Chapter 6: Understanding the four-year university application process

Table of contents

6.1 Introduction

A large building with steps leading up to it.

Quick navigation

It’s no secret that the college application process can be quite stressful for both students and parents alike. If you’re worried about the admissions process, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone. This is a stressful time for everyone! There’s so much to consider, such as your application, writing abilities, strengths, weaknesses…and, above all, you may be wondering what colleges are looking for in their future students. Before you get overwhelmed, let’s see if we can answer some of those questions for you.

In this chapter, we will help you to:

  • Learn what colleges are looking for
  • Understand the college admissions process, including 
    • What materials you will need for your application 
    • How to get those materials
    • How and when to ask  mentors for a letter of recommendation
  • Create an excellent college application including college application essay

The application you’re filling out may be  overwhelming  at first, but we will walk you through the process step by step. We’ll help you present your best self to potential colleges, both in your application and possible essays. We will also detail what the college side of the decision process looks like so you know what they’re looking for. By the end of this chapter, we’re sure you’ll have a much better idea of how to begin. So let’s get started!

6.2 What colleges look for

When it comes time to build a college application, it’s important to understand what colleges are looking for in potential students. The better you understand what colleges want, the easier it is to show them what they want to see!

So what do colleges want to see in your application? 

  • A grade point average of 3.0 or higher
  • A challenging high school curriculum
  • Strong standardized test scores
  • Passions and focused interests
  • A well-written college essay
  • Enthusiastic recommendations from mentors 
  • Interest in the school
  • Personal qualities like leadership, intellectual curiosity, and open-mindedness

In other words, colleges are looking for passionate and curious applicants who can demonstrate past academic success, great communication skills, and positive personal qualities. 

A few important caveats here. First, these criteria are only used by selective 4-year colleges and universities. Remember that open-enrollment institutions only require a high school diploma or GED to be admitted. Even selective schools, though, know that not every high school student has the resources to achieve all these criteria, and tend to view the application holistically, where a strength in one area may make up for a weakness in another.

Second, these are the criteria typically used to evaluate students applying to 4-year college immediately after high school, and who have had opportunities to tailor their high school educations towards college attendance. Colleges tend to use different criteria to evaluate transfer students (transferring from a 2-year community college) and non-traditional students (who may have spent years gathering life skills and/or work experience between high school and college). 

If you’re a college-bound high school student and have the chance to adapt your education to meet these criteria, you should do so! But, if your high school education is or was deficient, you shouldn’t be discouraged. There is still a path to college for you!

The following sections will dig into each of the criteria that selective 4-year colleges are looking for, as well as how to achieve them and which ones matter the most.

6.2.1 A GPA of 3.0 or higher

Most colleges don’t have a set GPA requirement for admissions, but most schools accept students with GPAs of 3.0 or higher—that is, a B average. In the case of schools that do set a minimum GPA requirement, the lowest average allowed is usually no lower than 2.0 (a C average). 

In order to apply to college, you or your parents will need to create a high school transcript and assign grades to each course. You can use those grades to calculate your yearly GPA. Even if you’ve had poor grades in the past, a transcript that shows an upward trend in your senior year—a C average turning into a B average, for instance—shows prospective schools that you’re able to work hard to improve your academic standing. 

Look up the average GPA for students who were accepted into your target school(s). If it’s about the same as yours (or lower!), your application should be strong in this area. If it’s considerably higher, you may need to focus on other areas of your application or consider a different school.

6.2.2 A challenging high school curriculum

When they look at your high school transcript, colleges will want to see a curriculum that meets the same standards as a traditional high school—or even exceeds them. Many high school students choose to take Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses to show an added academic challenge. 

While it’s hard for homeschool students to enroll in AP and IB classes, there are other ways to build an impressive high school curriculum. Enrolling in college classes, either through a local college or community college or through an online program like Coursera, can show colleges that you’re comfortable with academic challenges. Even a lower grade in a challenging course can count for more than a high grade in an easier one. 

If you already know what you want to study in college, you can also adapt your curriculum to those interests. For instance, if you’re interested in a pre-med degree, taking an anatomy course instead of a standard biology class can show an added challenge. If you want to study art, taking a class at a local college is a great way to add rigor to your studies.

6.2.3 Strong standardized test scores

Today, there is a movement for colleges to place less weight on scores from standardized tests like the SAT and ACT than they have in the past—but for homeschooled students, who may not be able to show academic achievement through a robust transcript, these standardized test scores are still important. 

In 2021, the average SAT score was 1060, while the average ACT score was 19.8. To impress colleges, you’ll want to be able to report scores that are above those averages. (Note: because the SAT and ACT are norms-based tests, the score you get is based on how well everyone else taking the test does that year—so getting a high score depends on outperforming 50% of all students who take the test.)

Standardized test-taking is a learnable skill, and one that doesn’t necessarily coincide with other skills. Regardless of if you have or haven’t taken a lot of standardized tests while being homeschooled, CRHE recommends that you devote serious time to studying and familiarizing yourself with the types of questions you should expect to see on the test (see, and you should plan to take several practice tests before sitting down to do the real thing. As many public and private high schools provide specific training and preparation for the SAT/ACT, you will be competing against students who have had the chance to practice a lot. You should give yourself the same advantage that they have. 

Because many studies have shown that standardized tests may not be a good measure of students’ academic strengths, some colleges and universities are going “test-optional,” “test-flexible,” or even “test-blind.” 

  • Test-optional schools allow applicants to decide whether or not to submit test scores. If your scores are higher than average, it’s a good idea to submit them. Well-known test-optional schools include Brandeis University, Bowdoin College, and the University of Chicago. 
  • Test-flexible schools allow students to submit other test scores, such as AP, IB, or CLEP (College-Level Examination Program®) scores, in place of ACT or SAT scores. The only well-known test-flexible school is New York University. 
  • Test-blind schools won’t consider SAT or ACT scores—even if you want to submit them! This is still a rare policy, but University of California schools are among the most well-known test-blind schools.

Before taking the SAT/ACT, you should check what the requirements are for the schools you intend to apply to—which test scores they require or accept, and what scores they are looking for. Each time you take one of these tests, it will cost money, so you want to make sure you are making it count. Both the SAT and ACT allow you to send four free score reports to colleges of your choice (additional ones cost more money), so it’s good to know which schools you want to prioritize.

6.2.4 A strong list of extracurricular activities

Along with your transcript and test scores, you’ll need to create a resume that lists your academic experience and any awards you’ve won as well as your extracurricular activities

The category of “extracurricular activities” is extremely wide—theoretically, it could include almost anything you do regularly outside of your studies! But colleges especially want to see extracurricular activities that demonstrate skills like leadership, community service, and collaborative teamwork

The table below shows some common extracurricular activities that colleges like to see—and what they tell the admissions office about you! 

Extracurricular activity
What it might say about you

Volunteering (e.g. at a food pantry, helping out at church events)

Community-minded, willing to step outside your comfort zone, sense of social responsibility

Clubs and teams (e.g. sports, debate, model UN)

Able to work with a team, interest in special subjects, leadership (if you were a captain or leader)

Part-time jobs and internships

Independent, self-motivated, able to support yourself outside your home, experienced in a professional environment

Creative pursuits and hobbies (e.g. community theater, dance team, or art classes) 

Well-rounded, open to new experiences, willing to work to develop your talents

Political activism (e.g. organizing rallies) 

Informed about current events, willing to stand up for your beliefs


Familiar with other cultures, willing to take risks, curious

6.2.5 A well-written college essay

One of the most important components of any college application is a personal essay. Most colleges give you a specific essay prompt (or allow you to choose from a list of a few), but the point of any college essay is the same: to give an admissions committee a sense of your communication skills, goals, and values, usually by describing a significant experience in your life. 

A strong application essay can fill in gaps in the rest of your application and make the difference between a forgettable applicant and someone that colleges want to see more of. We’ll go over more detailed advice for writing your college essay in 6.3.

Over 900 colleges and universities use the Common Application, which sets essay prompts each year. For the 2022-2023 application season, the prompts were: 

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. 
  2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

6.2.6 Enthusiastic recommendations from mentors

Almost any college will ask for at least one letter of recommendation from a teacher or mentor. You may be able to have your parents write this letter, but it’s usually better to get a recommendation from someone outside your family, such as:

  • A clergy member 
  • A teacher or extracurricular leader
  • A coach
  • A boss or supervisor
  • A mentor or family friend.

We’ll discuss recommendations more in 6.3.

6.2.7 Demonstrated interest in the college

Colleges don’t just want to know that you’re ready for college—they want to know that you’re interested in their college! Many colleges actively track the interest you’ve demonstrated in attending their school, and will give priority to your application based on that. 

A few ways to show your interest in a given college or university are to: 

  • Schedule a campus visit 
  • Request an interview with the admissions office
  • Interact with the school’s recruiters at a college fair
  • Write to admissions staff, financial aid representatives, and/or faculty members with questions about the school
  • Follow the school’s social media accounts 
  • Sign up for email lists

6.2.8 Personal qualities

Most college admissions departments care about more than your test scores or your grades—they also want to know if you’re the kind of person who will be a positive addition to the classrooms, dorm halls, and community spaces on their campus. 

But you won’t submit a checklist of personality traits to your chosen college—instead, you’ll need to show your personal strengths through the other components of your application, from your personal essay and extracurricular activities to the interviews and conversations you have on a campus visit. 

Luckily, the qualities that most colleges look for are things that homeschool students often have in abundance, such as: 

  • Leadership skills
  • Initiative and independence
  • Intellectual curiosity
  • Persistence
  • Willingness to take risks
  • Openness to new experiences
  • Social responsibility and commitment to service

As you start the college application process, take some time to reflect on your personal strengths—and weaknesses. How can you show admissions committees the things that make you you?

So what do colleges care most about?
Liberal arts colleges tend to care most about your personal essay, your extracurricular activities, and your demonstrated interest in the school. Big state schools tend to care most about your grades and test scores. Highly selective schools will focus on all aspects of your application, but your essay and interviews may give you the biggest chance to stand out.

6.3 The college application calendar

Now that you have a working sense of what the college search entails, we’re going to dive into the practical steps you should take to plan your college search, application, and decision process. Below is a sample calendar that starts two years before you would start your first term at college (AKA, the “Junior Fall” term of high school). We adapted this calendar from myFuture’s college planning guide, and recommend checking them out for further information. 

We want to make it clear up front, however, that not everyone follows a two-year planning process, and that it is totally acceptable to apply for university during your final year of high school, or after you graduate high school. Many colleges offer spring admissions, and some offer rolling admissions (meaning they accept applications all year long). There are successful college grads who took a wide variety of paths to higher education! Regardless of when you’re applying, the steps we’re suggesting are universal, although this doesn’t mean that they necessarily have to be done as early as we suggest. At a glance, here are the major necessary steps for applying to college (assuming that you will start classes in August):

  • High School Junior Fall: Research colleges
  • High School Junior Spring: Take standardized tests
  • High School Senior Fall: Apply for colleges
  • High School Senior Spring: Accept offer of admission and stay in touch with your college
  • College Freshman Fall: Start college classes

We’ll now discuss these stages of the college application process in more detail!

6.3.1 Junior Fall

Your Junior Fall, which is a year before you will begin applications, is a good time to start thinking concretely about college. If you don’t already have a photo ID, you should begin the process of getting one, since it will be required to take standardized tests (see Chapter 2 for advice on IDs). Make a list of colleges you're interested in

At this early stage, your list does not have to be concrete. Rather, focus on what colleges you’re drawn to, and what it is about them that allures you. Is it how close they are to where you live, competitive programs in a certain discipline, their affordable tuition cost, and/or other factors? By creating a preliminary list, you will get a sense of what you prioritize in a potential school, which will be immensely helpful when it comes time to choose where you will apply. Optional: take the PSAT

Though you will not be required to submit your scores as part of your college application, the PSAT (Pre-SAT) is a great way to gauge how to prepare for the SAT. There are also opportunities, like the National Merit Scholarship and some state programs, that award scholarships for achieving certain PSAT scores. 

Generally, a student’s school registers them for the PSAT. Homeschool students can still take the PSAT at a local school as “away students” if the school permits them. If you’re interested in pursuing this option, you would need to find a school who would let you test with their students, and you need to do so by September 5th of the school year during which they want to take the test. See CollegeBoard’s web page on this for more information. 

6.3.2 Junior Spring

When you reach your Junior Spring, which is around 6 months before you begin applications, it is wise to begin prioritizing preparation for standardized tests. As mentioned in the previous section, standardized tests are an opportunity for homeschooled applicants to demonstrate their academic abilities, and are therefore a fundamental part of a compelling college application. Choose your test

Most universities require that you submit an SAT or ACT score with your application. US News published a helpful article breaking down the differences between the two tests, which we will  summarize for you here:

SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test)

The SAT is a 154-question test that tests the student on their performance in reading, writing and math. The possible scores range from 400 to 1600, with 400 being the lowest and 1600 being the highest. The SAT is an aptitude test, meaning it tests critical thinking and reasoning skills that do not necessarily map onto high school curriculum.

SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test)

The ACT is a multiple-choice, 215-question test with English, math, reading and science. You also have the option of taking it with or without a writing portion, where you are expected to write an essay. The possible scores range from 1-35, with 20 being the national average. The ACT is more curriculum-based than the SAT, testing students’ abilities in subjects that are covered in their high school courses. Figure out your test timeline

The College Board, the company that runs the SAT, recommends that you take the SAT for the first time during your Junior Spring, so that you have multiple opportunities to improve your score over your Junior Summer and Senior Fall. The same principle applies for the ACT: you can take it multiple times and then send your best score to the colleges you apply to. We recommend giving yourself enough time to take both tests at least twice, even if you think you won’t need extra tries. Study for your test

After you’ve determined when you’re taking the SAT and/or ACT, put that plan into action by starting to study! Plenty of resources exist online to help you prepare for the SAT. College Board publishes free practice tests for the SAT, and ACT  publishes a free test-prep guide. You can also find books by Princeton Review, Barron’s and Kaplan at your local bookstore and watch Youtube videos going over test strategies and explaining test questions in depth. Most test-prep books come with at least one practice test, and you should plan to take several practice tests, using the same time limitation you’ll have on the real test. 

We recommend starting early if you are planning on taking the SAT and ACT. It is best to practice a little bit every single day, rather than try to cram a test’s worth of knowledge in one session. These tests are about strategy and how to take the test, rather than how smart you are. They can be helpful tools for colleges in the admissions process but are not a reflection of how intelligent you are. 

If you are going to request disability accommodations on the SAT or ACT, you may need to submit the request and documentation several months in advance of when you take the test, so be sure to keep this timeline in mind as well. …And then take it!

 If you’ve decided that it’s financially and academically doable for you to start taking standardized tests in your Junior Spring, go ahead and sign up! 

6.3.3 Junior Summer Narrow down your list

Over the summer, you should start thinking more concretely about which schools you want to submit applications to and why. Refer back to Chapter 5 for information on how to select a school. Once you have a standardized test score in hand, you’ll be equipped to categorize your target schools as match, reach, and safety schools. Write down requirements and deadlines for each school

By the end of the summer, we strongly recommend researching what application materials each school requires. For example, some schools require more than just a standardized test score, a transcript, and an application: some want SAT subject tests and letters of recommendation, for example. Moreover, different schools follow different timelines for admissions and decision deadlines. Storing this information altogether in a spreadsheet, document, or notebook is very helpful! Take standardized tests

Whether you’re taking them for the first time or a second time after a first attempt in the Spring, we recommend taking the SAT or ACT during the summer before you apply.  This gives you enough time to make a final attempt in your Senior Fall if you need to improve your score.

For the SAT: Go onto and create an account. On the homepage, you will find a link to register for the SAT. There is a registry fee of $55, but you can apply for a fee waiver if you qualify (SAT fee waiver eligibility criteria). You can locate a testing center that is most convenient for you and will need to bring a photo identification with you on the day of your testing. 

For the ACT: Log onto and select “Register for the ACT.” The registration process is quite similar to the SAT and you are required to pay the same $55 fee, although there are also fee waivers available (ACT fee waiver eligibility and resources). You can find a testing center local to you and will need to bring a photo identification along with you. Visit schools and continue your research

Most universities host prospective student days during the summer, and publicize this information on their website. As you narrow down schools you are serious about applying to, determine how feasible it is to visit each school (many students visit with a family member, friend, or mentor). Visiting colleges—even just your top 1-2 schools—before you apply can give you a lot of useful information you can’t get any other way. How reliable is campus transportation? How does the dorm food taste? What’s the vibe in the student center? Do the classrooms have any windows? Where’s the nearest pizza joint? If possible, on a campus visit you should take a guided tour, interview with an admissions officer, visit a class, and stay in the dorms. The College Board has more advice about how to get the most out of a campus visit.

While college visits give you the opportunity to learn more about the college, the college will also consider your visit to be an expression of interest (see section 6.2.7), and will take it into account when determining whether to admit you. College visits are especially recommended for the most selective schools. But though it’s great to visit schools, please note that it is not necessary to visit a school to decide whether you want to apply. Visiting can be difficult both financially and logistically, and a great deal of information about a school can be gleaned from researching it online! There are also other ways to express demonstrated interest in a school, so you shouldn’t worry that an inability to visit will ruin your chances of admission.

6.3.4 Senior Fall

It’s now the time where the rubber meets the road. It’s time to start your applications! There are two main methods of applying to college: the first is The Common App and the second is a college-specific application. Finish standardized tests

Before moving onto the application, be sure that you have finished up standardized testing. The Fall when you apply is generally your last opportunity to take standardized tests before you submit your scores with your application. If you need to improve your scores, carve out some time to sign up and study! Decide on your deadlines & timeline

College application season is full of deadlines. Usually, a single college application will have multiple deadlines. For a deeper dive, you can check out this helpful article by the College Essay guy. We have summarized the four main deadlines below for your reference:

Early Action Deadline: For your top choice universities, you can send in your application early in order to have an early decision from your college. Most early action deadlines are in November and are non-binding, meaning that, if you are accepted by this university, then you are not required to accept this offer of admission. The benefits to applying early action are to demonstrate a heightened interest in the college and to see your results faster. A potential drawback is that an early action application does not increase your chances of acceptance. 

Early Decision Deadline: Like early action, early decision deadlines typically are in November and colleges will release their decision by mid December. However, unlike early action applications, early decision deadlines are binding, meaning that, if you are accepted by this university, you are required to accept their offer of admission. You can only apply to one college for early decision, while you can apply to several for early action. An extra benefit of applying early decision is that, typically, your chances of being admitted are higher.

Regular Decision Deadline: The most common method for applying to college is to apply regular decision. Most colleges set a deadline for January 1st, but some schools may have a different deadline. Regular decision applications are not binding and typically give your acceptance or rejection in March or April. 

Rolling Admission Deadline: Some colleges offer admission on a rolling basis, meaning that there is no set application deadline for this specific school. Typically, schools that use rolling admission will admit students based on a first-come, first-serve basis. Contact recommenders

Most college applications require you to list 1-3 recommenders. These are people who can speak to your personal qualities that we detailed in 6.2.8. Think of a teacher, a sports coach, a boss at your part-time job – these are all great choices for your recommenders. Once you have decided who you want to write your recommendation, you will need to speak with this person and ask them politely to write you one. If you are able to speak in person, we recommend you do so. If not, a polite email works. We have attached a useful template below:

Dear Mr./Mrs. ______,

I hope you are doing well! I am currently in the process of applying to X college for X major. I was wondering if you were able to write me a recommendation for this application. You were the first person to come to mind due to my fulfilling experiences _________ (give examples of lessons you liked, advice you received, lessons you learned from your job). If you are able to, I would greatly appreciate it. The application deadline is ________, although I am hoping to have the application in by _____. Please let me know if there is any more information you would like from me to assist you. Again, I thank you for your time. 


______ (Your name here)

When asking for a letter of recommendation, it is best practice to give the recommender at least 4 weeks notice. These recommenders are typically busy people—teachers who are teaching classes and grading papers, bosses who are managing companies, coaches who are in the middle of sports season—and, if they agree to write our recommendation, they are taking extra time out of their day to do this for you. Please appreciate this; they did not have to do this. They did this because they want to help you and believe you are capable. Take the compliment! 

You will be notified once a recommender uploads your recommendation to your application portal, whether it be on The Common App or on a specific college application’s website. Do not forget to send your recommender another thank you when they do so! Fill out your application!

The Common App: Most universities utilize The Common Application. The Common App is essentially a generic college application that you can send to multiple colleges. The Common App opens on August 1st of every year, and the process begins with you filling out basic information about yourself and your educational background. You can add teachers and instructors to your Common App profile, so they can send letters of recommendation (more on this soon). The Common App also requires you to submit seven short essays, so the colleges can get a feel for your writing style and your personality. 

Specific College Applications: Some universities are not on The Common App; most of these are private universities. If you are interested in applying to a university that is not on The Common App, you should locate that specific college’s website. Most will have a tab called “Apply” where you can access the application. Although they are not on The Common App, much of the information required will be the same. 

Most college applications must be submitted electronically, so if you don’t have access to a computer, you may want to look into alternate ways to submit an application.

The first part of your application usually includes general questions such as your name, birthdate, address, and contact information. Colleges will use your email or phone numbers to send out brochures, flyers, other informational letters, and eventually, your decision letter.

In the Common App, this is listed under “profile” and includes the following sections:

    • Personal information such as name (including an optional preferred name) and date of birth
    • Address 
    • Contact details
    • Demographics including gender, legal sex, pronouns, military status, ethnicity, and race (all of these questions are generally optional)
    • Language
    • Geography and nationality including where you were born, how long you’ve lived in the U.S., and your citizenship status
    • Common App Fee Waiver

This last section is very important! The Common App fee varies depending on which colleges you apply to, but you can get a waiver if you meet any one of the criteria listed on the application, including being eligible to participate in a reduced lunch program, being a ward of the state or an orphan, receiving public assistance, or being eligible to receive a Pell Grant, among others. If you don’t qualify for any of their listed criteria, you may still qualify if you can get a community leader to provide a supporting statement on why you need the waiver.

Click on each section below to learn more about how to fill each out!

Most colleges will also ask for at least one of your parents’ names and information—including their contact information, but this part is usually optional. The Common App is especially understanding if you have limited information on one or both of your parents. All information is optional, and you can select “I have limited information about this parent” if needed. 


This section is listed as “family” in the Common App and includes: 

  • Parent 1 which will ask for their name, occupation, and education level
  • Parent 2 which will ask the same for your other parent
  • Sibling which will ask how many siblings you have, their names, and ages

Now we’re getting to one of the most important parts of your application. Colleges will be looking at your educational history and using that information to decide whether or not you’ll be a good fit for their campus. What school did you attend? How did you do academically? These are the questions you’ll be expected to answer. 

You may be concerned about what to list here as a homeschooled student or a homeschool alumni. The Common App has a search function specifically for you to find your school, and this list includes homeschool co-op organizations. If you were a part of one, you can choose that! Otherwise, simply type in “homeschool” and scroll to the bottom. There will be a homeschool option you can choose.

In addition to clarifying which school you attend, you can also input the following:

  • Current or most recent secondary/high school
  • Other secondary/high schools which is an optional section in which you can list any other schools you may have attended
  • Colleges & universities if you have ever taken coursework at a college or university
  • Grades, which includes your graduating class size, your class rank, and GPA (the last two of which are optional!)
  • Current or most recent courses
  • Honors if you received any honors or academic recognition you’d like to report
  • Community-based organizations if any organizations helped you with your application
  • Future plans which will ask you to list a career interest (undecided is an option) and the highest degree you’d like to earn

The Common App also has a section labeled “courses and grades”, which asks you to fill out all courses you’ve taken throughout high school and the grades you’ve received in each of them. However, only some colleges require this section to be filled out. If you are required to fill this out, you can input the information from your homeschool transcript (see Chapter 2.2.2).

SAT and/or ACT scores are optional on the Common App, though some colleges may specifically require it. Tests such as the ACT, SAT, or any AP tests will send an official report to the colleges you request them to, but this offers you a chance to self-report if you choose to. This is useful if your test scores haven’t been sent out to your colleges yet.

The Common App lists this as “Testing” and only includes one section, “Tests Taken.” You can include as many tests as you choose, or none if you’d like to leave it to official score reporting.

Are you a part of any clubs? Have you ever volunteered for an organization? Do you have any hobbies? Do you help out in a religious institution? Are you an athlete? Do you babysit your siblings? This is the place to report that! Colleges are interested in more than just your grades, but it’s hard to tell a lot about a potential student from their transcript alone. Your activities will help to show colleges what skills and characteristics you have, such as responsibility, leadership, or teamwork.

If you weren’t able to participate in many clubs or organizations growing up, that’s okay! There are other places you can look for experience. If you were ever regularly responsible for caring for a younger sibling or an elderly relative, cooking or running errands, or had to work for family income, you can include these as family responsibilities. You can also include your hobbies to show off your artistic, musical, or athletic skills. If an experience has been important to shaping you as a person, include it!

The Common App lists this as “activities” and you can include anywhere from zero to ten activities. List as many as you choose!

Most colleges require some form of writing in their applications, and this will most likely take you the longest time to fill out. If possible, you should use a word processor or notebook to draft your essay responses (and save the drafts!) until they are polished and ready to submit, so you don’t have to worry about composing and editing them within the Common App software.

The Common App personal essay will likely be your most important written piece in the entire application process. Colleges are looking for two things when they read your essay: your ability to write clearly and concisely, and how you distinguish yourself in your writing. This essay is where the admissions team will learn the most about you as an individual.  Your essay can be anywhere from 250–650 words, so make what you say count!

The Common App includes seven prompts for you to choose from… however, the last prompt allows you to choose whatever topic you’d like, so you can write about anything under the sun. If you’re having trouble thinking of what to write, try to think about your identity. Are there any interests you have that define you as a person? What’s a struggle you faced and how did you overcome it? Is there any period of personal growth you’ve gone through that you could write about?

In other words, What makes you you?

Other colleges may have their own prompts and essay requirements in addition to the Common Apps, so make sure you find out ahead of time how much you need to write. You want to give yourself ample time to reflect and write meaningful essays, so don’t wait until the last minute for these! 

If possible, once you’ve drafted your essay, have a family member, friend, teacher, or mentor look over it and provide feedback and proofreading. While your essay should be your own writing, many students who attend the most selective colleges have parents and tutors helping them fine-tune their essays. You should use the resources you have available to make sure your essay is your best writing. Ypsilanti District Library has a great resource on how to approach the college essay, and the Fair Opportunity Project offers free feedback on your college essay.

Finally, this “Writing” section of the Common App also includes an “additional information” section. This section is a bit of a free for all. If COVID-19, a natural disaster, or other community disruption affected you or your family in a substantial way that may have impacted your education or personal history, this spot is where you can explain.

6.3.5 Senior Spring

Congratulations! You’re now either in the final stages of submitting applications or waiting to hear back. Senior Spring is all about decisions. Finish up applications

While many schools have a deadline in early Winter, some accept applications through Spring. Stay on top of announcements

Some schools have a set day on which they release decisions, and some conduct rolling admissions, which means that they review applications as they are sent in. As you receive notifications from the colleges you have applied for, be sure to read all of the documents they send you, which may include time-sensitive invitations to participate in scholarships or other programs. You don’t want to miss out! Fill out FAFSA and compare financial aid packages

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is a critical component of setting yourself up financially for college. We will dedicate a whole chapter, Chapter 8, to financing your undergraduate experience! Attend accepted student days!

The schools you’re accepted to will send you information about accepted student days. If you have been accepted to multiple colleges, visiting during accepted student days can be very helpful in deciding which admissions offer to accept, and schools often offer financial assistance for attending! Make your decision

The decisions are in! You have heard back from all the colleges you have applied for; most people will receive a mixture of acceptances and rejections.  We recommended revisiting Section 5.2 as you are deciding which college to attend. Consider factors such as cost, programs, and environments in your decision.  For regular decision applicants, there is typically a National Decision Day—regularly May 1st—where you have to commit to a college. You will need to sign a commitment letter as well as read over your financial aid offer. More details can be found in Chapter 8.

6.3.6 Senior Summer

You’ve made it. Now you’re ready to start the transition to university life! Stay in touch with your college!

During the summer, you will need to submit several other documents. Typically, you will need to submit a copy of your high school transcript to confirm you completed high school (if you hadn’t already at the point of admission) and a copy of your standardized test scores and other tests like AP test scores. Your college will send you specific guidance on how to submit these documents. 

You may also need to take placement tests for certain subject areas, and some colleges require all incoming first-year students to complete summer reading or homework, so keep an eye out for these notifications from your school. 

Your university will also send you information on move-in, orientation, and financial aid over the summer. You should use the summer to prepare for your first year as a college student, including visiting your doctor (most colleges require certain vaccinations and a physical exam), planning your classes, and attending orientation, which is often a weeklong introduction to the campus and college life. This post has some other good advice on preparing to matriculate, meaning to start classes at a school where you are enrolled.

As your matriculation to university approaches, don’t be shy about reaching out to faculty and staff with questions about logistics, and any questions you might have about coursework. Moreover, incoming first years often take the initiative to create informal channels for getting to know each other before move-in, so take on those opportunities as you see fit!

6.4 Conclusion

Applications are tough, but they don’t have to be overwhelming. It all comes down to your ability to split your work up into manageable pieces. Additionally, you have to research what the school you’re applying for wants in a student, and that will allow you to focus on what’s important. 

By the end of this chapter, we hope you have gained

  • Insight into the admissions process
  • Ideas for what you can include in your own application
  • Confidence in your ability to write a college application essay

Applying to a four-year college is just the start of your next educational journey. It will take time, but it could be one of the best decisions you’ve ever made—it could change your life for the better. But if you don’t think college is the right step for you, that’s okay too! That’s why we’ll use the next chapter to explore other post-secondary educational opportunities, such as vocational schools. No matter where you end up, we’ll be here to guide you there.  There are countless paths to success, and we’re confident you’ll soon find yourself taking one of them.

Scroll to Top