Find out what goes into an application
and begin collecting the materials you need. Create a folder for each
college you are applying to. At the front of each folder, put a checklist of what you’ll need for the application and when it’s due.
How many colleges should I apply to?
Five to eight colleges is the recommended number. They should all be
colleges you’d be happy to attend. It’s good to apply to some colleges
that are a bit of a stretch for you and some that you feel will likely
admit you. But most should feel like good, realistic matches.
Should I apply early?
It depends. If you are sure about which college you want to attend, early decision or early action
might be the best choice for you. If you’re not sure, keep in mind that
some early application plans require you to commit early. You may want
to keep your options open.
Should I use an online or a paper application?
Check with the college to see which is preferred. Most colleges
prefer online applications because they are easier to review and process
— some even offer a discount in the application fee if you apply
online. Applying online can also be more convenient for you — it’s
easier to enter information and correct mistakes. Whichever method you
choose, be sure to tell your school counselor where you have applied so
your school transcript can be sent to the right colleges.
Should I send additional material?
It’s best if you can express everything about your qualifications and
qualities in the materials requested. Colleges spend a great deal of
time creating their applications to make sure they get all the
information they need about each applicant. If you feel it’s absolutely
necessary to send additional material, talk to your counselor about it.
Some arts programs may require
portfolios or videos of performances. Check with the college to find out
the best way to submit examples of your work.
Is it OK to use the same material on different applications?
Definitely. There’s no need to write a brand-new essay or personal
statement for each application. Instead, devote your time to producing a
great version of basic application parts.
What are the Coalition, Common, and Universal College Applications?
These are examples of college application services that provide
standardized applications which allow you to apply to multiple schools
with a single application. Instead of filling out eight different
applications, you can simply fill out one and submit it to each college.
The Coalition Application is accepted by more than 90 institutions. The platform includes “The
Locker,” a private space for you to collect and organize materials
throughout high school that you might want to share with colleges and
The Common Application is a
standardized application used by nearly 700 colleges. Each year, nearly a
million students use the Common Application to submit over 4 million
The Universal College Application is accepted by more than 30 colleges and universities. You can register as an applicant in order to start applying.
Be aware that you may need to submit additional or separate documents
to some colleges. You also still need to pay individual application
fees for each college.
Should I apply to colleges if my admission-test scores or grades are below their published ranges?
Yes. The admission scores and grades that colleges show on their
websites are averages or ranges — not cutoffs. There are students at
every college who scored lower (and higher) than the numbers shown.
Remember that colleges consider many factors to get a more complete
picture of you. For example, they look at the types of classes you take,
your activities, recommendation letters, your essay and your overall
character. Colleges are looking for all kinds of students with different
talents, abilities and backgrounds. Admission test scores and grades
are just two parts of that complete picture.
Should I even bother applying to colleges I don’t think I can afford?
Absolutely. Remember that after financial aid packages are determined, most students will pay far less than the "sticker price"
listed on the college website. You don’t know if you can afford a
college until after you apply and find out how much aid that college
will offer you (if you’re accepted). Fill out the FAFSA as early as possible after Jan. 1 to qualify for the most aid.
Even if the aid package the college offers is not enough, you have
options. Many colleges are willing to work with students they have
chosen for admission to ensure that those students can afford to attend.
Isn't it true that everyone can go to college? What difference does it make what I do in high school?
Even though it is possible for anyone who wants to go to college to
do so, there are some things that can help make it easier for you to
get into the college you want to attend and easier for you once you're
For instance, one thing everyone who thinks about going to college
should do is to take college preparatory classes. Those include, at
least three, preferably four, years of studies in English, math,
science, and social studies. You should probably also take foreign
language courses, computer classes, and performance art. Each college
and university has its own admission requirements, so contact a school
you're interested in attending to find out what you need to do to
prepare or visit the school's web site.
What else do I need to do to get into the college I want to attend?
As the number of students wanting to attend college increases, the
competition to get into the best schools also increases. Colleges also
often look at class rank and out-of-school activities (see the following
question for information about test scores). Class rank is the
placement of a student's grade point average as it relates to the entire
high school graduating class. Keeping your grades up keeps your class
rank high and some colleges look closely at rank when determining which
students will automatically be admitted; some automatically admit anyone
in the top percentages of the class. After-school or extracurricular
activities (like sports, theater, band, choir, and participating in
volunteer activities) can do a lot to help a school decide whether a
student is one who will be involved once he or she is in college.
Colleges often look at such things when determining which students to
Aren't there tests that colleges use to determine who gets in?
Some colleges and universities do use college entrance exams as
part of their entrance criteria. But, no college uses entrance exam
scores alone to determine who gets in. Many colleges use ranges of
scores. For instance, a student ranking in the top 10 percent of his or
her high school graduating class might need a relatively low score on an
entrance exam, or in some cases might not need an entrance exam score
at all, to get in. But, a student who doesn't have a very high rank
among his graduation class might still be admitted if he or she scores
very well on an entrance exam. Contact the school or schools you are
interested in to find out if and how they use college entrance exam
scores to help determine admission.
Which test should I take?
There are two major college entrance exams, the SAT and the ACT.
Although the criteria differ somewhat, almost all colleges and
universities that require applicants to take a test accept either score.
Some schools, however, may require or prefer one or the other, so
contact the school you want to attend to find out which you should take.
Does it help to take both the ACT and the SAT?
Some students do choose to take both the SAT and the ACT, and some
test-takers do perform better on one than the other. Sometimes, however,
scores on one aren't much better or worse than the scores on the other.
Talk to your counselor or an admissions officer at a college or
university before deciding which test to take and whether to take them
both. There really isn't any way to know whether you will do better on
one or the other until you take them.
What if I take an entrance exam and make a terrible score? Can I take it a second time?
Yes, both the ACT and the SAT allow students to take the test
several times. And sometimes scores do improve enough to make the
difference for a particular student. But there is no guarantee that a
student's scores will improve. And if you want to improve your scores,
you should see about doing some things to prepare first. Talk to a
counselor before you take a test over.
What can I do to get ready for the test?
One of the best ways to prepare for an entrance exam is the same
thing you should do to prepare for college - take the right classes in
high school. Generally, research shows that students who take the right
courses in high school and do the best work in those classes are the
ones who score best on the entrance exams. In other words, your high
school classes are supposed to prepare you for college and the tests are
supposed to identify those students who are best prepared to do well in
college. So students who take the right courses in high school and
perform well in those classes are already preparing for the exams and
for college at the same time.
Aren't there classes I can take to help me prepare?
Many different kinds of study aids (classes that people pay for,
high school courses that people take as electives, software programs,
books, and web sites) are promoted as ways to improve entrance exam
scores. Whether any or all of these can help improve your chances of
making a good score is something you and your family should consider for
your particular circumstances. Talk to your high school counselor about
study aids that are available to you.
What happens to my scores once I take the SAT or ACT?
A copy of your score report will be sent to you and the schools you
list on your registration form. That might include your high school, if
you list its code number, and several colleges or universities. Part of
the fee for students taking the test is the cost of sending your score
report to colleges, universities, and/or scholarship programs that you
designate. In other words, the colleges you list on your registration
form will automatically be sent your scores. Your scores will be shared
only with those you want them to be shared with.
What if I'm worried about my scores, and I don't want anyone to see them until I do?
You can choose to have your scores sent only to you. However, if
you do not take advantage of the score reporting service when you
register, there will be an extra fee charged to send your scores to
colleges and universities if you request it later.
What if I don't know which college or university I want to send my scores to?
Both the ACT and the SAT allow test takers to send their scores to
several different organizations, including scholarship programs,
colleges, and universities. Even if you aren't certain which school you
want to attend, you can send your scores to those that you think you are
most likely to decide to attend. And, if you decide on one that isn't
even on your list of possibilities, you can pay to have another report
sent there later.
When should I start thinking about college?
It is best to begin thinking about college no later than junior
high or middle school. A student who decides to go to college before
high school is able to use all four years to help reach his or her
goals. Knowing what courses you need to take in high school to be
accepted to the college of your choice will let you make certain that
the courses you take as a freshman (and maybe even during 8th grade)
will prepare you for the ones you need to take later on.
Do I need to know exactly what I want to do with my life before I start high school?
No, nothing that specific is necessary. Some of the courses you
need to take in high school are determined by the graduation
requirements of your school, and a certain number of others are required
for anyone who wants to attend college. Once you know what those are,
you can fill in the remaining time with other courses that you need to
take in order to get into a school that will help you reach your career
dream. If you want to be an engineer, for example, you would take
different courses than if you wanted to be a newspaper reporter. Even if
you can't decide whether you want to be a lawyer or write novels for a
living, simply knowing that you are interested in writing or law and
not engineering can be a great help in deciding on a high school plan.
When is it too late to plan?
It's never too late. Some people wait until they've been out of
high school for years to decide that they want to go to college. Others
know in elementary school. What's important is to prepare when you do
decide. If you're already in high school and decide you want to go to
college, develop a course plan then. List the courses you've taken
already, fill in the courses you need to graduate, and use up the time
slots that remain to take whatever courses you can to make sure you will
be as prepared as possible for your future studies. If you've already
finished high school when you decide you want to go, speak to a college
administrator about what you can do to make certain that you're prepared
for the classes you schedule. Some colleges offer special testing to
figure out what a student must do before taking a particular course at a
certain level. Some also offer tutoring sessions and even special
classes designed to help people gain the knowledge they need to succeed
in college-level courses.
Suppose I know that I want to go to college but I'm not sure what I want to study?
Sometimes it is difficult to decide, especially for students who
enjoy many different things and have the ability to do lots of things
well. One thing that can help is to begin thinking about your choices
early and to consider all the different aspects of a job. Do some
research, find out what jobs are available, and talk to people who work
in an area that you think sounds interesting. It may not be necessary to
decide on a specific career immediately, but it is a good idea to
narrow your choices as much as possible.
What is a major?
Your major in college is your specialized area of study. Beyond
general college requirements, you'll also take a group of courses in a
subject of your choosing such as Chemistry, Comparative Literature, or
Political Science. At some schools you can even design your own major.
How important is your major?
The major you choose will neither predict nor guarantee your
future. Many graduates find jobs that have nothing to do with what they
studied in college. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the
average twenty-something switches jobs once every three years and the
average person changes career fields two or three times in their
If you intend to earn a professional degree (like an MD) after college, you will probably need certain courses, or prerequisites, under your belt. But many future doctors major in non-science related fields.
When do I declare a major?
Typically in your sophomore or junior year, but the answer
varies across schools and programs. Some colleges ask you to list your
expected major on your college application (although "undecided" is usually an option), but don't require you to declare definitively until later.
If you are interested in a major that requires a lot of
classes, or classes that are limited to students in that major, then it
is better to declare early. Some majors demand a strictly regimented
order of courses, and if you fall behind, you may have to extend your
college stay by a semester or two.
How to Choose a Major
Consider these factors when picking your major:
Choose a major because it will prepare you for a specific career
path or advanced study. Maybe you already know that you want to be a
nurse, a day trader, a physical therapist, or a web developer. Before
you declare, take a class or two in the relevant discipline, check out
the syllabus for an advanced seminar, and talk to students in the
department of your choice. Make sure you’re ready for the coursework
required for the career of your dreams.
Future earning potential is worth considering—college is a big investment, and while college can pay you back
in many ways beyond salary, this can be a major factor for students who
are paying their own way or taking out loans. According to PayScale.com,
the majors that lead to the highest salaries include just about any
type of engineering, actuarial mathematics, computer science, physics,
statistics, government, and economics. Keep your quality of life in
mind, too—that six figure salary may not be worth it if you're not happy
at the office.
Subjects You Love
Some students choose a major simply because they love the subject
matter. If you love what you're studying, you're more likely to fully
engage with your classes and college experience, and that can mean
better grades and great relationships with others in your field. If your
calling is philosophy, don't write it off just because you're not sure
about graduate school, or what the job market holds for philosophers.
Many liberal arts majors provide students with critical thinking skills
and writing abilities that are highly valued by employers.
Undecided? Explore your interests.
If you truly have no idea what you want to study, that's okay—many
schools don't require students to declare a major until sophomore year.
That gives you four semesters to play the field. Make the most of any
required general education courses—choose ones that interest you. Talk
to professors, advisors, department heads, and other students. Find an internship off campus. Exploring your interests will help you find your best fit major—and maybe even your ideal career.
Can I change my mind?
Definitely. One of the most exciting aspects of college life is
that it introduces you to new subjects and fosters new passions. You
might enter undergrad enjoying physics but discover a burgeoning love
for political science. However, keep this mind: Every major has
requisite coursework. Some require you to take introductory courses
before you move into the more advanced classes. Also, some classes are
offered in the fall but not in the spring, or vice-versa. If you change
your major late in the game, it may take more than the traditional four
years to earn a degree.
Minors and Double Majors
If one field of study doesn't satisfy your intellectual appetite,
consider a minor. A minor is similar to a major in that it's an area of
academic concentration. The only difference is that a minor does not
require as many classes.
Some undergrads with a love of learning and an appetite for
punishment choose to pursue two majors, often in totally different
subjects. A double major provides you with an understanding of two
academic fields. It allows you to become familiar with two sets of
values, views and vocabularies. That said, it also requires you to
fulfill two sets of requirements and take twice as many required
classes. You won't have as many opportunities to experiment or take
classes outside those two fields.
While a minor or a double major might make you more marketable,
both professionally and for graduate study, both are time—and
energy—intensive. Most students find that one major is more than enough.