Applying to College: Your Step-by-Step Guide

Written by Coursera • Updated on

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

[Featured image] A high school student takes notes on how to apply for college in a notebook

Applying to an undergraduate program often requires gathering a range of materials to showcase your abilities as a student and your interest in higher education. Though it can be quite involved, the process is relatively standard across most institutions in the United States.

In this article, we've broken down the process to give you a clearer picture of what you need to do—and when.

College application requirements

First, let’s take a look at the materials you'll typically need to complete and pull together in order to apply to colleges and universities in the US. 

  • Application: You’ll likely have to fill out a general application for each school you want to attend. These tend to cover information like a list of extracurricular activities and parent or legal guardian information.

  • 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.

  • Letters of recommendation: Many colleges require two or three letters of recommendation from trusted adults in your life. These typically come from teachers or counselors who can speak to your academic abilities, but they can also come from club or team coaches, employers, volunteer organizers, or others who can discuss your various strengths.

  • Personal statements and essays: Colleges want to take into consideration who you are beyond your grades and test scores. The personal statement (or college essay) gives you the opportunity to show a more rounded picture of who you are.

  • Standardized scores: Taking a college entrance exam, like the SAT or ACT, used to be standard, though a growing number of schools have stopped requiring scores. That being said, even when they're optional, submitting your scores can help detail your college readiness.

  • Financial information: Some schools will request information on your or 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. For standard admissions, many high school students start their applications in the 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 should start compiling a list of where you want to go, including dream schools, target schools, and safety schools.

Dream schools are those you'd attend if money or qualifications weren't a factor; target schools are those where you'd fit in well as a student; and safety schools are those you're confident you'd be admitted to. For each school, note application deadlines. Many schools have early January deadlines, but you should double-check, especially if you want to take advantage of applications like early admit or rolling admissions.

Learn more: When Are College Applications Due?

2. Sign up for standardized testing.

Many students take the SAT or ACT for the first time in the spring of their junior year, leaving them room to retake either test if they want to improve upon their results. The latest you’ll want to take standardized tests for applications due in January is the fall of senior year. The College Board recommends taking at least six to 20 hours to study for your first SAT [2]. 

Though many schools have stopped requiring standardized test scores for admission, others still do. And submitting your scores may help you qualify for scholarships or other merit-based aid.  

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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.

Learn more: College Essay Topics and Writing Tips

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 recommendation requests toward 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. 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 and online 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 find program in in-demand areas like computer science, marketing, and general business.

Learn more: Is College Worth It?

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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 January 17, 2023.

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