Step-by-Step Guide to Applying for College

Written by Coursera • Updated on Oct 11, 2021

Applying for college typically involves taking standardized tests, writing personal statements, collecting letters of recommendation, and filling out applications.

A high school student takes notes on how to apply for college in a notebook

Applying to college can seem overwhelming at first. Fortunately, the process is generally standard across most colleges and universities in the US. Breaking the process down can give you a clearer mental picture of what you need to do, and when. Here’s a guide to common requirements, and a step-by-step breakdown of what you’ll need to do to apply to college.

College application requirements

First, let’s take a look at what you typically need to apply to colleges and universities in the US. 

  • Standardized scores: These include SAT and ACT test scores. Though many schools have stopped requiring standardized test scores, many still do. If you’re considering applying to any that do, you’ll want to make sure you sign up for and prepare for the test.

  • Letters of recommendation: Many colleges require two or three letters of recommendation from trusted adults in your life. These typically come from recent teachers or counselors, but can also come from club or team coaches, advisers of organizations you’re a part of outside of school, or employers.

  • Personal statements and essays: Colleges want to take into consideration who you are beyond your grades and test scores. The personal statement and other essays will give you the opportunity to show a more rounded picture of who you are.

  • Academic transcripts: Your transcripts—from high school, and other academic institutions you might have been enrolled in like community college—show colleges what classes you’ve taken and the grades you got in them.

  • Application: You’ll generally have to fill out an application for each school  that covers information like a list of extracurricular activities and parent or legal guardian information.

  • Financial information: Some schools will request information on your family’s financial situation to see if you qualify for scholarships. The deadline for financial information might be later than the application deadline, though it’s good to double-check. You’ll want to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) at the very least.

Read more: What is a Bachelor’s Degree? Requirements, Costs, and More

The college application process: Step-by-step

It’s a good idea to start the college application process several months before application deadlines, especially if you have other obligations like school or work. Many high school students start their applications in the summer before their senior year, or fall of their senior year [1]. If you include standardized tests, this process can begin in your junior year.

1. Know your application deadlines.

At the very beginning of your college application process, you won’t have to know exactly where you want to go. But having a sense of when applications are due for colleges you’re considering will be beneficial. Make a list of deadlines for schools you’re interested in, and keep it handy throughout the process. Many schools have early January deadlines.

Don’t know where to start? Try making an appointment with a school counselor or talking to a trusted teacher. They might be able to provide you with some guidance around what kinds of universities to look into, depending on your preferences.

2. Sign up for standardized testing.

Many students take the SAT or ACT for the first time in the spring of their junior year. This leaves them time to take the test again if they want to improve on their results. The latest you’ll want to take standardized tests for applications due in January is the fall of senior year.

Though many schools have stopped requiring standardized test scores for admission, many still do. Schools that still require test scores might only accept the ACT or SAT, or accept either. 

Some students choose to sign up for standardized test practice courses, work through test prep books, or use online resources. Some resources, like the Khan Academy’s SAT personalized practice program, are free. The College Board recommends taking at least six to 20 hours to study for your first SAT [2]. 

How much is the SAT or ACT?

It costs $55 to register for the SAT, $65 for the ACT without the writing portion, and $85 for the ACT with the writing portion. The good news is that you could qualify for fee waivers for both tests. Approach your school counselor to help secure the waiver. If you’re eligible, you’ll also be able to apply to over 2,000 colleges that accept application fee waivers for free.

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3. Start your personal statements.

Colleges generally ask for one or more personal statements or essays. These are opportunities for you to convey who you are beyond your grades and test scores. 

Dedicate a few hours to brainstorming ideas, creating an outline, and writing a first draft. Then have trusted friends, teachers, or family members look it over for feedback. 

If you’re applying through the Common App, you’ll likely be able to use one personal statement for multiple schools. Some schools may have another essay prompt you’ll have to answer in addition to the Common App prompt.

What is the Common App?

The Common Application, colloquially known as the Common App, is an organization that provides a way to apply for many different colleges using one application. The Common App reports nearly 900 member colleges.

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4. Ask for letters of recommendation.

Ask for letters of recommendation a few months ahead of your application deadline. This is because teachers might be swamped with letter of recommendation requests towards the end of the year. You’ll want to give them plenty of time to prepare the letter and collect any information they need from you.

Teachers might ask for your GPA, a copy of your transcript, or perhaps even a draft of your personal statement—information they could use to get to know your strengths and motivations. Ask them what they might require when you ask for a letter of recommendation.

Need some more tips? Read about how to ask for a letter of recommendation.

5. Submit your transcripts.

Most colleges require official school transcripts to see how you performed in academic settings. This includes your high school transcript, as well as transcripts from any other academic institutions you might have attended, like community college.

If you’re still in high school, visit your guidance counselor to request to send your high school transcript to the colleges you’re applying to. If you’ve already graduated high school, you’ll generally have to fill out a transcript request form online or in person. Contact your former school or school district for directions.

If you’re in community college, contact your counselor or registrar’s office to send an official transcript to the universities you’re applying to. 

Schools will generally state what date you need to send them electronically or have them postmarked by.

6. Fill out your application.

Don’t forget to take some time to fill out the application itself. The application might ask for general information like your extracurricular activities, parent or legal guardian information, and any honors you have received.

The application might include some questions that require some thought, like a list of your favorite books, or a section you can take to explain any dips in your grade. 

7. Double-check and submit your application.

When the application deadline is approaching—perhaps a week away—double check the application to see if everything you need has been uploaded or submitted. If there are letters of recommendation that haven’t come through yet, gently remind your letter writer of the approaching deadline. 

Submitting an application generally requires a fee, which typically ranges from $50 to $90 per application. 

I don’t think I’ll be able to make the deadlines in time. What should I do?

If you don’t see yourself making the early January deadlines, don’t panic—you still have several options. Many colleges have later deadlines or offer rolling admissions; look through a list to see if you’re interested in any. Community colleges might also offer more flexible deadlines, or allow students to start in the spring semester.

You can also consider taking a gap year and save applying to college for next year. A gap year can give you time to volunteer, work, or travel, and learn about the world in a way you can’t in a classroom. 

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Start exploring your options

Get started on your college application process by finding schools you’re interested in. The College Board offers a tool that can help you find colleges by location, major, type, and campus lifestyle. Reach out to school counselors, and visit campuses if you can.

Interested in online programs? There are plenty of high-quality programs to choose from, including several on Coursera. Browse through online bachelor’s degrees to see what’s out there.

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Article sources

1. The College Board. "The College Application Process, https://parents.collegeboard.org/planning-for-college/applications-and-admission/college-application-process." Accessed October 11, 2021.

2. The College Board Blog. "What is the Best Way to Prepare for the SAT?, https://blog.collegeboard.org/what-best-way-prepare-sat." Accessed October 11, 2021.

Written by Coursera • Updated on Oct 11, 2021

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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