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Applying to College : An Overview

The college application process can feel overwhelming. There are decisions to make, deadlines to meet, and essays to write. However, taking it one task at a time will help make it easier. Below is an overview of the major tasks involved in the college application process:

Task 1: Deciding Where to Apply

Most people cannot apply to every college they may consider because it would be time consuming and could cost a great deal of money in application fees. However, it is recommended to apply to enough schools to ensure that you are accepted to at least one of your preferred schools. The number of schools a student should apply to depends on the selectivity of their first choice. For admissions candidates whose first choice is to attend a college with an open door policy and are not applying to a selective major, one application may be sufficient. However, for candidates whose first choice of college is a highly selective school, more applications are recommended.

In general, candidates should apply to at least three colleges. One of the schools could be a dream school (the school you would most like to attend but cannot be sure you would be accepted to). Another school on your list should be a safety school. This is a school that you believe you will have no trouble being accepted to and would be willing to attend if you are not accepted at your other choices. Candidates should decide the number of schools to apply to based on their interests, time, and finances.

Task 2: Deciding When to Apply

Having selected the schools you want to apply to, you will need to check their Web sites for their application deadlines. Admissions deadlines are typically in January; however, always check with the school to be certain.

Some colleges will offer an early admissions option to applicants. Be aware that sometimes these early admissions agreements are binding. A binding agreement means that the applicant agrees to attend that school if accepted.

There are also colleges that have rolling admission. This means that they will accept applications until classes begin. However, it is still best not to procrastinate because earlier applicants may have an admissions advantage because the school might have more spaces available earlier in the year.

Task 3: Completing the Application

Once you have decided where and when to apply, you must complete the application and submit it. Completing admissions essays can take a considerable amount of time. Therefore, it is best to complete the application in several sittings. It is also important to proofread your application prior to submitting because you want your application to have a professional appearance.

Some schools allow you to complete the Common Application in place of their application. This will save you time if you are applying to more than one school that allows you to use the Common Application. Colleges that accept the Common Application often have a supplemental form; it is important to check to see if this is a requirement at the schools you intend to apply to.

Task 4: Applying for Financial Aid

To apply for financial aid, complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). There is a paper version and an electronic version. To complete the electronic version, visit http://www.fafsa.ed.gov. Be careful of other sites that claim they will file your aid application for you. You could end up being charged a fee or even being scammed.

Apply for financial aid as soon as possible after the first of January. Grants (financial aid money you do not have to repay) may no longer be available for students who wait too long to apply. It is not necessary to know which school you will attend before you apply for aid. You can list up to four potential schools on the paper FAFSA and ten schools on the electronic FAFSA.

Task 5: Selecting a College

If you have been accepted to more than one college, you will have to choose which college to attend. If possible, visit each of the colleges you are considering to help you find a good fit for yourself. As you are deciding which college to attend, there are many factors to consider such as academic offerings, distance from home, cost of attendance, and the surrounding area.


Applying to college is a heavily involved process. Each task is comprised of its own steps. To prevent the process from becoming too daunting, it can be helpful to complete one task at a time.


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