The Complete Guide to Applying to College - Best Value Schools

The Complete Guide to Applying to College

Young College Students


Applying for college is an exciting and nerve racking time of life. Knowing the ins and outs of college applications will help you as you begin applying to different schools. Many four year colleges will consider your high school grades, high school courses, test scores, extracurricular activities, recommendation letters, and application essays. While not every school will require all of these parameters, we’ve put together a list of everything you might run into while applying for your undergraduate degree.


Getting Started

Consider Schools

Generally, you will want to begin considering which colleges to attend while you are a junior in high school. Begin researching schools, and try to get a feel for what you are wanting in a college experience. Try to find five to eight colleges that you would be happy to attend, and would be willing to apply to. Consider some schools that might be a bit of a stretch for you, and some that are more likely to admit you. This range will help you consider all potential options and possibilities.

Make a Checklist

After selecting several schools to apply to, make a checklist of what is required to apply to each school. Make sure to take note of any special requirements to apply. Many schools will have similar application processes, but there are some that require a little more than others. Keep track of each task you complete and mark your progress as you go.


female looking for colleges online


Application Forms

Online Applications

Most colleges and universities use online applications for potential students to apply. Check to see if an online application is available before contacting the school for a paper application. When filling an application out, first look through the application reading all instructions.

How To Fill Out Applications

Most applications form will require you to fill out some personal information such as your name, birthdate, address, etc. Applications will also ask you about your previous educational experience and any extracurricular activities you participated in.

Some colleges accept the Common Application for students wishing to attend. The Common Application is a standardized application used by more than 600 colleges; this application allows you to fill out information that most colleges require in an application once, instead of filling out four of the exact same applications one at a time.

Application Fees

Keep in mind that each application usually charges a fee for submission. Fees will vary, but generally each college will charge $35 to $50 for each application submitted. These fees are nonrefundable, and are generally required before your application can be officially submitted. If you cannot afford the application fee, many colleges offer fee waivers. For fee waivers, applicants will need to speak with the college for specific terms and requirements.


High School Transcript

It will be your responsibility to arrange for a copy of your high school transcript to be sent to the colleges you are applying to. Some college applications include transcript request forms to give or send to your counselor informing them to send your transcript to a particular school. Not all applications will include transcript request forms. In these cases, it is your responsibility to speak with your counselor and help make arrangements to have your transcripts sent.

Most colleges will want an official high school transcript. Official transcripts often include an official seal, a tamper-proof mark, or are enclosed in a sealed envelope. These details ensure no information on the transcript has been altered. Be aware that some high schools may charge you a small fee to cover the cost of printing or sending an official transcript.


students taking tests


Admission Tests

There are two major tests that colleges require in the United States–the ACT and SAT.  All U.S. colleges accept the new SAT, while almost all U.S. colleges accept the ACT.


The ACT Exam

The ACT tests four major subject areas: English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science. There is an additional, and optional 40 minute writing test. Although not required, it is a good idea to take the writing portion. In total, the ACT includes 215 multiple choice questions.

The English portion is 45 minutes and consists of 75 questions testing punctuation, grammar and usage, sentence structure, strategy, organization, and style.

The mathematics portion is 60 minutes and includes 60 questions that assess reasoning skills to solve practical problems in mathematics.

The reading test is 35 minutes of 40 questions that measure reading comprehension.

The science portion is 35 minutes that measures the interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning, and problem-solving skills necessary in natural sciences.

The writing test is a 40 minute essay that includes one writing prompt, and is used to measure writing skills emphasized in high school English classes, and entry-level college composition courses.

The total time of the ACT, not including the writing portion, is about 3 hours and 30 minutes, including a short break. The total test time is 2 hours and 55 minutes (an additional 40 minutes if taking the writing section). Each section of the ACT is scored on a scale from 1 to 36, with the optional writing portion scored on a scale from 2 to 12. Each section score is then made into a composite score between 1 and 36.

The ACT is administered five to six different times throughout the year and can be taken multiple times in order to achieve the best score. People of all ages and grades are allowed to take the ACT, although most students will begin taking the test in their junior year of high school. It is recommended that students take the ACT at least two months before any application deadline to ensure test scores arrive to colleges on time.

When signing up for the test, there is a basic registration fee that includes the cost of sending your test results to four schools of your choice (a small fee is required for more than four). ACT test results are accepted by all four-year colleges in the United States.


The SAT Exam

As of March 2016, there is a new SAT test. The new SAT has been completely restructured, and is based on the latest research of the skills colleges value most. Previously, the SAT had four sections: Critical Reading, Writing, Mathematics, and an essay. Now, the SAT focuses on Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, Math, and includes an optional essay.

The reading sections is 65 minutes long and asks 52 questions.

The writing and language is 35 minutes and is 44 questions long.

The math section is 80 minutes and asks 58 questions.

The optional essay is one prompt and is 50 minutes long.

A total of 154 questions (155 with the option essay) and 3 hours (3 hours 50 minutes with essay).


The SAT is administered seven times in a year. Make sure to check the registration deadline to avoid paying an additional late fee. SAT scores are available to students, and are sent to colleges approximately one month after the test is taken.

Previously, the SAT penalized test recipients for guessing on the test. The new SAT does not penalize guessing, and now gives a more comprehensive score report. Subscores are provided for every test that includes added insights for students, parents, and admission officers. Each section is scored individually: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing on a scale from 200 to 800; the Math section is scored on a scale from 200 to 800; and the essay is broken into three dimensions and scored on a scale of 2 to 8. Each section is combined to a total score ranging from 400 to 1600.

What if your test scores are below a school’s published test score acceptance range? Still consider applying. Usually admission scores shown on a school’s website are an average, or range, of the typical admitted student. Some students will have higher scores, and some will have lower scores, than the posted range. Keep in mind that your tests scores are just one factor of your application.


Letters of Recommendation

Many schools require letters of recommendations in the application–typically two or three from people who know you well enough to speak to your character and accomplishments. These letters of recommendation should showcase your skills and assets that can’t be described by your grades and test scores.

Make sure to give your references plenty of time to write a letter of recommendation. The earlier you ask, the better. When you give a reference an ample amount of time and don’t rush them, they are more likely to write a better recommendation for you.

While some schools require letters of recommendation from specific people, others will let you choose whomever you deem appropriate. Many students ask counselors, teachers, advisers, employers, or coaches to write recommendations for them. If you are unsure about who to ask, consider those who know your character and work ethic. Politely ask them if they would feel comfortable recommending you and speak for a moment with them about what you feel is recommendable about you. This makes it easier for them to remember your accomplishments and include details in their letter.

Some references may not mind if you see their recommendation, but often they will want to keep it confidential. Give your references addressed and stamped envelopes for each college that you are applying to. This will also give the admissions officers confidence that the recommendations are honest and haven’t been tampered with if you haven’t seen them.

Be sure to clearly state the deadlines for each college with your references. Follow up with them a week or so before recommendation deadlines to ensure your letters have been written and sent. After you have chosen a college to attend, write thank you notes and tell your references which school you have chosen, and how much you appreciate their support.



College applications almost always include an essay portion. These prompts are an opportunity to showcase your writing skills, your character, and strengths. In your essays, don’t just tell the admission officers why you are great, show them. Give them specific details, examples, and reasons. Don’t just tell them you love doing something, explain why you love it, and how you came  to love it. Be personal, and give a little glimpse into who you are.

Often the essay prompts will be similar in multiple applications. There is no need to write a brand new essay or personal statement for each application. Instead, focus on writing a great base essay and then modify to fit each prompt as needed.

When you have completed writing admission essays or personal statements, have a parent or teacher proofread them. Don’t rely on spell check to catch every typo or grammar error. If an admission officer sees one spelling or grammar error, your application will often be tossed aside.


college interview



Not all colleges will require it, but some will ask you to complete a personal interview as part of your application. These interviews generally last 30 minutes, and are a great opportunity for applicants to show their strengths and personality. To stand out in an interview, make sure to show your confidence, passion, work ethic, initiative, and intellectual curiosity.

Highlight your strengths, whether it be academic, a personality trait, or an extracurricular activity. Try to be personable and give the interviewer the opportunity to see who you really are. Don’t try to fit yourself into a mold. Often schools are looking for outstanding individuals, not someone who is just like everyone else.

Even if a college doesn’t require an interview for applications, it may be a smart idea to request one if available. This will give you a chance to connect with someone in the admissions office as well as demonstrate your initiative and seriousness about attending a particular school.  


Final Tips

A few final tips from college admission staffers when filling out a college application:

  • Read instructions very carefully.

There may be certain sections of the application for international students, or other students with particular needs. Make sure you are reading all of the instructions and only filling out information pertinent to you.

  • Take the lead.

It may seem easier to let someone else take the lead, but colleges are looking for students who are prepared to study hard and take the initiative. Make sure you are taking control of your future, and the application process.

  • Always proofread before submitting.

You should double, and even triple, check all spelling and grammar before you submit your application. Using spell check isn’t enough–sometimes you will misuse a word that is technically spelled correctly, but is used incorrectly. Even if you have an amazingly written essay, misused or misspelled words can be enough of an issue to stop a school from accepting you.

  • Don’t wait until the last minute to apply.

Hitting submit online does not always mean it was instantly submitted. It can take a few minutes to a few hours for everything to be submitted and processed. Most colleges will try to give you a grace period for this, but it is better to submit with plenty of time to ensure your entire application is received before the deadline.

  • Have someone review your application.

It is a good idea to have an adult, who is not a parent, take a second look over your application and essay. Have this person look for any questions that may arise in your application. Make sure to take note and try to answer these questions in your application. You don’t want to leave the admissions office wondering over an unanswered question or gap in your application.