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


Preparing for College in the 2020-2021 Academic Year

So you want to go to college starting fall 2020? That’s great news – congratulations! You have picked a perfect time to make this very important decision, which is the first step. That said, know that, academically speaking, you’re a little late to the game. You may find that most scholarships have been dispersed. If you are applying to graduate programs, most Graduate Assistantships (GAs), Teaching Assistantships (TAs) and Research Assistantships (RAs) have been determined. There are also a number of programs that are no longer accepting applications, as the deadlines have passed. If you decided on attending an in-person or hybrid (i.e., partly in-person, partly online) program, you may find that there are more online components than you expect this fall, due to COVID-19 – we’re still not sure.

But fret not! I am here to help break down next steps for you:

(1) Apply to the college/university/program

If you haven’t completed this first step, it is essential that you do so ASAP. Most colleges/universities have set deadlines. Depending on the program and the college/university, you may find them to be flexible. This is especially true now, as most administrators are anticipating lower enrollment numbers for this academic year. There are also usually a number of necessary components to the application, such as the required informational forms, personal statement, writing sample(s), resume, and letters of recommendation. These all take time to complete, so it is important to use this time in self-isolation to focus on writing and completing the application.

Helpful Tip #1: If the application deadline has already passed, be sure to contact the college/university/department you are wanting to apply to in order to see if they are still accepting applications. This year especially, I suspect that application deadlines are going to be flexible.

Helpful Tip #2: Be sure to line up your recommenders in advance! During these uncertain times especially, be sure to give your recommenders plenty of time to submit their letters of recommendation. Also, make sure that you ask appropriate people to be your recommenders – this includes faculty, supervisors, and other professional references. Do NOT ask family, friends, counselors, or pastoral references (unless you are applying for a degree that is in relation to seminary/theology and you have volunteer experience, or something of that nature, at your church).

(2) Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

It is not required that you accept any loan money that is offered, but I think it is extremely important to at least have your FAFSA on file for the academic years that you plan on being enrolled, regardless as to whether you are an undergraduate or graduate student. Remember, an academic year is from fall to summer, so the 2019-2020 academic year started in fall 2019 and will end after the summer 2020 term. Yes, it is a tedious process, but well worth it, as you will not be considered for grant money (if you are an undergraduate student – graduate students are not eligible), cannot apply for Federal Work Study positions, some scholarships, etc. without it.

Helpful Tip #3: If you are also under 24 years of age, you may also need to have your parents’ financial information to submit the FAFSA. (Some exceptions to this include being married, orphaned, a vet, having children, or if you are emancipated from your parents.)

Helpful Tip #4: Make sure to have all of your (and your parents’) financial and personal information ready – this includes items such as Social Security numbers, birthdays, W-2 information, and bank account information.

(3) Check for available scholarships

Unless you (or your parents) are independently wealthy or you have a full-ride from athletics, academics, etc., you are likely in need of some college funds. Keep in mind, most scholarship applications open and close well in advance of the application deadline. Scholarship applications are usually also separate from the application. That said, never be too proud to inquire whether you can still submit your application. Know that scholarships are often dependent on qualifying factors, such as your grade point average (GPA); Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which is determined by the FAFSA; your gender, nationality, race, sexuality, etc.; talents, including musical, athletic, theatrical etc.; area of interest – you get the idea.

Helpful Tip #5: Consider ALL sources. This includes your place of employment, your parents’ place of employment, and other sources within your college. For example, don’t just look at the program’s scholarship page, but the college/university as well. If you are applying for a graduate program, check to see if it is housed in a Graduate School at the college/university. If so, check the Graduate School’s funding page.

Helpful Tip #6: Contact the college/university’s Financial Aid Office for assistance. They can also help inform you as to any available funding.

Helpful Tip #7: Check external scholarship websites. These are usually free databases (some have paid services) with a variety of scholarship opportunities available, that are complied from a variety of sources. Some good starting places would be:

Helpful Tip #8: Do NOT take out private loans unless absolutely necessary! My biggest piece of advice is stay away from private lenders. The interest rates are higher than federal student loans and they are far less forgiving or open to forbearance, deferments, income-based repayment, etc. Learn from my mistake and avoid private loans at all costs.

(4) Make sure you have a place to live and/or a stable internet connection

Again, with COVID-19, it is hard to predict how Resident Life will be impacted. It might not be, but I always say hope for the best, prepare for the worst. If you have chosen to attend an in-person program, make sure you have your living situation figured out (i.e., whether you plan to live on- or off-campus). If you have decided to live on-campus, check to see whether you need a meal plan and, if so, what plan options best suit you. Also, be considering items you will need to purchase for your dorm – I plan to publish a separate post on this in the future.

If you are in a hybrid or online program, be sure you have a stable internet connection as well as access to (and capability of using) the appropriate programs/software. Most hybrid/online programs utilize programs like Moodle, Blackboard, Canvas, etc. as well as video conferencing software such as skype or zoom. Your success in the program will be dependent upon your having the technology to access these interfaces.

Regardless as to whether you are in-person, hybrid, or online, you will be expected to use the Microsoft Office Suite, such as Word and Excel. So, be prepared to utilize technology.

(5) Once you have been admitted (Congratulations!), you will need to register for classes.

Check to see first whether you have been assigned an academic or faculty advisor. If so, they should be reaching out to you to schedule your courses and/or sending communications on how to do so. If not, you will want to check the Registrar’s webpage for instructions. In order to receive a GA, TA, RA, or work-study position, you will need to be registered for classes. Do not be afraid to ask your department/college/university for help!

(6) Lastly, make sure to know who you will be working with

Find out who your advisors/counselors (i.e., academic, financial aid, etc.) are. Also, know who the Chair, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Students/Graduate Students, and Dean of your department/college are. It is also good to know who your Dean of Student Success, Registrar, Provost, and President are – it is unlikely you will ever be contacting the Provost or President, but you are about to be part of an institution, with a culture all its own. Don’t be afraid to show some school spirit and pride by knowing some history of your department/college/university, including who all the important players are.

Congratulations and good luck! Be sure to subscribe for more insider information.

Your Academic Advisor