Key takeaways

  1. Common types of college application processes include early decision, early action, regular decision, and rolling admissions
  2. Families should consider financial aid when choosing the application timing, as opting for non-binding deadlines allows comparing offers from multiple schools
  3. Common college application platforms include the Common App, the Coalition App, and the Common Black College Application
  4. Crafting an impactful college essay allows students to showcase their uniqueness and personality
  5. College application fee waivers are available for low-income students
  6. Selecting the right college involves considering location, financial aid packages, academics, extracurriculars, visiting the campus, talking to current students

For high school seniors, the process of applying to colleges can be a daunting and crucial step in their educational journey.

With multiple deadlines, application platforms, and important components to consider, it's essential to have a comprehensive guide to navigate this significant phase.

In this guide, we will explore various aspects of college applications, including different application types and deadlines, selecting the right application platform, crafting an impactful college essay, key components of a college application, fee waivers for low-income students, and the importance of college visits.

Understanding types of college applications and their deadlines 

When it comes to college applications, students and parents should know the most common types and their respective deadlines.

Early decision (ED)

Early Decision (ED) deadlines usually fall in November, offering applicants a quicker response from colleges. However, it's essential to note that ED acceptances are binding, meaning students must commit to the college if accepted. 

Some schools also offer a second round of early decision, known as ED II, with deadlines in January and decisions often released in February.

Early action (EA)

For students who prefer early application options without the binding commitment, Early Action (EA) is another option to consider. 

EA deadlines are typically in November or December, and students receive early notifications without being required to enroll. 

Regular decision

Another option is the Regular Decision deadline, which is generally in January. Students applying through regular decision hear back from colleges in mid-to-late March or early April.

Rolling admissions

In addition to the standard deadlines, some colleges have a rolling admissions policy. With rolling admissions, schools evaluate applications as they are received and release decisions on an ongoing basis. 

These colleges may have priority filing dates, but they continue accepting applications until all incoming class spots are filled.

Considering financial aid implications

When deciding on application timing, it's essential to consider the significance of financial aid.

For many families, financial aid plays a significant role in college affordability. 

If acquiring sufficient aid is a concern, experts recommend choosing non-binding deadlines like EA and regular decision. Opting for non-binding deadlines allows families to compare offers from multiple schools before making a final decision.

It's worth noting that for regular decision deadlines, students typically have until May 1 to decide which college they will attend and pay an enrollment deposit. This gives students ample time to carefully weigh their options and make an informed choice.

Related: How to find and obtain college scholarships and financial aid

Choosing the right college application platform

With various college application platforms available, students must select the one that best suits their needs and preferences. 

Common Application

One of the most popular choices is the Common App, accepted by over 900 colleges, including some international schools. 

The Common App allows students to complete one application and submit it to multiple colleges, streamlining the process. However, some Common App schools have supplemental sections with additional essay questions, so students should budget time for additional writing.

Coalition App

Another option is the Coalition App, a newer platform accepted by over 150 schools. The Coalition Application aims to provide a student-centered approach to the application process, encouraging students to begin their college journey early in high school. 

Common Black College App (CBCA)

Additionally, the Common Black College Application is accepted by over 65 historically black colleges and universities, offering an efficient way for students to apply to multiple HBCUs.

In some cases, colleges may have their own application platforms, such as the University of California system. Students can apply to multiple campuses within the UC system using this application. 

Students should visit each college's website to determine which application platforms they accept. The Common App, Coalition Application, and CBCA websites also provide lists of partner schools.

Crafting an impactful college essay

One of the most significant components of the college application is the essay, often referred to as a personal statement. Colleges usually require students to submit at least one writing sample, and there is typically a word limit. For example, the Common App's maximum essay word count is 650 words, with a minimum of 250.

The college application essay prompts are broad and open-ended, challenging students to showcase their uniqueness and personality. 

Experts advise students to tell a compelling story about themselves, focusing on their individuality rather than merely listing impressive accomplishments.

The essay offers a valuable opportunity for applicants to demonstrate their writing skills, critical thinking, and passion for learning. It is a chance to provide admissions officers with a deeper understanding of who the student is beyond their academic achievements.

Understanding the key components of a college application

In addition to the essay, there are other critical components of a college application that prospective students should be prepared to tackle:

Personal information 

The application begins with a section where students provide basic information about themselves, their school, and their families.

High school transcript

Colleges request an official high school transcript, including a course record students have taken and their grades. Students typically submit a transcript request to their high school's counseling office, or they may use an online service if available.

Standardized test scores 

Many colleges require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores. However, the number of schools requiring standardized test scores has decreased in recent years, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic when testing centers were closed in some areas. 

Some colleges have become test-blind, meaning they do not consider test scores even if submitted. In contrast, others are test-optional, allowing students to decide whether to submit scores as part of their application.

It's important to note that while some colleges are test-optional, high test scores can still strengthen an application. Students should research each college's testing policy and consider submitting scores if they believe they will positively impact their application.

Students taking the SAT are allowed four free score reports every time they register for the exam. Similarly, ACT test-takers can send their scores to up to four colleges at no cost. Students should take advantage of these options to send scores to their desired colleges.

Letters of recommendation

Many colleges require two to three letters of recommendation from teachers or counselors. These are people who know the students well and can provide insight into their academic abilities and personal qualities. 

To receive strong recommendation letters, students should approach their advisors well in advance of the application deadline and provide them with a copy of their resume to cover all relevant aspects.

Additionally, students may wonder if submitting a resume is necessary when some college applications offer an optional upload. While some application platforms allow for an optional resume, much of the information typically found in a resume is covered in other parts of the application. 

For instance, the activities section often requests details about awards, work experiences, and extracurricular activities. Students should use this section to showcase their involvement outside of the classroom, including sports, clubs, community service, and part-time employment.

Obtaining college application fee waivers

For students from low-income families, the cost of college applications can be a significant financial burden. Fortunately, there are several options for obtaining fee waivers for college applications.

SAT or ACT fee waivers

Students who received fee waivers for the SAT or ACT may also be eligible for college application fee waivers. The College Board automatically sends fee waivers to eligible students. While not all schools accept these waivers, many do.

ACT fee waiver request

The ACT offers a fee waiver request form that students and school counselors can fill out and send to colleges. The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) also offers a fee waiver request form.

Requesting a fee waiver within the college application

Some college applications, including the Common App, allow students to request a fee waiver directly within the application. Eligible students should take advantage of this option when available.

Other fee waiver opportunities

Some colleges waive application fees for students participating in instant decision day events or during free application periods in certain states. Applicants should be on the lookout for these opportunities to save on application costs.

Selecting the right college for you

Once you have heard back from colleges with their decisions, it is time to pick the right college for you. You should consider factors such as location, financial aid packages, academics, and extracurriculars offered.

Additionally, visit the campus in person, if possible, before making a decision. This will help you get a feel for the environment and make sure that it aligns with what you are looking for.

Talk to current students who attend the college you are interested in. They can provide insights into the culture and student life on campus. This will help you ensure the school is a good fit for your needs and interests.

Finally, consider if you would like to pursue an internship or research opportunity while at college. Be sure to research the resources offered at each school to make sure they will help you reach your career goals.

Final word

The college application process is a critical time for high school seniors. By understanding the different types of application deadlines, selecting the right application platform, crafting a compelling college essay, preparing key components of the application, exploring fee waiver opportunities, and considering college visits (either in person or virtually), students can approach the application process with confidence and make informed decisions about their future educational journey.

Remember to start early, stay organized, seek support from your school counselor and mentors, and take advantage of the resources available to ensure a successful college application experience. Good luck on your journey to finding the perfect college!