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