FAQs for Applying for College


Here are answers to a few of the most commonly asked questions about applying to college.

 

When should I start filling out an application?

The summer before your senior year is the best time to start. Most students do the majority of their application work in the fall of their senior year. See a college application timeline for seniors.

 

How do I begin?

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 universities.

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 applications.

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 in.

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 admit.

 

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 lifetime.

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:

  • Career Prep

    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.
  • Earning Potential

    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.

Need help? Browse majors and learn more about them with our college majors search tool.  Plus: Here's our list of Top 10 College Majors based on research covering job prospects, alumni salaries, and popularity.