Ultimate College Application Guide

Katy Tripses

Putting together a college application can be intimidating, to say the least. After all, this is perhaps your biggest decision to date.

And while applying is pretty similar across most universities, each school will have its own set of specific requirements, making for a tricky and time-consuming process.

Preparing college applications can feel overwhelming, and staying organized is paramount.
Preparing college applications can feel overwhelming, and staying organized is paramount.

These requirements will likely include your transcript, an essay, letters of recommendation, details about any activities you’re involved in, and more. With all of these different parts, it can easily become overwhelming.

But by staying organized and carefully going through each part of the process step-by-step, you’ll find that completing a college application is a perfectly doable process.

Here we’ll break down all of the common asks for a college application and the steps you need to take to complete them.

Getting Started

The starting point of a college application may be the hardest part because it’s the point when you realize how much work this is actually going to be.

But this is also the stage at which you can start to break down all of the tasks you need to do and get yourself organized.

Start by making a list of every school you plan on applying to.

You can do this in any style you choose- in a notebook, an excel spreadsheet, or on a giant poster board. Pick a process that works for you and will help you stay the most organized.

Under each school name, list out all of the requirements for an application. Be sure to read through the details carefully so you don’t miss anything.

Next to each of these requirements, write down the date each is due.

Most schools will require you to turn in everything at once, but in some cases, there will be specialized deadlines such as early decision applications or applications for specialized programs. You’ll want to be sure to be aware of any and all college application deadlines that apply to you so you’re aware of the timeline you have to work with.

Next, look and see what steps, if any, each school requires after you’ve submitted an application. For instance, some colleges might require that you schedule an interview after you’ve hit submit.

Other schools won’t have any next steps and instead will reach out to you with a decision. Either way, this is information you’ll want to have upfront so you’re not missing anything.

Once you’ve done this, you might have something that looks like this:

Again, feel free to use any format that works best for you!

Application requirements are generally listed on the Admissions section of a university’s website. Schools will also have contact information listed if any information posted isn’t clear or if you’re looking for more information on their specific application process.

Parts of a College Application

Like we mentioned above, most universities have similar requirements that make up their applications. Here we’ll break down the most common application elements.

The Application Form

The application form is where you’ll fill out basic details about yourself. Think information like your full name, your date of birth, your contact information, your citizenship or residency information, and more.

This is typically done through an online form and may require specific documents like a copy of your immunization records.

It’s incredibly important that you carefully read through all of the questions to make sure you answer everything fully and correctly as a simple mistake can be enough to mess up your whole application.

If you’re unsure about any of the questions listed out on the application, be sure to reach out to the admissions team at the school you’re applying to.

This part of the process is nearly identical across all colleges and can feel overly repetitive when you’re applying to multiple schools. Thankfully, there are programs out there that allow you to complete one application and submit it to multiple colleges.

The Common Application, the Coalition for College, or the Universal College Application are all programs that are accepted by many colleges located in the U.S.

However, you still need to keep in mind there may be additional individual requirements outside of the application for each school.

The Personal Essay

College application essays give you an opportunity to show admissions teams a little more about your personal character and your personal strengths.

For many students, the essay is one of the most stressful parts of the application process because of the amount of work that goes into it.

The college application essay is often be the most difficult part for many students, and you
The college application essay is often be the most difficult part for many students, and you're frequently required to write multiple versions.

College essay format and requirements often vary by school so be sure to pay close attention and read through the instructions fully and carefully.

For instance, some schools will provide you with a specific prompt to write about while others will give you the option to choose a topic on your own. Additionally, keep in mind that some schools may require multiple, shorter essays while others will require only one.

Always be sure to pay especially close attention to the requirements of each essay such as the word count and whether or not you need to include sources.

The good news is that there are plenty of tools available that can help you put together a strong college application essay that will stand out to admissions teams.

First, consider checking out university websites. That’s right! Don’t forget that a lot of helpful information can be found on your prospective school’s admissions page.

Other tools you might consider include:

  • AP Study Notes
    Includes past examples of strong college application essays.
  • Word Counter
    Helps ensure you meet and don’t exceed length requirements. The tool also includes a grammar checking tool to help you spot any errors in your writing.
  • Stormboard
    Lets you build mind maps so you can visually plan out your essay.
  • Storytoolz
    Includes several tools for writers, including a title generator and essay topic generator.
  • Quetext
    Though you may not intentionally include someone else’s work in your writing, it can still happen. This tool double checks that your work is all your own. Better safe than sorry!
  • Shmoop
    Has a page dedicated specifically to college essays. Allows you to enter in your essay prompt and then walks you through all of the steps you need to do, from your outline to your finished, fully edited product.
  • Grammarly
    Grammarly checks for spelling and grammar errors as you write. It also will provide you with synonyms and other suggestions to make your writing as strong as possible.
  • Hemingway
    Helps ensure your writing is perfectly clear. Hemingway looks out for those writing no-no’s that aren’t always so easy to catch, like passive voice. It will also tell you which grade level you’re writing.
  • Citation Generator
    Not all college essays will require you to include sources. But in the instance they do, this tool can help you build out citations without any problem.
  • Thesis Statement Generator
    In some cases, you may be required to state a thesis in your essay. Kibin’s generator tool will help you create a strong thesis statement.
  • Conclusion Generator
    Conclusions can sometimes be the hardest section of an essay to write. But this tool will help you put one together in no time.

The Transcript

Your transcript is a key part of your application. Here, you’ll be able to show not only the grades you’ve earned during high school but also the classes you’ve taken to challenge yourself.

One of the most important parts to remember about this step is that most colleges you’re applying to will want an official version of your high school transcript. This means you’ll need to request your high school send copies directly to all of the schools you’re applying to.

Keep in mind: In most cases, you won’t be able to send your transcript yourself.

Each college is different, but most will request to have them sent by mail or through email. Some universities will ask your high school to give you your transcript in a sealed envelope to send to them. In this case, it’s very important that you don’t open the envelope, as schools will no longer consider it to be an official transcript.

Before you ask for an official version, it’s not a bad idea to request an unofficial version so that you can check for any errors. Mistakes are rare, but it’s still a good idea to check things over just in case. You don’t want a computer error to be the reason your application process gets messed up.

When you request your transcript, be sure to specify whether you’re asking for an official or unofficial version of your transcript. Also let them know how many copies you need (remember, each school you’re applying to will need its own copy).

Last but not least, keep in mind that sending out an official transcript, particularly when done through the mail, isn’t an automated process. It can take some time. So be sure to request your transcript early on so that you ensure you meet all deadlines.

The Test Scores

Not all schools require you to take a standardized test before applying, but most will ask for either an ACT or SAT score.

For this section of the application process, your responsibility lies in studying for and taking the exam. And that in itself is a whole other article!

Test scores are an important element of your application—and remember, you can re-take a test until you achieve the score you want!
Test scores are an important element of your application—and remember, you can re-take a test until you achieve the score you want!

Be sure to know each and every school you’re applying to prior to walking into your test as you’ll need to tell the company where to send your score.

Also, keep in mind that there may be additional costs for submitting scores to schools. Both the SAT and ACT allow students to submit their scores to up to four colleges for no additional costs. But if you want to share your score with more than four universities, you’ll need to pay an additional fee. This is on top of the cost of taking the actual tests themselves.

Here’s a quick overview of the most common fees encountered during these tests:

Keep in mind there are also additional fees if you want to change the type of test you’re taking (no writing to writing or vice versa) as well as for waitlists or standbys.

In some cases, fee waivers are available.

To find full information on costs and other information, visit the ACT and SAT sites.

Your school will have a minimum score you need to reach in order to qualify for admission. Be sure to check out the admissions page for all schools you’re applying to before you take the test to help you understand how much you need to study.

There are also plenty of resources available to help students prepare for both the ACT and SAT exams. Both official testing sites include study materials as well as test-taking tips. Other resources you can check out include:

Keep in mind that taking a test doesn’t have to be a one and done. If you don’t get the score you need the first time, you can take it again!

You’re able to take both the SAT and ACT multiple times in order to try and achieve your goal score. The testing company will submit your updated scores to your schools if you score higher than the first time. If not, they’ll keep your original score.


Many schools typically ask students to submit two letters of recommendation as part of their overall application. This helps admissions committees see you more than just as a quantitative set of grades and test scores.

Recommendations should come from either teachers or counselors, and preferably those who are familiar with you.

Some schools will require the letters come from a teacher or a counselor because they particularly want insight into your student life. But many universities will allow the letter to come from others, like coaches, music teachers, tutors, and mentors.

It’s never too early to begin fostering relationships with your teachers so you can make sure you’ll have candidates who can accurately describe you and vouch for you when it comes time to ask for a recommendation.

Once again, don’t forget about college application deadlines here.

Keep in mind that teachers and counselors are busy and likely receive requests from students to write multiple recommendation letters. So it’s imperative to ask early not only to ensure you can have your letter in time but also out of courtesy to the person you’re asking.

Asking early also helps recommenders have time to put more thought and care into the letter, making it more likely you’ll receive a standout recommendation.

Ideally, you should know who you’re going to ask for a recommendation letter from by the end of your junior year.

Last but not least, don’t forget to thank everyone who writes a recommendation letter on your behalf!

Extracurriculars and Activities

Your application should be made up of more than just your student accomplishments; the activities you participated in outside of class are an important part as well.

They provide insight into your willingness to work hard and help you exhibit key skills admissions teams are looking for like leadership, time management, and others.

Extracurricular activities help round out your character and give admissions committees a more comprehensive overview of your abilities.
Extracurricular activities help round out your character and give admissions committees a more comprehensive overview of your abilities.

Most often this information will come in the form of a resume. You should include information such as what the activity was, how long you participated in it, and what skills you gained from doing it.

You’ll also want to be sure to call out any leadership positions you held and awards you earned. Standout information such as study abroad, secondary languages, or other specialized experiences or skills is also great to include.

Though not school related, family obligations or part-time work is also highly encouraged in this section as it shows how you’re able to juggle multiple obligations at once and still perform as a student.

Examples of activities to include:

  • Student government positions
  • Debate team
  • Music activities
  • Art activities
  • Sports
  • Drama club or productions
  • Internships
  • Part-time jobs
  • Family obligations
  • Study abroad experiences
  • Second languages
  • Cultural clubs
  • Volunteer work
  • Student journalism

Application Fees

Application fees are an often overlooked part of the process when students are planning out their applications.

However, it’s important to remember that nearly every school you apply to will require a fee to submit your application and it will be due at the time you submit. You can find this amount on your school’s admissions page.

Typically, application fees will cost anywhere from $50-$90 per application.

This is especially important to keep in mind if you’re applying to multiple schools as these fees will start to add up.

Some schools do offer a fee waiver. Contact your school’s admissions team to find information on this.

Students who received test fee waivers from the SAT or ACT waivers are eligible to receive application fee waivers from testing companies.

Niche has a fantastic list of colleges that don’t require an application fee.


Though not all schools require an interview, some will ask you to register for one after you’ve submitted your application.

In most cases, these are schools with specialized programs.

If your school does require you attend an interview as part of the application process, it’s very important that you visit the admissions page to find out how to sign up, when the interview needs to take place, where it will take place, and how you need to prepare.

Interviews can often be an integral part of the college application process, and certainly favor the prepared mind.
Interviews can often be an integral part of the college application process, and certainly favor the prepared mind.

If your target school doesn’t require an interview, it still might be a good idea to request one. This can be a way to show the top school of your choice that you’re very serious about their program and give you a way to stand out among other applicants.

Keep in mind your interview likely won’t be with someone on the admissions team. Rather, you’ll talk to someone who the admissions team trusts, like an alumnus of the school.

It’s important to point out that the interview is likely not the factor that’s going to make or break you in an admissions decision. It’s not as influential as some of the other components we’ve already talked about such as your transcript and your test scores.

That being said, the interview is still something you should take seriously and take time to prepare for.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when preparing for your college admissions interview:

  • Bring a list of questions. Asking your interviewer questions is a way to demonstrate your interest in the school and show them just how serious you are about them.
  • Practice beforehand. Interviewing is a skill that needs to be practiced over time. Sit down with a parent, teacher, or school counselor and go through a mock process a few times. This can help make you feel more comfortable with the process and cool some of your nerves on the day of the actual interview.
  • Prepare answers ahead of time. Sit down with your counselor and make a list of questions your interviewer is likely to ask, like “Why do you want to attend our school?”. Then prepare your answers to those questions ahead of time so you don’t have to worry about getting stuck trying to think of something quick during the interview.
  • Follow-up afterward. Sending a quick thank you note or email is a great way to remind an interviewer about the conversation you had and keep yourself at the top of their minds.

Getting Help with the College Application Process

As you can now see, applying to college is no easy task. All of these components take serious time, preparation, and a good amount of thoughtfulness to put together. And though this process can feel daunting and overwhelming at times, there are resources out there to help you as you move through it.

There are plenty of companies that offer application consultants who will walk through the process with you step-by-step to ensure that you’re completing everything accurately and on-time. They can also advise you on how to put your best foot forward in each and every area we’ve talked about above.

Here are a few college applications advising services you might consider. Keep in mind that most of these services do charge, though a few offer free services:

Additionally, there are plenty of tools out there that will help you with a specific portion of your application like the interview or the essay. Some of these resources will charge, while others are free:

Now what? What to Do Once You’ve Submitted Your Application

Once you’ve completed all of the steps above, you should take a sigh of relief. After all, you just completed a HUGE task!

Patience is key once everything has been submitted—but it
Patience is key once everything has been submitted—but it's not over just yet.

However, keep in mind that your work isn’t over yet. There are still a few remaining tasks left for you to work through, such as:

  • Follow up with your final transcript. Once your last semester of senior year grades come through, send it over. This is important to colleges as it gives them a full picture of your academic performance through all four years of high school. It also gives them a little reminder of who you are and what you’ve accomplished.
  • Follow up with any additional test scores. This is especially important if you take the SAT or ACT again and earned a higher score than before. The testing companies should do this for you, but it’s important to confirm that the college received your updated score.
  • Notify the admissions teams of any awards. Great examples include graduating with honors, earning a new leadership position, taking on a summer internship, etc.
  • Attend college events. This can be anything from campus tours to career fairs to prospective student events. Attend anything you can to show the school just how excited you are about them.

Other than that, this stage is one big waiting game.

This time can feel especially nerve-wracking and stressful. Here are a few tips to get through this time until you’ve heard back:

  • Stay up-to-date. Most school admissions teams will have some way to check on the status of your application. Check in from time to time to see where your application is at in the process as it can help to know yours isn’t just sitting around.
  • Stay focused on school. Having been so focused on the next phase of your life, it’s easy to get distracted from your current one. But it’s important to not let senioritis get the best of you. Remember you still have responsibilities and need to continue your hard work the rest of the way through.
  • Talk about it. Don’t be afraid to share the fact that you’re nervous. Find someone you can turn to like a parent, mentor, or counselor. Your friends can also be really helpful during this time as they’re going through the exact same thing and likely understand how you’re feeling.

Applying to college is no easy task. But by staying organized and following the process step-by-step, you can ensure a smooth and effective application.

Best of luck!