Regional College Access Center

Filling out college applications

Laura says: I'm working on my applications now, in the summer, even though they aren't due for a long time. I am interested in three schools, and I haven't decided yet whether to apply to one of them for early decision.

Early decision gives me a better chance of getting in, but it also means the application is due much sooner. That's so that I'll have a chance to apply elsewhere if I don't get into my first choice.

Timeline and organization

This timeline from The College Board gives a clear overview of when you can expect to complete various portions of your college applications. High school seniors can start filling out applications as soon as the summer after their junior year. This summer is also when many students choose to visit colleges in person. By the fall, you should be working on essays and taking any standardized tests your target schools require.

...Unless you're planning to apply to a school for early decision, in which case you should be turning in your applications by the fall!

It is always best to start your applications early and to submit early. Colleges don't wait until the deadline to start reading applications and admitting students, which means that students who submit late are competing with more people for fewer slots. Don't wait until the last minute, and don't forget about those admissions essays!

If you're applying to more than one school, get a separate folder for each one, and keep all of your application materials and information in it. It's really easy to get confused about things like deadlines, supporting documents and essay topics. Staying organized helps you submit the best application possible.

How many colleges should I apply to?

You should make a list of all the schools you are interested in. The list should include schools that are considered reach schools, match schools and safety schools. defines these common terms as follows:

  • Reach schools: A reach school is a college that you have a chance of getting into, but your test scores, class rank and/or high school grades are a bit on the low side when you look at the school's profile.
  • Match schools: A match school is a college that you are pretty likely to get into because your test scores, class rank and/or high school grades fall right into the middle range when you look at the school's profile.
  • Safety schools: A safety school is a college that you will almost certainly get into because your test scores, class rank and / or high school grades are well above average when you look at the school's profile. Even if you're a valedictorian with perfect SAT scores, you should never consider the top U.S. colleges and top universities to be safety schools. The admissions standards at these schools are so high that no one is guaranteed acceptance.

If you aren't sure what schools fall into which category for you, ask your school counselor for some guidance. Don't overwhelm yourself by applying to dozens of schools. It's expensive to pay so many college application fees, and you will spread yourself too thin.

Paper or electronic?

The vast majority of schools now offer online applications. If you'd rather submit a paper application, contact the school's admission office to request one. Whichever format you prefer, you'll want to hang on to a paper copy for your own records. Print one out if you fill the application out online. Applications do get lost by schools—it happens very rarely, but think how frustrating it would be to have to start your application over.

Using the Common Application

The Common Application is a standardized admissions form accepted by about 400 colleges and universities. It can be a huge timesaver if you're applying to multiple schools, because you only need to fill out most of it once (although schools can require different supplementary materials, essay topics, etc.).

Don't assume that your target school accepts the Common Application without checking! If it does not, your effort to save time and effort could end up backfiring.

Application Fees

Most admissions applications have a required application fee. These fees can range anywhere from $30-$65. Schools will waive these fees if you meet certain financial criteria, and sometimes for other reasons as well. If you need a fee waiver, check with your high school counselor to see if you are eligible.

Have copies of the documents you'll need

This is really important! Contacting big bureaucratic organizations for paperwork and then waiting weeks for it to arrive can be really annoying. If you've been procrastinating, it can also put you in danger of missing submission deadlines.

Avoid these headaches by preparing the documents you're likely to need ahead of time:

  • high school transcripts
  • SAT or ACT scores
  • letters of recommendation
  • portfolio items
  • essay

If you are looking at art schools or degree programs that require a portfolio, have an electronic copy on hand to be able to send with your application. If you are pursuing theater, music or another performance-based program, be prepared to be called for an audition. Finally, make sure that letters of recommendation are delivered in the manner requested (for example, sealed, or sent directly by the letter writer to the school), and that any transcripts or test scores are official copies, rather than photocopies.

Getting letters of recommendation

Wondering who to ask for a letter of recommendation? Take a look at the requirements for each school you are applying to. Some want letters from past teachers. Others ask for a counselor, employer or other adult who knows you well. Some schools won't specify who your letters have to be from. (Family members are almost never acceptable, however.)

Whatever the requirements, make sure you ask the best possible candidate. You want to find an individual who has known you long enough to know your strengths and your weaknesses. Someone who can speak to your qualities and potential clearly and powerfully.

When you approach a person to ask them to write a letter, keep in mind that these letters can be challenging to write—in a way, they're essays too. Remind the person of some of your past positive interactions. You can suggest a few things that they might want to emphasize about you. It is always a great idea to write a simple thank you note to everyone who completes a letter of recommendation for you! They've done you a big favor.

Approach potential letter writers as soon as possible. Teachers can get swamped with requests for letters. The more advance notice you give them, the more time and effort they can put into your letter. It is good etiquette to give your writer at least one month.