How To Apply For College

I know I want to go college, but I’m not sure how to apply for college

Does this statement apply to you?

A lot of high school students are interested in going to college, but the college application and admissions process can be intimidating.

In this post, I’m not only going to walk you though how to apply for college, but I will also outline all of the steps that you MUST take in order to research, prepare and get admitted to the college of your choice!

Wanna know how to apply for college? Follow along…

Step 1 – Which College is for YOU?

Before you learn how to apply for college, you must first figure out what colleges you want to apply to. There are tons of colleges out there and a lot of different factors to consider. Here a few things for you to start thinking about:

  • Large State University vs. Small College

Would you prefer to attend a large state university with more than 35,000 students or a small liberal arts college with a little over 1,000 students.

Some of the benefits of large university include a wide variety of majors and courses, distinguished faculty, variety of sports programs, and a wide range of extracurricular activities.

Conversely, some of the benefits of a smaller college include smaller class sizes (which means professors typically get to know students well), hands-on learning, and individually designed majors.

You might also want to consider the benefits of attending a community college for 2 years prior to transferring to a 4 year university in order to save money.

You must consider this very important aspect of the college admissions process before you learn how to apply for college.

  • Live at Home or Live in Dorms

For some high school students, moving away from home is an easy decision, but for others, it’s not so easy. Before you learn how to apply for college, you should examine the pros and cons of living in the dorms vs. staying at home.

If you decide to live in the dorms, the people that you meet and times that you will share with them will be something you’ll remember forever. Living on campus also makes you more responsible.

However, if you decide to stay at home, you can save a lot of money. Also, knowing that your parents are just right down the hall might give you more of an incentive to study hard and not slack off.

Livings arrangements…another factor to think about before figuring out how to apply for college.

  • College Selectivity

College selectivity is the “application-to-admit ratio” or the number of students that a school admits compared to the number of students who applied. The lower the percentage, the more selective the school is.

Most colleges are selective; they don’t admit every student that applies. However, most colleges usually admit over 1/2 of their applicants.

You may be aiming for Harvard, Yale and/or Princeton, but are these realistic choices for you?  Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t…but this is definitely something that you need to consider as I walk you though how to apply for college.

Step 2 – Do Your Research!

So, you’ve established the fact that you want to attend college after high school and you’ve spent some time thinking about what factors in a college are most important to you.

Awesome! Now we have to start thinking about what college you’re going to attend. You must do this before you learn how to apply for college.

“What are my options?” Great question. Students tell me all the time that they don’t even know where to begin searching for the right college.

Don’t worry! Today I’m going to share with you one of my favorite college search websites: has an excellent search tool that allows you to search for colleges by a certain set of criteria:

  • 1. Country
  • 2. State, Region, Distance from Home
  • 3. Campus Setting (Urban, Suburban, Small Town, Rural)
  • 4. Student Population
  • 5. Tuition
  • 6. Type (Public, Private, 2-Year, Single-Sex)
  • 7. Religious Affiliation

This website will give you an idea of all of the different colleges that are out there. Take some time to learn how to use this website before you learn how to apply for college.

Now all you have to do before I show you how to apply for college is take the time to visit various college websites and learn more about them.

If you get stuck, there are also a ton of other helpful resources that can help you:

  • Parents & Relatives – What school did your parents attend? How did they select the college of their choice?
  • High School Counselors – Based on your personality and interests, what college would they recommend for you?
  • Friends – What college are they thinking about attending? Do any of these colleges interest you?

Step 3 – Attend College Fairs

What’s a college fair? A college fair is an event where college-bound high school students can meet with admissions representatives from various different colleges and universities. These admissions representatives can even teach you how to apply for college!

College fairs are also an excellent opportunity for students to learn about a lot of different colleges at once.

You’ll have the chance to talk to admissions counselors and get the inside scoop on everything from college courses to what extracurricular activities are offered on campus.

If you do decide to attend a college fair, be sure to have your questions, pen, and a notebook ready. You’ll be talking with a lot of people, so you’ll want to take good notes!

You can even pick up brochures, applications, and financial aid information for prospective college.

Attending college fairs is something that you can even do before you learn how to apply for colleges.

Step 4 – Select Your Top 5-7 Schools (Long-Shots, Targets, Safeties)

Before I tell you how to apply for college, you must first select the colleges you want to apply to. I’d recommend that you apply to 5-7 schools.

Why? Because, if you only apply to 1-2 schools, you are taking a risk. You don’t want to narrow your options too quickly.

When selecting your top 5-7 schools, you must be sure to have a balance of long-shots, targets and safeties. An explanation of each of these is below:

  • What’s a Long-Shot School?

You should pick 1-2 Long-Shot schools. A long shot schools is a really selective school. (We discussed the meaning of selectivity earlier.) This is a college where the competition will be high and the admissions committee’s decision will be based on how well you stack up against the other applicants.

These are schools that you know you only have a slight chance of being accepted to (hence the name “long-shot”). You should be sure to include a couple of these on your list, you might just be surprised by the outcome.

  • What’s a Target School? 

You should pick 2-3 Target schools. A target schools is a school that matches up really well with your academic profile (GPA & SAT/ACT score). You should be confident that you have a good chance of being admitted to your target schools, while keeping in mind that there is also a slight possibility of denial.

  • What’s a Safety School?

You should pick 1-2 Safety schools. A safety school is a school that you’re almost certain you’ll get admitted to without any difficulty. You’ve check out their admission criteria, and your GPA and SAT/ACT score far exceeds what they expect from their applicants.

Your safety schools should be schools that can provide you with a good education and places you wouldn’t mind attending if the other schools on your list happen to fall through.

Step 5 – Can You Afford It?

Before you can learn how to apply for college, you must make sure that you can afford the colleges you want to apply to.

Determining how much a particular college or university costs is commonly referred to as COA (Cost of Attendance). The COA typically includes the following 5 elements:

  • 1. Tuition & Fees – Tuition and related fees may vary based on your college major and/or the number of credit hours you enroll for each semester. If you are unsure how to calculate this amount, contact the college’s financial aid office and someone will help you.
  • 2. Books & Supplies – This includes the cost of things like textbooks, notebooks, folders, pens, pencils, and other general supplies.
  • 3. Room & Board – This includes your on-campus housing costs and meal expenses.
  • 4. Miscellaneous / Personal Expenses – This includes the costs of things like your cell phone, laundry, contact lenses, etc.
  • 5. Travel – This is how much it costs for you to travel back and forth between school and home for the holidays, spring break, or long weekends.

Before we dive into how to apply for college, sit down with your family to hash out all of these details.

You might just need to re-visit Step 4 if you determine that some of the schools on your original list are out of your price range.

Step 6 – How To Apply for College

I’m sure this is the step you’ve all been waiting for, this is how to apply for college. The first thing you must do is gather all the college applications from the schools that you want to apply to.

You can either get a hard copy of the application from the college itself or request one online. Also, nowadays a lot of colleges allow you to apply right online via their website.

Once you have all of the applications handy, read through them thoroughly and answer all of the questions.

After you finish, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Did I answer all the questions?
  2. Is my handwriting legible (if I filled out the hard copy version)?
  3. Did I proofread the application for spelling and grammar mistakes?
  4. Did someone else proofread the application for spelling and grammar mistakes?
  5. Did I sign the application?
  6. Did I include the application fee?
  7. Did I mail in my official high school transcripts?
  8. Did I mail in my standardized test scores (ACT or SAT)?
  9. Did I complete the college entrance essays (if required)?
  10. Did I include my letters of recommendation (if required)?
  11. Did I complete my financial aid form (FAFSA Form)?
  12. Did I schedule a college admissions interview (if required)?
  13. Did I include enough postage on the envelope I plan to mail the application in (if I filled out the hard copy version)?
  14. Did I keep copies of all my applications and supporting documentation just in case I need to re-submit something later?
  15. Did I proofread my application one last time before putting it in the mail?

Congratulations! You did it! You just learned how to apply for college and I walked you though the college research and selection process.

Now all you have to do is sit back, relax, and wait for those acceptance letters to start rolling in!

Lastly, if you know other high school seniors who don’t know how to apply for college, please share this information with them!

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Lauren Anderson is a certified school counselor who's passionate about helping students all over the world successfully transition from high school to college! After spending 6 years as a business professional, she obtained her Master’s degree in School Counseling and now spends her spare time helping students.

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