Undergraduate Application Timeline
Although this is a general timeline, you will need to be mindful of each individual school’s admissions deadlines. Some request that materials be turned in before the end of the year, some after, and others even have rolling admission deadlines that go until March. However, keep in mind that applying closer to these later deadlines may necessarily mean that your application will be judged not only according to your merits but also to the space available at that point in the process. So, if you think you might be interested in applying to a school down the line, apply early.
- Study for and take the PSAT exams.
- Take the SAT and/or ACT exam.
- Visit colleges.
- Examine financial aid options.
- Consider which teachers (or community leaders) will be able to write letters of recommendation for college applications.
- Visit colleges.
- Retake the SAT and/or ACT exam, if desired.
- Examine financial aid options.
- Work on college applications
- Ask teachers (or community leaders) for letters of recommendation.
- Write admissions essays.
- Fill out applications.
- Submit applications
- Most colleges recommend applying by November 15th for early admission and scholarship considerations. Check each school for their early application deadlines.
- Most colleges have hard application due dates of March 1st. Be aware that the later you apply, the more competition there will be. Check with each school for their deadlines.
- Fill out and submit any financial aid or scholarship applications starting on January 1st and going through March.
- Determine which school you wish to attend once you receive any acceptance letters Most colleges need acceptance to be confirmed by May 1st.
Undergraduate Applications: Entrance Exams
Taking the PSAT
The PSAT tests are optional exams that help you practice for your SAT exams. It is often taken during your junior year of high school. Although they are not required, there are a number of benefits to taking the PSAT. These benefits include qualifying for awards such as a National Merit Scholarship, helping you become more familiar with the types of questions on the SAT exam, and honing your studying skills. Take into consideration, however, that the PSAT will require that you devote a lot of your time to studying for it. And, it is also an extra cost in your application process. Finally, there are a very limited number of test dates for the PSAT, so you will want to talk with your high school guidance counselor well in advance. Ask your counselor about other forms of test preparation, particularly if you or your family cannot afford this extra expense. Often, there are outside community groups that sponsor test prep opportunities, or that provide funding to help you pay for the test.
Taking the ACT and SAT
You will have to take an aptitude exam before you can apply to college. Your guidance counselor may recommend one type of exam over the other, and most colleges should accept either. You should still check with the college to make sure you understand what they require. If both types are acceptable, you will have to make a decision on whether to take the ACT or SAT. The Princeton Review has a good breakdown of the differences between the ACT and the SAT here. For example, the ACT is scored as a whole, while the SAT’s scores are broken down into sections.
Starting Your Application & Asking for Letters of Recommendation
Starting Your Application
There is a lot of variety in terms of the actual application requirements for each school. Some schools’ application forms are pages long, while others are only a single sheet. Many colleges will ask that you submit some sort of writing sample along with these forms, but the forms that these writing samples can take varies greatly. Some schools will ask you to write on any topic you wish, while others will ask that you write on a subject they choose. And, others will allow you to submit a graded paper as your writing piece, and some will let you choose. Because each school will have a different process, you must keep a good record of what each of these schools wants. Don’t simply think that you can remember it all or that you can write down these requirements in different places as a reminder. We forget and we misplace important documents frequently. It may be helpful to keep some sort of visual breakdown of all of your schools' application requirements.
Casting a wide net
At this stage, the most important thing you should do is make a list of each school’s deadlines for their application materials. Some schools have early admissions due dates set for November or December. You should try to meet as many of these early application dates as possible because there is usually less competition than during later application deadlines. There are a lot of materials that you will need to gather before your application will be complete so be sure to start on this early. Although there are clear advantages to submitting a completed application before the early admissions deadline, don’t rush through just to get your materials in on-time. If you need more time to write a stronger essay, for instance, then you should probably hold off until the next application deadline.
Even though the application process can be expensive, if going to college is something that you want to pursue, you will have to give yourself as much of an opportunity to be admitted somewhere as possible. Check to see each school’s admission prerequisites. These are usually posted online. Don’t let a high GPA requirement stop you from applying to a school (or multiple ones) that you have wanted to attend. Remember that the application essay usually often helps to sway admissions officers more than simple numbers do. That said, do check other schools’ requirements and apply to at least a few schools whose requirements you know you will meet, just in case. As important as knowing how to get into college is knowing how to get out. Make sure you look into the requirements for graduating from each school and ask yourself if you can achieve them in four years.
Asking for Letters of Recommendation
Some colleges will require you to have a number of letters of recommendation from individuals who can speak to your talents as a student, or in some other capacity (e.g., community service or leadership). Even if these letters are not required for the main application to the college, often they are required if you wish to apply for competitive scholarships and awards. Therefore, it is never too early to begin thinking about what you are interested in—both inside and outside of the classroom—and who could best speak to your abilities.
When thinking about potential people to ask for recommendation letters, be sure to review why the application that you are filling out is asking you for these letters. For example, if the application instructions state that you should include letters of recommendation that exemplify your involvement in community projects and leadership skills, it might not be a good idea to ask a high school teacher to provide you with a letter if they are only familiar with your work as a student. You may receive better recommendations by asking leaders or supervisors of clubs and organizations that you have worked closely with to write something for you. If the admissions office, on the other hand, wants a letter from someone who is more familiar with your skills as a student, then you will have to think about asking a teacher with whom you have worked closely. If you have had a teacher for more than one year, they may know more about you than other teachers. Here are some suggestions on how to plan for asking for recommendation letters.
- Start getting involved in extracurricular activities early in high school. It’s never too late, so always be on the lookout for sports, clubs, and organizations that you think you might enjoy. Because these will require extra time outside of class, make sure that you can commit to them. Although college admissions officers like seeing letters of recommendation from coaches and supervisors, your grades matter too.
- Make a quick list of which applications absolutely require letters of recommendation and which only encourages them. Ideally, you should try to include letters with all of your applications, but, of course, prioritize the ones that require them.
- Ask your potential recommender politely whether they would be willing to write you a letter of recommendation. Make sure that you give your recommenders the opportunity to politely decline. Not getting a recommendation letter from someone who doesn’t feel like they would write you a good one is better than ending up with a lukewarm recommendation.
- Be sure to give your recommender as much information about what you are applying to as possible. Is this for a scholarship? Is this for the admission application? What do the instructions ask the recommender to write about? Is the recommendation to be completed as an electronic or hard-copy submission? All of this is very important for the recommender to know. Give them a print out of the instructions and highlight the due dates. Usually, a recommender will be able to write one letter and then print out multiple copies to go with various applications, but you will have to clearly communicate whether or not they will need to write something slightly different for one or several letters, depending on the instructions.
- Above all, remember that people have busy schedules. If you would like to make an early admissions deadline, do not drop this important task on your recommenders’ laps two weeks before you need to turn everything in. Something may come up in their lives resulting in a hurried letter, or no letter at all. Speak with potential recommenders early in the process. It is often wise to provide them with a friendly reminder when necessary.
Advice for Writing Application Essays
Advice for Writing Successful Application Essays
When you sit down to write your application essays, there is very little left that you can control. You should have already taken, or retaken, the SAT and ACT, your grades from your first three years of high school are set on your transcript, and your recommenders all have their impressions of you that are unlikely to change before the recommendation deadline. The only thing that left in your control is your writing for the application essay.
As with all things related to your college application, you will need to start drafting your application essay far ahead of the due date. In fact, you should move each school’s deadline up two weeks so that no unexpected events prevent you from completing and submitting your application. The reason that you need so much time to work on your essay is primarily because many schools will ask you to write about similar topics, but to do so in different ways. You will need enough time to draft essays that address each of these questions or prompts for each school to which you are applying.
Don't use boilerplate essays. That is, resist the urge to reuse the exact same essay for different schools if each of them is giving you a slightly different writing prompt. You can, of course, adapt the same essay for similar prompts. Many schools do allow you to use the Common Application essay for admission to several participating schools. For more information on the Common Application and to check which schools participate as members, click here.
Although using the Common Application does simplify the processes, make sure that you review each of the schools’ application requirements. as many of these same schools also request that you submit a second essay along with the Common Application essay. For instance, in addition to answering one of the standard Common Application questions, Amherst College asks that you write an additional essay responding to one of several quotations.
Before you can start writing your essay, you will need to begin by reading the prompts and questions carefully. Even the Common Application has six prompts that you can choose from. Don’t feel as though you must choose one immediately after reading them. You should ask yourself what sticks out the most for you after having read through them. Think about what is most salient for you.
Brainstorm by putting your thoughts on paper. You can free write (writing without stopping or censoring yourself), create word association maps (visually clustering concepts that you feel go together), or keep a journal over the course of several days so that you can collect your thoughts in one place. See the Purdue OWL's PowerPoint on “Finding your Focus” for more details on these strategies.
After you have generated several ideas, reflect on where you find the most intensity or excitement in what you were writing. If nothing jumps out at you, keep brainstorming or talk with others about some possible topics until something grabs you.
Once you know what want to write about, put a rough draft on paper. Don’t be afraid of stray thoughts if they lead you to something more interesting than you had set out to write. Just make sure that you eventually come to have a rough draft that is about one thing.
Look over your draft and check for the following.
- Your writing should be personal. After reading your essay, does it seem like anyone could have written this? Make sure that your essay captures who you are.
- You writing should show, not tell, through vivid language. Successful essays relate an experience or analyze a pattern from the writer’s life. It is not enough to make general claims about what impacted your decision to go to college, for instance; you must elaborate by including evidence that answers “how” and “why” when you make your claims.
It is important to note that admissions officers care as much about your structure, style, and insights as they do about your content. That is not meant to add an extra layer of anxiety to your writing process, but to highlight the fact that you don’t necessarily need to have something life-changing to write about in order to write a successful essay. As Dowhan, Dowhan and Kaufman note in Essays that Will Get You into College, “Personal does not have to mean heavy, emotional or even inspiring” (10). In fact, as the authors explain, students might over rely on the significant event that they write about to speak for itself and don’t “explain what it meant to them or give a solid example of how it changed them. In other words, they do not make it personal” (10).
Finally, your writing should be about a sustained topic. You must use vivid description with a purpose. What is it that you learned because of this experience? What message can you decipher from the series of events that you present? What led you to your conclusions?
Once you have completed your rough draft, put it away for a few days. Afterwards, read the question again and look through your essay. Ask yourself if the essay answers the prompt. Is it personal? Does it use vivid language? Is it focused on one topic? Rewrite whatever needs to be strengthened. This is a great time to have other people look through your draft and get their reaction. Make sure that you ask someone early, and that you trust this person’s judgment; they will be putting in a lot of time to help you, so don’t disregard anything that is inconvenient or that you don’t want to hear.
Again, giving yourself plenty of time to work on this essay is vital. You should have enough time to rewrite or restructure your essay based on the feedback that you have received. As you are drafting and revising, feel free to fix any mistakes that you catch in terms of spelling, grammar, and mechanics, but don’t spend too much time editing early on in the writing process. Working on lower-order concerns can give you the impression that the essay is ready to submit prematurely. Instead, use this time to strengthen the main points of your essay.
Submitting Your Application and Financial Aid
Submitting Your Application
Although many schools have electronic applications, many still allow you to turn in your documents through the mail. There are advantages and disadvantages to each method. For instance, working on a hard copy application will cost money and time to ship, it might get lost in the mail, and it often requires careful attention when filling out the forms to avoid mistakes. However, working with an online application will mean frequently saving your work; remembering passwords, usernames, and emails that you use to register an account; and oftentimes printing out copies of your application essay in order to proofread and revise. A system that is being commonly implemented by colleges is the Common Application, an online application that once filled, can be submitted to a number of schools. According to the Common Application website, all applications using this system are considered equally along with those turned in via a colleges’ own electronic application systems. This option can save you time, but you may still need to create multiple accounts for some of your other schools, as not all schools currently accept the Common Application.
Applying for Financial Aid
In order to increase your chances of being considered for merit based scholarships, you should start creating and collecting evidence that you deserve aid as early in your high school career as possible. For instance, your transcripts should show not only that you earned good grades in your classes, but also that you challenged yourself by taking difficult courses. Other evidence of academic excellence include your SAT or ACT scores and any academic achievement awards you may have earned while in high school.
Frequently, however, scholarships are awarded to individuals who are also engaged outside of the classroom through extracurricular and volunteer opportunities in the communities. Quality matters more than quantity here. Make sure you can talk about your experiences in a few areas that interest you in-depth as opposed to listing off numerous activities that seem disconnected or unimportant to you. Typically, you are applying for scholarships provided through the college to which you are applying when you are filling out the main application form. However, you can also search for scholarships from outside the school through such sites as www.fastweb.com or www.scholarships.com, checking in with community organizations, or asking your guidance counselor which scholarships have been awarded to students in previous years.
You may also qualify for need-based financial aid, but you will have to fill out the Free Application for Financial Student Aid (FAFSA), available at www.fafsa.ed.gov . According to their website, the office of Federal Student Aid is “responsible for managing the student financial assistance programs authorized under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965. These programs provide grants, loans, and work-study funds to students attending college or career school.” In order to ensure that you have the best chance possible for receiving aid, you should check each college’s website for the FAFSA submission deadline, but plan on submitting the application as early in the new year as possible. For instance, some states request that the FAFSA be completed by March, while others provide funding on a first come first serve basis, and so they recommend that students apply right after January 1st.
The type of funding you might receive will depend on your circumstances. Federal Pell Grants vary according to a student’s financial need, and unlike loans, do not have to be repaid. You may also qualify for subsidized loans. Unlike with unsubsidized loans, you do not have to pay interest on the money you borrow while you are enrolled in school, during the six-month grace period after you graduate, or during any deferment periods in the future. For more information on federal aid, see the Office of Student Aid website: http://studentaid.ed.gov/
Visiting Schools & Accepting Offers
Visiting Colleges and Universities
The college visit experience varies widely depending not only on the type of school you are applying to and visiting, but also on when you go to visit. Some colleges and universities have formal visit days that serve as an open house for everyone who is interested in applying. Some colleges can create a personal visit for you to speak on an individual basis with students, staff and faculty, or to sit in on classes. Because more students apply than end up being admitted or choosing to accept their admittance, there may be a lot of competition to visit campus. As with everything else on this list, make sure you check in with the admissions office about setting up either type of visit and to clear your schedule well ahead of time.
Many schools also host visit days for students that have been accepted. The dates vary depending on the colleges’ deadlines for admission. As with visiting before applying, many schools allow you to set up an individual visit day with a planned itinerary after you have been accepted. Despite the similarity in structure, visiting before applying and after acceptance can feel very different. You may feel no pressure at all if you are just visiting without having applied, or conversely, a fervent need to get as much information as possible on your visit in order to write the best application essay possible. After being accepted, you might visit with the understanding that the hard part is over, or, on the other hand, wanting to get as much information as possible in order to make the “best” decision on where to go. Despite these scenarios, if you have been accepted, plan on making a trip to the school so that you can make an informed decision about where you want to spend the next few years learning. The more information you have, the easier it will be to make your choice.
Accepting Your Admission
As mentioned above, most schools have an early decision deadline close to the end of the year or the beginning of the new year; later deadlines become much more competitive. Regardless of when you submit your application, expect to hear back from each school roughly two weeks to a month after the closest deadline passes (however, keep in mind that you may not hear back from schools regarding financial aid until April). Most schools ask that you notify them whether you plan attend no later than early-May, so depending on when you submit your application you could have a few weeks or a few months to make your decision.
During this time, be sure to take a breather and reflect on your completion of a successful application process. In the frenzy of applying to numerous schools, you may have forgotten the main drawbacks and benefits to attending each college, so make some time to review where each school stands on financial aid, class sizes, requirements for graduation, and any other aspects of college that will matter to you in the next few years. Ask your teachers, counselor, or any other family and friends who know about your schools to give you their opinions, but ultimately, this is a choice you will have to make for yourself. After this arduous process, be sure to confirm your decision with your schools, letting them know whether you plan to attend in the coming school year or not. This can usually be done through a web link that they will send you.
Works Consulted/Additional Resources
ACT. “The ACT.” Actstudent.org. n.p. n.d. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.
The College Board. “SAT.” CollegeBoard.org . n.p. n.d. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.
The Common Application. “Common Questions for Applicants.” Commonapp.org. n.p. 2012. Web. 3 Dec. 2012.
Dowhan, Adrienne, Chris Dowhan, and Dan Kaufman. Essays That Will Get You into College. Hauppauge, NY: Barron’s, 2009. Print.
Federal Student Aid. “Free Application for Federal Student Aid.” Fafsa.ed.gov. n.p. 7 Oct. 2012. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.
Federal Student Aid. “Types of Aid” studentaid.ed.gov. n.p. n.d. Web. 2 Dec 2012.
Fiske, Edward B. and Bruce G. Hammond. Real College Essays That Work. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks. 2011. Print.
LearningExpress. Write Your Way into College: College Admissions Essay. NY: LearningExpress. 2010. Print.
McGinty, Sarah Myers. The College Application Essay. New York: The College Board, 2010. Print.
The Princeton Review. “The SAT vs. the ACT.” The Princeton Review. N.p. n.d. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.
Stezala, Kimberly Ann. Scholarships 101: The Real-World Guide to Getting Cash for College. Saranac Lake, NY: AMACOM Books.
University at Buffalo Undergraduate Admissions. “Tips for Prospective Freshmen.” Admissions.Buffalo.edu. n.p. 14 Oct. 2010. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.