College application process checklist

It’s been a long time coming, but the end of high school is finally in sight. What’s next? If you’ve been thinking about college, you’ve got some preparing to do. 

Applying to college takes more than just filling out a form or two. There are materials to gather, deadlines to track and financial matters to consider. So where do you start? And when do you start? Read on for your guide to the college application process.

Key takeaways

  • Each college may have a slightly different timeline, process and requirements for applications.
  • Depending on the admission option you choose, your application deadline could be in November or January of your senior year.
  • Most colleges have a preferred way of accepting applications, usually via one of several different online application platforms.
  • Some of the materials you’ll need to present with your application include test scores, transcripts and letters of recommendation.

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When do you apply for college?

In general, you apply to colleges in 12th grade, or senior year. You won’t know the exact dates until you’ve decided which school—or schools—to apply to. That’s because your application deadlines will depend on the admission options each institution offers—and what makes sense for you.

For example, a college you’re interested in may have an “early decision” and a “regular decision” option. If you opt for early decision, you’ll probably have to apply by November. By applying for early admission, you usually have to agree beforehand to attend if the college accepts you. If you apply regular decision, your application deadline will probably be in January. And you can keep your options open and apply to other colleges as well.

Another college you like may accept rolling admissions. If you send your application in November, you could have a decision in 4-6 weeks. Then you could either accept the offer and be done with the whole process or move on to another set of college applications.

As a general rule, the College Board—a nonprofit that develops standardized tests, including the SAT—recommends getting ready the summer before your senior year by gathering all the materials you need. You could even start in your junior year by doing things like researching and visiting schools and boosting your list of extracurricular activities.

You can find admission options and application deadlines on each school’s profile on the College Board’s BigFuture site, or you can check directly with each school.

How long does it take to fill out a college application?

There’s no set answer to how long it takes to fill out a college application. You might be able to fill out the form in one sitting. But gathering the materials you need for the application—everything from letters of recommendation to essays and test scores—can take time. Especially if you’re also juggling coursework, studies and extracurricular activities.

A student and his teacher walk through a school hallway, discussing college applications.

College application process checklist

Each school may have slightly different processes and requirements for prospective applicants. But here’s a general idea of the steps you might take when applying for college.

1. Understand the different college types

Being familiar with higher education options can give you confidence that you’re applying to the ones that best fit your goals and budget. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • College or university: People often refer to “college” and “university” interchangeably. Universities offer both undergraduate and graduate programs, while colleges typically focus only on undergraduate studies. Some colleges are part of universities.
  • Public or private college: Public colleges are mainly funded by the state government. Private colleges rely more heavily on tuition, fees and private donations to fund their academic programs.
  • For-profit college: These colleges are operated by private businesses, and their goal is to make money. Some offer bachelor’s degrees, but most offer graduate degrees or career training.
  • Four-year or two-year college: Four-year colleges, or undergraduate colleges, offer bachelor’s degree programs. Two year-colleges offer certificate programs and two-year associate degrees.
  • Community college: These colleges are funded by tax dollars and offer a two-year associate’s degree, technical and vocational programs, or academic credit toward a bachelor’s degree. 
  • Vocational/trade/technical college: These colleges offer training toward a specific career—for example, in engineering, dentistry or the restaurant industry.
  • Special-focus college: These could focus on a specific subject or area of study, like the arts, or serve a specific population, like students of a particular religious faith.

Questions about which qualification you should be aiming for? Check out this guide to the different types of college degrees.

2. Pinpoint the schools you want to apply to

You might already have some ideas about colleges you’d like to attend. But it’s a good idea to keep an open mind to all the possibilities. Here are some things that can help you build your list:

  • Do your research. Talk to your teachers and counselors about your goals; visit colleges and talk to the students and admissions people; read college websites, brochures and blogs. 
  • Weigh what’s important. Think about your ideal college: size, location, student population, atmosphere, housing options and so on. Which items are non-negotiable, and which could you be flexible on?
  • Build a balanced list. You can find score information on each school’s College Board profile. And to increase your chances of acceptance, the College Board recommends building a balanced list of three types of schools based on your SAT or ACT scores.
    • Reach school: A school where your SAT or ACT score is lower than the average score range of last year’s first-year class
    • Match school: A school where your SAT or ACT score is in the same score range as last year’s first-year class
    • Safety school: A school where your SAT or ACT score is higher than the average score range of last year’s first-year class

3. Know your deadlines

If you’ve read this far, you already know that application deadlines vary depending on the college and the type of application. The most common college application deadlines are:

  • Early decision: If your chosen college has an early decision plan, you can apply early—usually in November. That’s because if you’re accepted, the decision is binding. Note that you can only apply to one school for early decision.
  • Early action: With early action, you can apply to multiple schools early—again, usually in November. If you’re accepted, you’re not obliged to attend.
  • Regular decision: This is the traditional way to apply to college, with applications typically due during January. With regular decision, you can apply to as many colleges as you like.
  • Rolling admission: Some schools review applications as they receive them. They may have a priority deadline—typically November 1—and if you submit by that date, your application may have priority over applications made later. But they keep accepting applications until all the slots are filled. 

Each type of application has pros and cons, so consider which works best for you. Whichever type of application you make, Coalition for College suggests that being ready to submit by November 1 can help you avoid stress. 

4. Look into financial aid options

A college education can be expensive. Average annual tuition and fees ranged from $3,860 to $10,940 in 2022-23, depending on location and length of study.

Financial aid is money that can help you pay for school costs like tuition, books and supplies and housing. It could come in the form of:

  • Scholarships: Scholarships can come from nonprofits, local governments, religious groups, professional organizations or community organizations, among others. You can check the Federal Student Aid website for ideas on where and how to find scholarships and these tips on how to get one.
  • Grants: Schools, private organizations, the federal government and state governments offer grants. They can be need- or merit-based, so you’ll typically have to meet special requirements to qualify. For instance, some grants are offered to students based on ethnicity, family income or academic achievement. One of the most common grants to consider is a Federal Pell Grant.
  • Work-study programs: Work-study is a federal financial aid program that helps students find part-time jobs on campus to pay for school. About 3,400 colleges and universities take part in the program. Students who don’t qualify for the program can still apply for jobs on or off campus. 
  • Student loans: There are two general types of student loans—federal and private—that you can apply for. You begin with a starting balance, and you agree to pay it back with interest over time. 

 The most vital step in applying for federal grants, work-study and loans for college is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) form. For more information, check out this guide to securing the right financial aid for you.

5. Determine what kind of application(s) you need to fill out for each school

Many colleges have a preferred way of receiving applications. Some colleges may accept only one method of application. Others may offer several options. It’s a good idea to check directly with your chosen colleges about which type of application they recommend you fill out. 

According to the College Board, most colleges prefer an online application to a paper one. Some online application platforms are standardized. This means that if all your chosen schools accept the same platform, you can fill out one application and submit it to them all.

Some common online application platforms are:

  • Common App: Created in the 1970s, the Common App was the first standardized application platform. It’s now accepted by more than 900 universities and colleges worldwide.
  • Coalition application: Coalition for College’s Coalition application is accepted by more than 150 participating schools.
  • Common Black College Application: Almost 70 historically Black universities and colleges now accept the Common Black College Application.

6. Choose references to write letters of recommendation

Lots of colleges ask prospective students to include letters of recommendation with their applications. These should be from people who know you well and can talk about your skills, achievements and personality. 

You can check with your chosen colleges about whether they require letters of recommendation and how many. Some may be specific about who you should ask, like a current teacher or school counselor. If not, it’s up to you—you could also consider a coach, an employer or a club leader. Your teachers, counselors and family members may also have good ideas about who you could ask.

According to the Coalition for College, you should allow references at least a month to write your letters. 

7. Gather the necessary documents and supplemental materials

Look online about what’s necessary versus what’s supplemental to a college application, and you’ll find lots of opinions and lists. It’s impossible to say for sure what exactly you’re going to need. The best thing to do is check in with your chosen colleges. They should all have clear and specific instructions about what they need to consider your application complete.  

In the meantime, here’s a guide to some of the elements you might be asked to provide:

  • Application form
  • Application fee
  • Parent or legal guardian information
  • Social Security number
  • High school code
  • Essay or personal statement
  • School transcripts
  • Test scores
  • Academic honors and achievements
  • Recommendation letters
  • List of extracurricular activities

8. Write your college essays

Not every college requires you to submit an essay with your application. But for those that do, it can be an important part of the selection process. 

According to the College Board, your essay can showcase your personality and skills, as well as put forth a good argument for why you think you’d be a good match for the school. It could even be the deciding factor between two otherwise similar applications.

For advice on how to write a good college essay, check out these tips and videos from the College Board. 

9. Complete your applications

After gathering all the necessary elements together, the form itself may seem like the simplest part of the college application process. 

If you’re using an application platform, you can follow the online prompts to enter your information step by step. When you’re done, you’ll usually receive an automated confirmation that your application has been received. 

If you’re mailing documents, you can include a stamped, self-addressed postcard with each package so that admissions officials can send you back confirmation of receipt. Or you can use the U.S. Postal Service’s Return Receipt service.

However you apply, the College Board advises keeping copies of each piece of the application for safety. 

Application fees for colleges: How much can you expect to pay?

Some colleges charge an application fee, some waive the fee if you apply online, and some don’t charge at all. The ones that do charge set their own price. According to an annual survey conducted by U.S. News & World Report, the average college application fee in 2022 was about $45. 

College application fee waivers

Students with financial need may be able to get a college application fee waiver. There are several types of waivers and several ways to get one if you’re eligible. For example:

  • If you registered for and took the SAT or ACT using a fee waiver, you should be automatically eligible. 
  • If you’re applying for colleges through the Common App or the Coalition app, you can check the appropriate fee waiver boxes as you go.
  • Some colleges have their own fee waiver application processes and requirements, so it’s worth looking into the individual policies of your chosen colleges. 
  • Some colleges accept a fee waiver form from the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

When can you expect to hear back about your college application?

The length of the college application process depends on the college and the type of application you’re making. Here’s a rough idea of when you might get a decision for each application type: 

  • Early decision: December 
  • Early action: December or January 
  • Regular decision: March or April
  • Rolling admission: Usually within 4-6 weeks

Remember, these are estimated dates. The College Board encourages applicants not to jump to conclusions if it takes longer. If your colleges have application portals, you can also check your application status online. 

Finally, unless you applied for an early decision—when the college’s acceptance secures your admission—you need to let colleges know which application you’re accepting by May 1.

Applying to college in a nutshell

There’s no one-size-fits-all way to approach the college application process. Each college has different requirements, processes and timelines. That’s why it’s a good idea to consult directly with your chosen colleges about what they need and when they need it.

After your applications are complete, you can start figuring out how to pay for college. If you’ve been saving for college, that can come in handy, as can financial aid. Student loans and student credit cards are also worth looking into. If used responsibly, they can be great ways to start building credit while still in college.

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