The Complete College Application Guide
A helpful step-by-step guide to college applications.
College application prep can be a stressful time for both students and parents, with a seemingly never ending to-do list. But it's manageable, so long as you can stay organised, break down the process of applying to a college, and take it one step at a time. That’s why we’ve put together this helpful guide of timelines, application deadlines, and helpful resources to help you.
For starters, we’re assuming you've already taken the time and done your research on university programs and know where and what you want to study. If you're not quite there yet, start here to search through and find college programs that are a good fit for you.
College Application Documents
While you’re getting ready for admissions tests, you can start gathering all of the miscellaneous documents that universities will need for their applications. These can vary from school to school, but usually include many of the following documents.
- High School Transcript - This is the document that has all of your final grades from secondary or high school.
- Admission Test Scores - Once you take your required admissions tests, these scores will be added to your admissions packet.
- Personal Essay - A personal essay is almost always a key component to a university application, and is a chance for you to give a face to your application. This is the place where you really want to let your background, your history, and your personality shine through.
- Letter of Recommendation - Letters of recommendation aren’t always necessary, but personal recommendations from previous teachers, coaches, or other notable community members can help you stand out more.
- Portfolio - A portfolio may be necessary if you plan to pursue a degree in the humanities, such as visual art, dance or music. It can also be required if you're trying to get a scholarship for participating in a sport or activity that would require a portfolio.
If you’re interested in studying in the US, there are two main admissions tests for undergraduates: the ACT (American College Testing) and the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test). Both of these are standardised tests that take approximately three hours to complete. The scores that you make on these tests play a large role in determining the type of school you’re admitted to. Some universities only accept scores above a certain threshold, but having a high score will most definitely improve your chances of being accepted.
Because these tests are such a critical part of the overall application process, it's important to study beforehand to make sure that you’re well prepared. There are no shortage of college prep courses and practice tests to help you study, but some of the more popular options are:
- ACT Test Prep - Where you can find test questions; take practice tests; and participate in online reviews.
- Collegeboard SAT Prep - Where you can find SAT practice tests; download daily practice apps for the SAT; and answer sample questions.
If you're planning to study in the UK, Canada, or elsewhere, there are a range of different admissions tests you may be required to take. Each university will have specific requirements, so make sure to do your research on which admission test you will need to take.
The personal essay is arguably one of the most important aspects of the college application, if for no other reason than it helps admissions officers put a face to the name on the application they’re reviewing. Personal Essays offer students a chance to really stand out, so it’s a great opportunity to impress the admissions team.
Personal essay requirements can vary. Sometimes, students are allowed to pick their own topic at random. Other times, students are given a choice of topics to use as a prompt for their essay. Oftentimes, topics centre around students’ background and history; personal challenges faced by students and how they overcame them; or recalling an accomplishment or failure and how that affected them.
Keep in mind, these essays aren’t only a chance for students to give a little personal history. They’re also an opportunity to show off writing skills and also your ability to think critically and process information, both of which are important skills to showcase to admissions officers.
Common topics for personal essays include:
- Recount a time that you’ve experienced failure. What did you learn from it?
- Describe a personal achievement and how you were able to reach that goal.
- Share a time when a personal belief was challenged, and how you responded.
Many personal essays are capped at a short 600-800 words. That might seem like a lot, but it can be difficult to get across complex thoughts and ideas in that short of a space. With that said, it's a good idea to practice writing essays beforehand on a number of topics to give yourself enough time to write, re-write, and edit your writing before sending it off with your application.
Letter of Recommendation
A letter of recommendation isn’t always needed for a college application, but it certainly doesn’t hurt your chances. Recommendation letters can go a long way, especially if they’re written by a well-respected person in a position of authority, like a professor or employer. When you ask someone to write you a letter of recommendation, it can be helpful to give them a quick breakdown of your recent achievements, so that they have some guidelines when they’re recounting why you’d make such an excellent candidate for enrolment.
A letter of recommendation should cover a few points:
- It should give a quick overview of the person who is writing the letter of recommendation and how they are acquainted with you.
- It should detail some personal characteristics of you to help give admissions officers a well-rounded view of who you are as a person.
- It should include extracurricular activities, academics, interests, and/or volunteer work that you participate in.
- It should include your personal and academic accomplishments.
Another thing to note with recommendation letters is that you will not be able to review it beforehand. Most recommendation letters should be sent by the person writing it, in a sealed envelope. This means that you will need to shepherd the process along, making sure to let the person writing the recommendation know when the deadline for sending it is, along with the information for mailing it in. Some institutions will allow you to include the recommendation letter along with your application, so long as it’s in a sealed envelope. In that instance, make sure that you give teachers or bosses plenty of time to prepare and write your recommendation letter. Two to three weeks should be enough time.
Admissions Officer Interview
An interview with one of the college’s admissions officers is another application extra that can really go a long way. Keep in mind that most admissions officers never see or speak to an applicant before making a decision, so taking advantage of an opportunity to sit down with someone can significantly increase your chances of acceptance. There are usually two types of admissions interviews: the first is an in-person interview and the second is a video interview (usually on a platform like Skype). Video interviews can be ideal for international students who may not be able to jet halfway across the world to speak to an admissions officer. If you can, however, schedule an in-person visit to see a campus, you should absolutely set up an admissions interview.
If you set up an in-person admissions interview, make sure you take the following steps:
- Dress up for the occasion. Business casual (a suit for men and a suit or skirt and blouse for women is acceptable). Wear formal shoes and look your best. Your goal is to make a good first impression.
- Prepare for your interview by researching the school, the programs you want to study, and any other notable facts about the university. You’re trying to show the admissions officer how much you want to attend this school, so be knowledgeable about their programs, their campus, and their history.
- Practice your interview questions. There are always a handful of standard interview questions that admissions officers will ask prospective students. Prepare answers ahead of time and have a friend or family members ask you them so that you can practice stating your answers. This will help you minimise any awkward pauses or silences, and help you sound well-informed, confident, and articulate in your interview.
To practice, write answers to the following standard interview questions and use these to prepare with friends and family:
- Why do you want to attend this university?
- What do you feel you will bring to our college and campus?
- What are your academic and career goals? What do you want to be doing in 10 years?
- What do you want to get out of your university experience?
- How do you define success?
- What is your greatest strength and your greatest weakness?
- What is your biggest personal achievement?
- What is the most important thing you've learned so far about yourself?
Popular College Application Deadlines
Finally, you need to be aware of the application deadlines for colleges. School deadlines vary by institution, but many have adopted rolling deadlines, which means that applications are accepted on a first come, first serve basis. You can see some of the more popular college application deadlines below. If the school you’re interested in isn’t listed below, you can take a look at our database of schools to find more information.
Now that you’ve gotten all of your documents together, you’re ready to start on your applications! Lucky for you, SchoolApply makes it super easy. We offer one standard application that lets you apply to up to five schools at once. Get started here to see how easy we make applying for school.