How to Apply for College – Undergraduate Admissions

So you are interested in applying for college and have no idea where to start? This guide is meant to be general, as all programs have different admissions requirements. As this is not an exhaustive list, please be sure to check the specifics of your university/college/program to be sure that you have covered all the required components of their specific application.

(1) Figure out the best time to apply

Before you go any further, you should consider what semester you should apply for. Most programs traditionally start their admissions cycles in the fall. The fall is considered the beginning of the academic calendar year – a calendar year goes from fall to summer, so for example, fall 2021 to summer 2022 is the 2021-2022 academic year. While many colleges now have fall, spring, and summer admissions, oftentimes it is still advisable to consider waiting for the traditional fall start. The reason for this? If you are interested in scholarships or other financial aid opportunities, most are dispersed with the traditional fall start in mind. So, while you may be able to start your program sooner by entering into spring or summer semesters, you may be limiting your financial aid opportunities.

(2) Prepare for and take the ACT/SAT

Most universities still require the oft considered by those of us who work in higher education archaic form of standardized testing. If you are considering multiple universities/colleges/programs, then it is advisable to take the ACT and/or SAT test as soon as possible and have it sent to all institutions you are considering applying for. It is free to send your scores on the day you test, but will cost you money to forward those scores at a later date. Note that due to COVID-19, many institutions are waving the ACT/SAT requirement, so be sure to check with your particular school to see whether they are following suit.

For more information on the ACT:

For more information on the SAT:

(3) Find suitable recommenders and ask them if they can give you a good recommendation

Recommendation letters are so important and often the portion of the application that is most overlooked by the student. Every university/college/program has different requirements for how many recommendations you should have and whether they be purely academic and/or supervisory or another type of professional reference. But, regardless of how many you need (if recommendations are needed, it’s usually around 2 or 3) and of what type (i.e., academic, supervisory, etc.), it is important to find someone who can write you a good recommendation lettergood being the key term here.

There are some rules of etiquette when asking if someone can provide you with a recommendation letter. Note that most universities have an online application portal that you will need to input your recommenders’ information into. Once you save/submit that portion of your application, the recommenders will be sent a notification of your request via email. It is important that you give them a head’s up prior to sending off this automatically generated link. The reason for this? (1) Your recommender may not send in a recommendation without a request directly from the student. (2) Those links are often sent to spam, so the recommender may have to search for them. (3) Most programs will want the recommendation letter tailored to them, so it’s important for you to reach out to your recommenders to let them know the program you are applying for, why you think you would be a good fit, and also to remind them of who you are. If your recommender is an instructor whom you had five years ago, for example, he or she may need reminded as to who you are and how you did in his/her class. So, send them a copy of your transcript to remind them of the class(es) you were in with them.

Finally, and most importantly: make sure to ask the recommender whether he/she can give you a good letter of recommendation. Usually recommenders will discard recommendation requests if they do not feel they can provide a good recommendation, or they will just tell the applicant, “No.” However, there are those who will write bad letters of recommendation and you will likely never know, unless you did not waive your right to view your recommendation.

A note on waiving your right to view recommendations, or Waiver of Access (FERPA): always, always, always waive your write to view your recommendation letter. This is one of the first rules of etiquette when it comes to recommendation letters. Many recommenders will not submit a recommendation without your doing so and many universities will disregard your application otherwise, as your recommendations may not be considered to be candid and truthful.

This is why it is so important for the student to be discerning when choosing recommenders and how they approach the recommendation letter all together. A bad recommendation letter is perhaps the biggest red flag in an application and grounds for immediate rejection.

(4) Transcripts

You will need to send in your high school transcripts as well as any college transcripts if you are a transfer student or if you took dual-enrollment classes as a high school student at a different college than those you are applying for. Many applications will allow you to submit and have conditional consideration based off of an unofficial copy of your transcripts. For full admission, however, you will eventually need to send in your final official high school transcripts. Make sure you wait until after you graduate to send in a copy of your official transcript with the date the degree was conferred listed.

(5) Grades and Grade Point Average (GPA)

Depending on when you are applying for college, you may or may not have ample time to get your Grade Point Average (GPA) up. Make sure to focus on your grades, particularly your cumulative GPA, throughout the entirety of high school and in every semester that you are in college. The GPA is probably the number one consideration when it comes to a general understanding of the student’s academic capabilities and potential for college success. I would recommend aiming for a GPA of at the very least a 3.0 (which is a B average), but the closer to a 4.0 (A average) the better. That said, more colleges are admitting students with lower GPA’s due to a push for higher enrollment numbers. That said, if your cumulative GPA is below a 2.5 (C average), you may have difficulty being admitted into a traditional 4 year program.

If you are determined to go to college, however, don’t let your GPA be a deterrent! There are ways around the GPA requirement. For example, make sure the rest of your application is glowing. Ask the universities/colleges/programs you are interested in if they allow for exceptions or conditional admission. Finally, don’t rule out attending a community college and then transferring at a later date. Many of the best college students I have worked with had low high school GPA’s. It is just one marker – and not always an accurate one – of college success.

(6) Writing Sample – College Essay

Most all universities/colleges/programs require at least one writing sample – generally, a college essay. This is your chance to speak directly to the Admissions Committee as to why you want to go to college; what makes you a good candidate; and why you are interested in the university/college/program. As such, you want to be sure you tailor your essay to each specific college you are applying for, noting why that program is the ideal program for you and why you are the ideal student for the program. This essay will likely have a page limit as well as formatting specifications that you will want to be sure to follow. If you want to really impress the university/college/program you are applying for: if there are not specifications for formatting, try to follow either MLA, APA, or Chicago Style. Most high schools do not teach appropriate styles of writing, so if you are wanting to be an English major, try writing your essay in MLA; or if you want to be in the sciences, try your hand at APA. Not all Admissions Committees are considering writing styles, but some might and that could give you an edge over other applicants.

No matter what: be sure to write from the heart in a reflective way to really gain the attention of the committee and follow all prompts required by your specific program.

(7) Resume

Not all universities/colleges/programs require a resume, but it may still be optional. I would recommend uploading your resume if optional. Be sure it is up-to-date and that you have listed all of your extracurricular activities as well, including any academic clubs or organizations you may be a part of.

(8) The Common Application

Depending on where you are planning on applying, you may find completing a common application like the Common App or Coalition Application beneficial. These application services allow you to submit one application that can then be sent to multiple programs. Not all schools accept this form of application, however. You will want to check what programs accept common applications such as the two popular aforementioned options – you can also check their websites for a list of affiliated schools.

(9) Application Fees

Most applications have an associated submission fee, the price of which varies by program. However, there are many situations in which you can get this fee waived: (1) the program itself may have a code that they provide to try to encourage submission at various times throughout the year. Check with your program to see if they have a waiver code. You may also get such a code for visiting the school or applying online versus through a paper application. Also, consider submitting your information to receive special notifications – if you are on the mailing list, you will be one of the first to be notified about possible waivers. (2) If you are active military, you may be eligible for a waiver code. (3) If you are over 65 years old, you may be eligible for not only an application waiver, but reduced or waived tuition – check with your individual program. (4) If you have financial need, you may be eligible for a waiver. (5) The ACT, SAT, and the NACAC National College Fairs can also grant application fee waivers. For the ACT waiver, you will need a high school official to sign the form indicating financial hardship as outlined in ACT guidelines. Talk with your High School Guidance Counselor about this option.

ACT Application Fee Waiver Form:

(The ACT Application Fee Waiver Information is not easily found on their website, so I suggest checking this independent site of which I have no affiliation:

SAT Application Fee Waiver Information:

NACAC Application Fee Waiver Information:

I know applying for college can be stressful, but I hope this guide helps demystify the process for you. Though there are many components, if you break them down into manageable pieces and start the process early – ideally, you should start working on this mid- to late-junior year – you can absolutely complete the process with ease. Work with your high school Guidance Counselor and with college Admissions Officers to help you through this process.

You can do it! I believe in you.

As always, if you have any questions/concerns related to higher education that I can help with, please feel free to contact me!

-Your Academic Advisor


Update – November 26, 2020

Happy Thanksgiving and soon to be end of the fall 2020 semester!

I am excited to announce that I have started a YouTube channel, the first video of which you can access, HERE! At this point, I am not certain how often I will be posting, but I am going to try to update blogs once every other week and YouTube videos once a month.

The next blog and video will be on financial aid, so stay tuned!

As always, if you have any suggestions for topics to cover or questions about navigating higher education, please contact me by visiting my Contact Page, HERE.

Stay safe and healthy.

Your Academic Advisor

Fall 2020 College Return: Navigating the “New Normal”

Fall 2020 has arrived and it is likely nothing that you expected your college experience to be.

After months of uncertainty, universities are returning to campus, converting to online, or some hybrid blend of the two. If you keep up with Inside Higher Ed or the Chronicle of Higher Education, or just the general news, you know that for those colleges attempting an in-person or hybrid format, there is still uncertainty about how to move forward with COVID-19 testing, liability waivers, classroom layouts and instruction, dorm life, cafeteria layouts, etc. And even if your college or university is confident in their approach to the campus reopening plan, students returning are still adjusting to wearing masks and maintaining 6 feet distance from their peers.

I cannot even begin to claim any sort of expertise in regard to what you should expect moving forward, but I can tell you that it is highly likely that classes will again be moved fully-online within the next month, if your particular college or university has not yet done so. Even with testing, following health standards and regulations by wearing masks and maintaining distance, we are (perhaps unsurprisingly) seeing what is being referred to as “clusters” of COVID-19 cases popping up at universities that just recently reopened – particularly in dorms, fraternity/sorority houses, and other student housing on- and off-campus.

The most recent and reported example of this is the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which will be moving to remote learning starting tomorrow.

(Note that Notre Dame just suspended in-person class as I am writing this.)

Of course, the general response from all sides has been one of frustration. It is pretty safe to assume at this point that no university reopening plan was going to be well-received by everyone, but in this author’s humble opinion: though it is understandably disappointing, especially for students, a remote classroom learning model is the safest option for everyone (faculty, student, staff, and administrators alike). I also think it’s equally safe to say that no one is surprised that these COVID-19 clusters are occurring. It seems a bit naive to think that young people away from home in close proximity to other young people are not going to attend gatherings and have a good time with a disregard for health and safety regulations. The social aspect of higher education is just as relevant to the in-person college experience as attending class. If students are going to be allowed to return to campus then it is inevitable that those students are going to interact with one another and, in all likelihood, be in contact with at least one student who is infected with COVID-19, thus initiating the spread.

(If anyone is uncertain as to how infectious diseases spread and would like an accurate visual depiction, I suggest watching the movie Contagion.)

But since I am not here to implement scare-tactics to encourage you to consider moving to fully online classes, which is my personal and profession recommendation, I will give you some advice for how to move forward with in-person learning and on-campus living that will minimize your risk of catching and/or spreading the virus:

(1) Wear a mask. For your safety and for the safety of others, when you are outside of your dorm room or the cafeteria, wear your mask. Most universities are mandating this, but have limited ways of enforcing it. That said, just because you may be able to get away with not wearing a mask without negative repercussions, it is the safe, smart, and responsible thing to do for yourself and others.

(2) Maintain 6 Feet Distance. This is a hard one even for me. When I walk to Starbucks with my coworkers, I rarely think twice about being next to them. I understand that when you are with your friends the last concern is whether you or they are infected. But try to maintain distance for your and their safety.

(3) Sanitize/Wash Your Hands. According to, we touch our face an average of 16 times per hour. That equates a lot of opportunity for you to spread infection from contaminated surfaces to yourself – so wash your hands for at least 20 seconds and/or use an at least 60% alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

(4) Sanitize your space. Most colleges and universities are disinfecting classrooms daily, but in my opinion, it is important to keep your desk space clean. If you have them, bring antibacterial wipes with you to class and wipe down your desk area. (Note that many colleges are also providing wipes.) In a pinch, use your hand sanitizer.

(5) If you or someone you have been in contact with has been diagnosed with COVID-19: Quarantine. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you should quarantine at home for 14 days and avoid contact with others.

(6) If you cough or sneeze, try to do so in a tissue and throw it away.

For more information on these tips, please check out the CDC website.

Additional suggestions to the more common ones listed above are:

(7) If you are not feeling well or around anyone not feeling well: Quarantine. Work with your college and/or individual instructors to see if you can utilize remote learning for a week or two while you quarantine as a safety precaution. Trust me, if you tell a faculty member that you are not feeling well and do not want to chance coming to class, he/she will most likely appreciate your concern for him/her as well as your fellow peers, and will accommodate you as much as possible.

(8) If available to you, get tested frequently. A baseline test is a good starting place, but ultimately not very helpful if you are in constant contact with people on- or off-campus. I would personally suggest testing every couple of weeks at least, but some colleges have implemented required testing every two days, which I think is preferable. Even if it is not a requirement of your particular college, I personally recommend testing often.

(9) Avoid traveling. Many colleges are implementing travel restrictions, but I personally suggest you avoid going back home to visit your family and friends with any amount of frequency. Stay on campus or around campus for the duration of your semester. This helps not only protect your family/friends from possible exposure, but also helps prevent you potentially returning to campus and infecting your roommates, friends, professors, etc.

I realize it is not realistic to expect you to not engage with your peers or not occasionally visit home, but please do so safely and responsibly for yourself, for them, and for your faculty and college staff.

Be safe. Be smart. Be responsible. And try to make the most of your college experience, despite this unfortunate circumstance.

Regardless, I wish you a successful, happy, and healthy semester!

Your Academic Advisor