How Do I Apply to College?

The logistics of how to apply to college are pretty straightforward. Fill out an application for a school you want to go to and sit back and wait for a response.

However, taking such a laid-back attitude to your post-secondary education won’t get you into the school you desire. Not only do you risk getting into a school you didn’t really want to, you also risk losing financial aid.

There's more to applying to college than just filling out an application.

There's more to applying to college than just filling out an application.

Let’s look at a high-level timeline of the things you need to do to prepare for applying to college.


8-10 – Evaluate your interests, think about long-term goals and career possibilities.

11Tour colleges, take tests and prep for college

12 – Prep for application, continue taking tests and narrow down college finalists

Grades 8-10

During grades 8, 9 and 10 you should plan to take courses that interest you and show colleges your interest in specific topics.

For example, if you have the choice of electives and can choose between sports, chemistry, and music, try to pick the one that most closely matches your long-term goals. Which will show colleges your desire to branch out and challenge yourself?

Grade 11

Once you hit your junior year in high school, the college prep work really begins. Your goal this year is to start feeling out colleges and potential majors. What majors interest you? What schools appeal to you? You’ll also want to start taking your SAT or ACT tests to get a baseline for which colleges may be willing to accept you.

It is highly recommended to take your SAT or ACT tests multiple times. You are likely to become more comfortable with the testing environment and test the more you take it. Many students will plan to take their tests at least three times.

You should also start to narrow down your top college picks. Many advisors will recommend finding five to six colleges you’ll want to apply to. Two that are shoo-ins, a few “ideal” schools and a few that may be a bit out of your range.

To help find ideal colleges and majors for you, sign up for a account. From here you can create your College Match profile. You can enter any information that is relevant to you such as degree type, room and board, college size, finances, location and many other categories.

Once you enter the information important to you, College Factual will return top picks for majors and colleges for you to start exploring.  In the spring and summer of your junior year, plan to start visiting your top picks.

Use the summer after junior year to start preparing for your college application. Plan to give yourself at least three months to put everything together. This will include your test scores, financial information, letters of recommendation and your personal essay.

The more time you have to prepare, the more time you will have to put some polish on your application and supporting materials.

Below are some tasks you should plan on doing throughout your junior year:

  • September-November – take your SAT or ACT test to see where you pan out
  • September-April – research schools and find your top picks
  • March – consider taking the SAT or ACT again
  • April-July – plan for and attend campus tours of your top schools
  • May – ask for letters of recommendation
  • July – start writing your personal essay

Grade 12

Ah… senior year. You’ve probably been looking forward to this year for a long time. After this, you’ll be out there in the real world ready to face whatever challenges come your way. This year needs to be focused on getting into your top picks for college.

Take your SAT or ACT test one last time and start filling out school applications. Check to see the requirements for how to apply to each college but if you are lucky, one or more schools will use the Common Application. The Common App allows you to create one application which will be accepted at multiple colleges. Be sure to take note of your top pick’s deadlines.

By the end of your senior year, you will have heard back from colleges and have had the opportunity to accept a college.

Don’t rush to accept the first application you receive. Be sure to compare financial aid offers and carefully weigh the pros and cons of each school. Be sure to reply by the deadline – typically May 1st of your decision.

Below are some tasks you should plan on doing throughout your senior year:

  • September – consider taking the SAT or ACT one last time.
  • November Deadline – Applying in November is part of the “early decision” or “early action” process. If you have a strong record and want to beat other students to the punch, apply now for a decision in December.
  • December Admissions Decision – students who applied in November in hopes of getting an early decision should hear back in December.
  • January Deadline – Considered “regular decision”, students looking to apply with most students will apply in January.
  • January – complete your FAFSA application
  • April Admissions Decision – students applying for the regular decision deadline in January will hear back in April.
  • May – most schools will require you reply by May 1st with your decision

Ready to start narrowing down your college list to the options that are the best fit for you? Try our free college-matching tool, College Matcher.