How to Start the College Application Process

Get a bird’s eye view of the college application process to be better prepared in the months to come.

Kathryn Knight Randolph

September 02, 2021

How to Start the College Application Process
An overview of applying to college for both high school juniors and seniors.
Your high school junior or senior year may have just started, but your guidance counselors, parents and peers are already looking to the next phase of life: college. The more you have prepared for the college application, the smoother it will be for you. However, it’s understandable if you don’t know where to start – or what to do next. After all, you’ve never actually applied to college. Fortunately, we’re the experts when it comes to the college search, financial aid application, and scholarship search processes. By following our advice on completing your college applications, you’ll be better equipped to make a decision that is right for you and your future.
  1. Decide where you will apply to college.

    High school juniors: It’s time to start thinking about your future college experience. What majors sound interesting to you? Do you want attend to college in a rural or urban setting? Which extracurriculars sound appealing to you? What’s your budget for paying for college? Do you want to study abroad?
    These are just a few of the questions you should be asking yourself now in order to create a list of colleges that interest you. Once you have a list of qualities you’re looking for, talk to your guidance counselor about colleges that meet those requirements. Check out websites of colleges that you’ve heard of – but maybe don’t know too much about right now. High school seniors: Experts recommend applying to two Safety, three Targets, and two Reach schools. It can be easy to get carried away and apply to 20 different colleges, but it’s not necessary. By strategizing your college search and applying to a range of colleges, you’re almost guaranteed to get into at least one school. The Common App makes it easy to apply to multiple colleges because you only have to complete one “form.” However, many colleges have supplemental forms in addition to the Common App, so keep that in mind. This year, in response to the continued Coronavirus pandemic, the Common App is offering fee waivers to students that are experiencing undue hardship or are attending school virtually and can’t secure a guidance counselor signature. Learn more about the Common App fee waiver.
    Finally, consider whether or not you will apply by the Early Admission or Regular Admission college application deadlines.
  2. Prep your application components.

    High school juniors: You may not be applying to college right now, but you’re technically working on your college application. How so? What you’re doing now in and outside of the classroom will be reflected on your admissions applications. Make sure that you’re working hard academically, asking for help where you need it, and getting involved in extracurriculars at school as well as volunteering in your community.
    High school seniors: It’s time to put all of your hard work down on paper. Your application will consist of the form itself, test scores (if required), and an essay. If you haven’t already, you need to ask teachers, coaches, and mentors for letters of recommendation. You also need to request transcripts from your guidance counselor. In light of COVID-19, many colleges and universities have gone test-optional. Currently, 1,350 colleges are operating under a test-optional admissions policy, so check to see if your colleges are on that list from before applying. If you haven’t taken the ACT or SAT already, it’s possible that you won’t have to at all. With that, the college application essay has become more important than ever. It will supplement your application by allowing the admissions committee to get a sense of who you are as an individual. As you work on your college essay, avoid certain topics and write in a way that makes your college essay effective.
  3. Have “the paying for college” talk with your parents or guardians.

    High school juniors: It’s best to have this conversation during your junior year of high school. This way, you can clearly identify which schools your family can afford, and which will be a financial stretch. Students and their families are all over the spectrum when it comes to paying for college. Some parents pay for all college expenses, while others pay for nothing at all. Knowing what to expect from your parents or guardians will help you strategize for your financial aid and scholarship applications. Now is also the time to start maximizing your aid eligibility. High school seniors: If you haven’t already discussed finances with parents or guardians, time is of the essence. You don’t want to receive your financial aid package and then have these discussions. Knowing what your family can afford – or what your family is willing to borrow now – will make decisions easier in the spring. Here are just a few things to consider as you plan to pay for college.
  4. Submit the FAFSA. 

    High school juniors: Don’t worry; you don’t have to submit your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) until your senior year of high school. However, start researching the form now and make a plan for filing it as soon as possible after October 1 of your senior year. High school seniors: The FAFSA application becomes available on October 1. Many states distribute financial aid on a first-come, first-serve basis, so your odds of qualifying for aid are higher if you submit it as soon as possible after its release date. If you need help on the FAFSA, you can contact the Federal Student Aid Center or find a FAFSA workshop near you.
  5. Receive your financial aid package.

    High school juniors: Again, you are about a year and a half out from receiving your financial aid packet, but you should still know what’s inside one. Students who have filled out the FAFSA and met state deadlines, as well as completed supplemental forms from their college, will receive a financial aid package that consists of some or all of the following: grants, work study, and student loans. High school seniors: When you receive your financial aid award letter, you’ll finally have a better picture of how you’ll be paying for college. It’s possible that your financial aid package covers all of your college costs, but most students will find that there is still a gap between what they can pay and what the college costs. If you think that the financial aid package does not meet your need because of difficult circumstances, now is the time to request a financial aid appeal.
  6. Make your final college decision. 

    High school juniors: The pressure is off – for now. Hopefully, though, you can see that preparing for the college search and application process will enable you to be better equipped to make a final decision on May 1 of your senior year of high school. It can be a lot of work to find and apply for the right school, but it is a lot easier when you are prepared. High school seniors: The moment is finally here! May 1 marks National Decision Day, the day by which high school seniors need to make a commitment to a specific school. This is usually accompanied by a deposit to secure your place at the college. From this point, you’ll begin making final preparations for your move to college!

Month-by-Month Planning for College Applications

That was a very general overview of the college application process. If you would like a more detailed look at both the junior and senior years of high school, we have those too: • Planning for College as a High School Junior: Month-by-Month Guide •  College Admission Planning for Seniors in High School

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