Make a List, Check It Twice: A College Applications Guide

Nathan Wilgeroth

High school’s busy as ever, and now you have to handle all the moving parts of a college application! Send your transcript! Write an essay! Write another! You got a letter of recommendation, right? Wait—is a physical exam part of the application?

There are so many components to a college application that it may be hard to keep track of everything you need. And thanks to the still ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many components of the college application process have changed. While things have leveled out a little more than last year, you still might be wondering what steps you need to take to make sure your college application process goes smoothly. We can help. It’s never too late to start preparing, even if you haven’t yet decided where you’re going to apply. Gather what you can, take note of what you still need to do, and keep up with everything you’ve done. Here’s a quick and easy list of all the components you’ll want to consider. Use this as a foundation for a checklist to ensure that you’re well on your way to a completed application!

The Basics

Some schools have very specific requirements for their application, but you can be sure that most, if not all, or the schools you apply to will require the following:

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  • High School Transcript – Your transcript is a report of all your grades throughout high school. In most cases, colleges will require that they receive your transcript directly from your high school. Go to your counselor’s office and let them know where to send an official document.
  • Letter(s) of Recommendation – A letter of recommendation is a testament of your hard work and achievement from a trusted teacher, coach, or mentor. Figure out who you’d like to write your letter and give them ample time to help you. Schools will typically require that the writers of your letters send them directly as well, so make sure your writers know where to submit them. (Check out our guide to requesting a recommendation letter!)
  • SAT/ACT Scores – Standardized tests like the SAT and ACT help display your abilities in relation to other students from all across the nation. Because these exams are almost universally considered on college applications, it’s important to study hard and test multiple times for the best scores possible. Some schools are doing away with standardized testing requirements due to the pandemic. Unsure about whether to go test-optional? We can help you decide. 
    • If you know what schools you’re applying to by the time you take the test, you can request to have your scores sent to them while you’re still in the testing room! Otherwise, you can go to the CollegeBoard and ACT websites and request them later on.
    • Not every school requires SAT/ACT scores as part of their college application, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take them! Even test-optional schools may award merit scholarships to students with qualifying scores.
  • Extracurricular Involvement – Colleges like to see that applicants have made valuable use of their free time throughout high school. Compile a list of all your extracurricular activities and take note of how you have served as a leader or a dedicated member. You may also choose to write an activities résumé so that you may expand on your experiences outside of the classroom.
  • Application Essay – In addition to your activities résumé, your application essay helps admissions officers get a true sense of your personality, voice, and perspective. Many schools accept applications through The Common Application, which means that you are often able to focus on one prompt as opposed to a different prompt for each school. Give yourself plenty of time to write your essay, get it reviewed by a parent/guardian/teacher, and make it the best it can be.

Do Your Research

Every school has its own standards, and it’s up to you to know where to fill out your application, what to submit, and when to submit it.

  • Know Your Deadlines – Some schools have a set deadline for applications, while others accept applications on a rolling basis. Check the website or call/email the admissions office of every school you’re applying to so that you know when to have everything finished and submitted.
  • How to Apply – A vast number of schools accept applications through Common App, though plenty of them also provide applications through their own website. Again, check with each of your schools to know whether they exclusively accept one form or allow you to submit through either platform.

How Many Colleges Should I Apply To?

Extra Considerations

Here are a few extra things to look out for. Always keep your eyes peeled for specific requirements!

  • Supplemental Essays – In addition to the general application essay, some colleges ask for additional school- or major-specific essays to help better inform their decision. Such supplemental essay prompts may ask you to write about why you’re interested in a particular school, why you’re pursuing a certain major—anything the school wants to get an idea of you as a prospective student! Keep an eye out for schools with extra essay prompts and plan your writing wisely.
  • Major-Specific Material – Some majors, especially those related to fine arts, require some sort of material to showcase the work you have done thus far. Check in with the department of your desired major and see whether you’re asked to submit an audition or portfolio.
  • Interview – You might be required to meet face-to-face with an admissions representative from your prospective school. Even if an interview is not required, it can still be enormously helpful. Not only will it allow the school to know your character and personality, but it will also give you the opportunity to learn more about the school and ask questions before you apply and enroll. Check out each school’s website to see whether an interview is required as well as how to schedule an appointment.
  • Other Assessments – The SAT and ACT are not the only standardized tests out there. In fact, some of our very own Colleges of Distinction have begun to accept the Classic Learning Test as part of their considerations. Tests like these take different approaches to the college entrance exam so that they may assess students on alternative criteria.

There are a lot of components to a college application, and if this article taught you anything, it’s that each school has its own standards to keep in mind. But there’s no need to get overwhelmed! Make a checklist, research all of your potential schools’ requirements, and work confidently toward the education of your dreams. Best of luck!

More Helpful Guides

How to Write an Activities Resume for College Applications

High School Checklist: Freshman through Senior Year

What Makes a Great College Application Essay

When Do I Need to Complete the FAFSA To Meet College Deadlines?

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