Getting to Know the College Admissions Process: From Applications to Acceptance Letters
Get the information you need to make the college admissions process as smooth as possible, learn the steps to submitting your college applications, and find valuable resources to help you along the way.
Last Updated: 04/22/2021
Are you a high school senior? Maybe you’re a mother of two who finally has the time and resources to earn your college degree. Whatever your specific case, you know the college application and admissions process is your first obstacle. Between gathering transcripts and letters of recommendation to making sure your test scores are sufficient and your essays are perfect, the journey to college can seem difficult. Luckily, there are steps to take and strategies to employ that can make the road to a quality higher education much smoother.
If you’re ready to start creating your college shortlist and want to put your best foot forward on your applications, it’s never too early to start preparing. Learn what the college admissions timeline might look like for you, discover the steps to take to submit a killer college application, and gather resources and advice to help you get accepted.
The College Application Timeline for High Schoolers
While you’re never too young to start thinking about college, things should kick into a higher gear around your junior year. This is the time to get serious about your future college journey by taking standardized tests, researching colleges, and considering recommendations. Here’s a rough idea of what your junior and senior year should look like in terms of prepping for college.
Your Junior Year
|September||Register for the PSAT if you plan to take it. While it isn’t required, earning a qualifying score on the PSAT sets you up for the National Merit Scholarship Program.|
|September||Start creating a comprehensive list of potential colleges. You can change it as needed, but this will help you with requesting materials, planning visits, and getting organized.|
|October||If you plan to take the ACT your junior year, now is the time to register for a November or February exam. This test can give you a baseline on where to focus your studies in the coming months.|
|November||Whether you plan to participate in an internship or summer program between your junior and senior years, many opportunities set deadlines for the end of the year. Gather your materials and get ready to submit applications.|
|Winter Break||Now is a great time to tour colleges on your list of potential schools.|
|February||Check with your guidance counselor about signing up for AP classes. Consider meeting with AP teachers to figure out which courses best serve your collegiate goals.|
|February||If you want to take the March SAT, register for it now. Taking both standardized tests helps you see which one better plays to your strengths.|
|May||Ask for teacher recommendations from any instructors who can speak well of your strengths and about what you’ll bring to a college.|
Your Senior Year
|Summer Before Senior Year||Begin compiling a list of scholarships to apply for. Note deadlines and any other requirements you don’t want to forget.|
|September||Register to take the SAT and ACT for a second time later in the fall. Take some time between now and the exams to address areas needing some focused study.|
|September||Begin working on your college application essays, allowing plenty of time for others to read them and provide edits to help you make strong revisions.|
|October||Collect all the required materials for college applications, including transcripts, test scores, recommendation letters, and required forms. Your guidance counselor can help you with this process.|
|November||Apply to any early decision/early action schools. While early decision schools require a commitment if accepted, early action schools allow you to wait to make a decision.|
|January||Submit applications to the rest of your chosen schools. Most regular decision schools set deadlines between January and March of your senior year.|
|January||You can submit your FAFSA application any time after October 1st of your senior year, but most families wait until the first of the year to gather relevant financial documentation. FAFSA funds are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, so get your application in ASAP.|
|March/April||Decisions from schools should start arriving during this time. After receiving acceptances, discuss your options with family and/or a trusted mentor. Carefully review the financial aid packages offered by each school.|
|May||Most regular decision schools require an enrollment deposit by May 1st to secure your place. Depending on your financial circumstances, you may qualify for a fee waiver.|
The College Application Process: Step by Step
The college application process includes many moving parts and overlapping timelines, making it essential for students to get organized early on and stay that way. The steps below can help you stay on top of the process and make sure nothing gets overlooked.
Applications & Admissions for Online College
Despite the persistent belief that online college programs provide an easier path toward admission, this is not often the case, especially at prestigious institutions. In fact, a study conducted by U.S. News & World Report found that the average acceptance rate for online bachelor programs is only 2.4% higher than campus-based programs. Online programs are just as rigorous and demanding of your time as on-campus ones.
Like campus-based programs, many online degrees have firm admission dates rather than rolling acceptance. While online schools may offer more start dates than traditional programs, they still expect you to submit materials on time. Most online programs, like traditional ones, also require applicants to submit a comprehensive application and accompanying documentation.
The one exception to some undergraduate online programs may be that ACT/SAT scores are less frequently mandated. Because online degrees often appeal more to older, working adults, admission departments typically drop this requirement. You should still expect to supply a personal essay or statement of goals, letters of recommendation, transcripts from any schools previously attended, and financial aid information. The majority also set minimum GPA requirements for admissions.
College Admissions Advice for Transfer Students
Whether transferring from a community college to a four-year university or moving from one college to another to finish your degree, be sure to understand the process established for transfer students. We look at some of the most critical components, including transfer credits and financial aid, in this section.
- Ensure your credits will transfer
After months or even years of completing college credits, you want to make sure as many as possible transfer to your new school. Most community colleges maintain articulation agreements with four-year universities, and some schools provide online tools for predicting eligibility. You can also send your transcripts to your new school for a transfer assessment. If too few credits transfer, consider looking at a school that accepts them.
- Visit your new campus
Visiting your new campus as a transfer student helps you feel more at home and gets you comfortable with the different academic buildings before classes begin. Try scheduling meetings with your professors and administrators to familiarize them with your story and objectives. Since many of your classmates will already be acclimated, these activities can help put you on a level playing field.
- Understand the requirements for transfer students
While every university sets its own requirements for transfer student admission, most mandate similar materials. You won’t need to submit SAT/ACT scores again, but you will need to demonstrate completion of minimum high school course requirements and possess a minimum GPA in already-completed college-level courses. Your transfer school will also want transcripts from your high school and college, letters of recommendation, and an admissions essay.
- Choose a major that aligns with your existing credits
If you’ve already started working towards degree-specific coursework, consider how those credits might transfer with you. Choosing a different major may result in credits not transferring or even applying toward general education requirements. Remember that the more credits you can transfer to your new school, the more money and time you can save.
- Don’t forget financial aid and scholarships
Even though you may have saved money attending a community college, financial aid can still help you avoid taking on a lot of debt at a four-year institution. Also, scholarships received at your previous school do not necessarily transfer with you, so check to be sure. Awards specifically for transfer students and scholarships for juniors and seniors do exist, making it easier to fund your education. Start your search early since scholarships and grants tend to be competitive.
What About Nontraditional Students?
Since you’ll bring a unique perspective as a nontraditional student, it’s important to understand how to convey your background and experiences properly to both admissions panelists and program administrators. We address some common questions below to help nontraditional students get started right.
College Application & Admissions Resources
The resources below can help both traditional and nontraditional students confidently navigate the application and admissions processes.
- Campus Visits: Before You Go
CollegeBoard provides this guide to help you prepare for and get the most out of college visits.
- College Application Fee Waivers
Learn how you can cut the cost of getting into college with valuable application fee waivers and other student discounts.
- College Interviews: Practice Questions and Strategies
If one of your prospective schools requires an interview, go into it feeling strong and confident with these tips and tricks.
- Crafting an Unforgettable College Essay
The Princeton Review offers this resource to ensure your story gets told effectively.
- How to Apply to College with the Common App
Common App provides a step-by-step guide to help you navigate this process and apply to multiple colleges simultaneously.
- How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation: Complete Guide
PrepScholar provides a fail-proof plan to reduce the stress of asking for recommendation letters.
- How to Finalize Your College List
BigFuture aims to help make the process less stressful by laying out step-by-step guidance on picking prospective colleges.
- How to Win A College Scholarship
With these types of awards being particularly competitive, use these tried-and-true methods to stand out.
- SAT & ACT Study Guide
Kaplan provides test overviews for each exam along with proven study methods and expert tips for acing them.
This free program helps search equivalency to ascertain which credits are likely to transfer from your old school to your new school.