your options open, even after being accepted, then submit during the early action deadline or the normal deadline. 

How Many Colleges Should I Apply To

This really depends. In general, many places will advise students to apply for 10 to 20 different colleges their senior year of high school. The more colleges you apply to the higher your odds are of getting into schools. 

When asking yourself, how many colleges should I apply to, first worry about the colleges you know you are interested in. Make a list of the schools you would like to get into and number them from most to least preferred. Then start with your top school and work your way down, applying for however many you can. 

Some schools will have free college applications, but many others will require a college application fee. So you might not be able to apply for the recommended 10 to 20 schools without overpaying in college application fees.

There are some schools that are considered open enrollment as well. 

Open enrollment means that so long as you meet the school's requirements, your application will be accepted. It's a good idea to find a couple of schools like this as a part of your "safety schools" list and apply for them as well. Even if you start there to get your associates and then try again to apply at a school you prefer, that's still better than putting off starting college. 

In Conclusion, 

The college application process can be daunting for many young high school graduates and their parents. But it doesn't have to be all that hard. So long as you know what's expected of you and gather the information and documents you need for submission, the rest is a piece of cake.