Updated December 5, 2022 · 5 Min Read

With so many jobs requiring at least a four-year college degree, getting into a good school has never been more important. At the same time, however, admissions have become more competitive than ever; top-tier universities receive far more applications than they could ever hope to accommodate. Applying to college can be nerve-wracking, but it doesn't ... is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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With so many jobs requiring at least a four-year college degree, getting into a good school has never been more important. At the same time, however, admissions have become more competitive than ever; top-tier universities receive far more applications than they could ever hope to accommodate. Applying to college can be nerve-wracking, but it doesn't have to be a nightmare. Millions of students apply for college successfully every year, and many of the best and most reliable methods are accessible to anyone who plans ahead. Research can help you discover how to apply for college and prepare for all the hoops that you'll need to jump through to get into the college of your dreams. By starting early and preparing a stellar application, you can give yourself the best chance at attending your first choice.

Plan Ahead

Applying for college is not something to save until your last semester of high school. Although you don't need to have your college roadmap prepared on your first day of high school, thinking about the college admissions process early is never a bad idea. Identifying your goals can help you get a jumpstart on the college admission process by taking classes and participating in extracurricular activities that will help you stand out.

You don't have to resign yourself to a life of honors societies and student government positions if those things don't interest you, however. There isn't a universal best path to take that will guarantee your acceptance into the college of your dream, but you can give yourself a leg up by acquiring skills and experience related to your plans. For example, if you want to be a veterinarian, volunteering at an animal shelter or participating in a school club related to animal husbandry can give you an advantage when you apply to a related school.

Search for Schools that Meet Your Interests and Goals

Before you can apply for a particular college, you'll need to identify which colleges to apply to. If you've already decided what major you would like to pursue, search for colleges with a solid reputation in that major. Several organizations regularly compile rankings of the best schools in each discipline, so you can use these rankings to weed out schools that won't meet your needs. High-ranking schools can be exceptionally competitive, however, so if you don't thrive in that type of environment, you might have a better experience by skipping the top-ranked universities.

It's also important to consider the type of environment that you want in a school. Some students want the experience of attending a major university with a large student body and diverse major options; others do best in a smaller and more focused environment. Neither option is universally better than the other, but if you have a preference for one, that can help you narrow the field of potential schools.

Location is also another important consideration. If you want to live at home while you're in school, begin your search with universities and colleges in your area. You should also consider your financial situation while choosing schools; the cost of tuition can have a major impact on your post-college life, especially if you will be relying on student loans to finance your education. However, don't write off a school just because it's expensive; you may be able to secure scholarships, grants or other sources of funding to help you attend your preferred college.

Visit Potential Schools

After making your list of schools, an on-campus visit is a good way to get a personal impression of each school. Check each school's calendar for special touring events for prospective students. During these events, you'll have the chance to see the campus, talk with faculty and get a sense of the atmosphere on campus. You can also use this chance to tour a dorm or look for a potential off-campus apartment.

Finish Requirements

Once you have a list of schools that you would like to attend, begin working on fulfilling the application requirements for each school. You can find these requirements on the school's website or by getting in touch with the school.

Although there is some overlap between schools, each individual school sets its own admission requirements. For example, art colleges will expect each prospective student to have compiled a comprehensive portfolio of work. Schools with a strong science or engineering focus might want their incoming freshman to have a solid background in calculus, physics and other related subjects.

Each school also sets its own standards for minimum GPA scores; some are willing to give you a boost for taking more difficult classes, but other schools simply look at your raw grades. Depending on the standards of each of your preferred schools, you may want to either seek out or shy away from more difficult classes in high school, especially if you think taking a more difficult class may cause your final grade to be lower.

It's important to note which college admission tests each of your selected universities accepts. Although many schools accept both ACT and SAT scores, some may accept only one or the other. You may also need to achieve a certain score to get into the school. If you start this process while you're in your junior year of high school, you will have enough time to retake the tests if you need to get a better score.

Write an Exceptional Essay

As part of the application process, some universities require you to write an essay. Your essay won't single-handedly get you into the school, but a strong essay can help tip the scales in your favor. The essay allows you to show off your writing and critical thinking skills, and it can give admissions officers a more complete picture of who you are and what you can offer the school.

College admission essays usually ask you to answer a particular prompt; your answer to that prompt doesn't matter as much as the way that you answer the question. For example, one common theme might ask you to identify how a failure set you up for a later success. A strong essay would identify a meaningful failure, demonstrate that you understood why you failed, and show how that failure sparked new growth and understanding within you that later allowed you to succeed at something else.

Gather Necessary Materials

The application process may require some extra materials, including transcripts from your school. The application may also ask for letters of recommendation. Past and current teachers are a good source for these letters. Some schools, especially those with an emphasis on creative programs, may also require extra materials for your submission, such as portfolios or an audition tape.

Fill Out an Application

Once you're ready to apply to college, you need to find out how to fill out an application. Many schools today have their own online submissions, but some still allow paper applications. Some colleges use The Common Application to streamline the application process for college. This website allows you to fill out one single application that you can easily submit to multiple colleges. Once you're ready to fill out the application, take your time and read through every question several times before submitting it. Most schools require this step to be completed by January of your senior year of high school.


Some colleges require or encourage you to participate in an interview as part of the admission process. You can find lists of common interview questions online; find as many as you can and prepare appropriate responses ahead of time. Once you've prepared some possible answers, have a parent or friend act as an interviewer so that you can practice for the actual interview. On the day of the real interview, dress professionally and show up about 10-15 minutes early. After the interview concludes, it's a good idea to send a note of appreciation to the school for giving you the chance to interview with them.

Apply for Financial Aid

Securing financial aid is an important step to take during the college application process and can help you determine which school you end up selecting. Students may complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, to access a number of financial aid options from the federal government. The information you submit for FAFSA is also used by universities to determine how much you will pay for schooling.

Make Your Choice

If you end up with multiple acceptance letters, you'll have to make a difficult choice. Carefully consider the positives and negatives of each school, including the costs, location and program options. If you have any questions that will help you make your choice, get in touch with the school. Most colleges require you to inform them of your intention to attend by the first of May. After informing your chosen college of your selection, you can relax and enjoy the last few weeks of high school.

Applying for college can be a stressful ordeal, but investing time and energy learning how to apply to college can pay excellent dividends. Few things can help you out as much as a top-quality education, and ensuring that you get the best education possible begins with your college application. With hard work and diligence, you can give yourself the best possible chance to attend the school of your dreams.

Additional Resources:

College Admissions Library
Do I Need a College Counselor?
Do I Need College Consulting?
How To Write the Perfect College Admission Essay

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