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The Basics of Applying to College

Applying to college is a process that involves a lot of steps, each of which must be completed by a specific deadline. You should apply to colleges during your senior year of high school; application deadlines range from Nov. 1 to late spring depending on the college.

Decide which colleges you want to apply to, get the applications from the college websites and make a note of the deadlines. You will then need to gather the required documents—your high school transcript, recommendation letters and admission test scores—before you complete the actual application.

Check to see if the colleges on your list accept The Common Application (—over 400 schools in the U.S. do. Using the Common App to apply to multiple schools with the same application is a time saver, but pay close attention to the supplemental information that each school requires.

Read on for more tips and pointers about what you’ll need to apply to college.

To help you keep track of the many deadlines in the college application process, here is a timeline of key dates to follow:

Junior Year


  • Take the SAT and/or ACT. While it’s not required to take them in your junior year, it will allow you to spend the summer studying for the exams and retaking them in the fall of your senior year.
  • Meet with your guidance counselor in the spring to discuss which colleges you should consider applying to.
  • Start your college research in earnest.
  • You may want to start scheduling visits to schools you are interested in.

Senior Year


  • Register for the October or November SAT and SAT Subject exams.
  • Ask teachers and others for letters of recommendation for your college applications.

November 1

December 31 – January 1

  • This is the deadline for regular admission at many colleges.
  • You should also submit the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) as soon as possible after January 1—don’t leave this to the last minute as much of your federal and state financial aid is based solely on this form!

May 1

  • This is the deadline to submit your deposit to the college you will attend.

June (or after high school graduation)

  • Make sure your final high school transcripts are sent to the college you’ve decided to go to.

College Application Fee Waivers

The average cost of applying to a college ranges between $35 and $50, but some fees are as much as $90 (and they are nonrefundable). Since college experts advise high school students to apply to between five and eight colleges, the fees can quickly become expensive.

If the cost of the application fees is a hardship for your family, don’t despair. Many colleges offer waivers for their application fees for eligible students. A 2012 survey by U.S. News & World Report showed that 1,300 colleges will waive the application fee for students with a demonstrated financial need, including many selective schools such as Dartmouth College and Johns Hopkins University.

Continue reading to find out who is eligible for the waivers and how to apply for them.

How to Stand Out in Your College Application

With colleges receiving thousands of applications from high school seniors each year, your goal should be to stand out from the pack. Before filling out your application, make a list of the things that make you special—your passions, personality traits, talents, and aspirations for the future—and draw from it when answering the questions and essays on the application.

Discussing your love of musical drama, baseball, physics, or serving meals at a soup kitchen will showcase your personality more than your accomplishments, which are already included in your transcript and résumé.

Keep reading to find out how colleges select students and more tips on how to capture your unique personality in your college application.

How to Write a Killer College Application Essay

One of the key—and usually most dreaded—components of a college application is the required essay that must address a specific question or topic. Regardless of how you feel about it, the essay is an important part of your application because it offers the admissions officers a glimpse into your personality and the way you think. So, think of this as just another way to show admissions officers the “real” you!

To start, approach this task seriously, just as you would any other important assignment. Here are a few more tips you should keep in mind.

You’ve Been Accepted or Wait-Listed! Now What?

If you’ve been admitted to your first-choice college, your application process is over! Congratulations! In your excitement, don’t forget to notify the school that you plan to attend, and make sure you know the deadlines for follow-up materials, like deposits and your final high school transcript.

If you’re accepted at several colleges, you have more thinking and research to do. You need to carefully compare the schools you got into to determine which one is the fit best for you. Keep reading for pointers on what to compare.

Another possibility is that you may be wait-listed by one or more colleges. In this case, you should send a letter to the school(s) that you really want to attend while you reconsider those that have accepted you. Read more about what to do if you’ve been wait-listed—including ways to possibly sway the admissions office to changing your status to accepted!

Missed All College Application Deadlines? Fear Not!

So, you’ve missed the application deadlines for the colleges you intended to apply to. Don’t panic! Here are some of the options still available to you:

1. Find schools that have rolling admissions. Some schools offer rolling admissions, which means that they accept applications until all the spots in their freshman class are filled. If you want to know whether a specific college has rolling admissions, call the school’s admissions office.

2. Apply to a regional branch campus of a larger university. If you are successful at the branch campus, you can transfer to the main campus after a semester.

3. Enroll in a community college, either full-time or part-time. You can take classes for one or two years, getting many of your general education requirements out of the way, and then transfer to a four-year college. Community colleges are typically less expensive than four-year schools, so this route could end up saving you money, too.

4. Take a “gap year” and reapply to college for the following year. Use the time to work or intern (ideally in a career path that you’re interested in pursuing), volunteer, study, and travel—or all of the above! Studies show that students who take a gap year are more focused and motivated when they start college than those who didn’t take a deferral.