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Getting to Know the College Admissions Process: From Applications to Acceptance Letters

The college admissions process can feel daunting, but you’ve come to the right place for support. To get into top schools, you need a plan — and this page provides it. Discover what steps you can take in your junior and senior years of high school to boost your chances of success.

Author: Kathleen Curtis
Editor: STEPS Staff

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



SeptemberRegister 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.
SeptemberStart 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.
OctoberIf 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.
NovemberWhether 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 BreakNow is a great time to tour colleges on your list of potential schools.
FebruaryCheck 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.
FebruaryIf 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.
MayAsk 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 YearBegin compiling a list of scholarships to apply for. Note deadlines and any other requirements you don’t want to forget.
SeptemberRegister 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.
SeptemberBegin working on your college application essays, allowing plenty of time for others to read them and provide edits to help you make strong revisions.
OctoberCollect 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.
NovemberApply 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.
JanuarySubmit applications to the rest of your chosen schools. Most regular decision schools set deadlines between January and March of your senior year.
JanuaryYou 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/AprilDecisions 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.
MayMost 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.

Step 1

Create Your College Shortlist

Many factors go into the decision-making process when considering the college you want to attend. Those include:

  • Location and distance from home
  • Campus culture
  • Available degrees
  • Extracurricular programming
  • College type (e.g., public or private)
  • Overall cost
  • Alumni resources and outcomes

If you plan to attend in person, scheduling a campus visit can give you a feel for the school’s culture and help ascertain if it’s a good fit for you. Cost should also play a significant role in your considerations, so applying to a school with few funding options probably isn’t the best choice if you want to graduate with as little debt as possible.

Step 2

Gather Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation show admission panels a side of you that often isn’t apparent on a general application. Teachers, mentors, and others who know you well can highlight the unique qualities and experiences you offer. Start asking for these recommendations as soon as possible in your senior year, giving those writing your letters ample time to carefully consider what they write. Most schools typically ask for two to three letters from former or current teachers, supervisors, mentors, and others who know you well. Family members are usually prohibited from writing letters of recommendation.

Step 3

Give Standardized Tests Your All

When preparing for college, you’ll likely take the PSAT your junior year and the ACT/SAT your junior and senior years. These tests help determine factors like acceptance to college, qualifying for merit-based scholarships, and acceptance into individual programs at your chosen university. Taking the SAT and ACT multiple times helps you figure out which test best speaks to your skills and identifies areas needing improvement. The average SAT is 1051, and the average ACT score is 20.6. These scores will help you get into some schools, but you’ll need higher scores for more competitive programs.

Step 4

Get Going on Your College Essays

Your college essay can cause an admissions panel to look at your application more closely, making it vital that you spend ample time on this component. Begin brainstorming ideas for your essay by thinking about your objectives, values, and experiences. Then consider your structure. Do you want to focus on challenges and overcoming them a vision for your future or some other unique hook? As important as it is to write a solid first draft of your essay, leave plenty of time to edit and revise extensively based on feedback. Ask your English teacher or your school’s writing center, if it has one, for help.

Step 5

Determine Which Applications You Need & Create Online Accounts

While some colleges still maintain individual applications tailored specifically to the institution, more than 900 schools now accept the Common Application. This allows you to submit one application to multiple schools, saving you time filling out multiple applications, writing different essays, and asking references to send letters to numerous locations. While the Common Application is widely used, you may still come across the Universal College Application or the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success Application. Once you know which ones you’ll be using, create accounts with each. The cost of applications can add up quickly so don’t forget to look into college application fee waivers.

Step 6

Double and Triple Check Everything

Preparing your college application requires a lot of moving parts. You need to collect all your required transcripts, test scores, and other documentation and write your essays, personal statements, and other required writings. After collecting all these materials, leave some time to review everything carefully. Ask someone else to look over everything, too, and consider reading each page out loud to help you catch mistakes or errors you previously missed.

Step 7

Apply for Financial Aid & Scholarships (Optional)

While not all students need this step, most will. Once you are accepted into a college, you need to know you can cover the cost and getting financial aid for your degree can be a huge help. While it isn’t required as part of the application process, filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is still critical because it qualifies you for federal grants, work-study, and loans. Many schools also use details from your FAFSA to make decisions about institutional scholarships. Also consider researching awards offered by your state or school, professional associations, or other groups related to your chosen major.

If you’re thinking of entering a profession aimed at helping the public, check out the top 30 scholarships for public service students.

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.

Who is considered nontraditional?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nontraditional students typically fall into at least one of seven categories. These include:

  • Delayed enrollment into postsecondary education
  • Part-time enrollment
  • Full-time employment
  • Financial independence for financial aid purposes
  • Married with dependents
  • Single parent
  • No high school diploma

With their unique combination of these categories, nontraditional students also typically bring a higher level of experience, discipline, and focus to a college campus. As a result, they often stand out in the classroom as leaders both to students and professors.

Is the application process different for nontraditional students?

The application process for nontraditional students often mirrors that of more traditional students. However, the process typically differs in two key ways, financial aid and examinations.

Students over age 24 automatically file as independents on their taxes, meaning they do not include their parents’ financial information on the FAFSA. This can affect the types of financial aid students are eligible to receive.

In addition, nontraditional students don’t need to submit ACT/SAT scores. They may be able to take CLEP exams, however, and test out of some general education courses based on life and professional experience.

What documents do I need as a nontraditional student?

For the most part, documents required of nontraditional students are the same as those for all other applicants. Begin by submitting a completed application and paying your non-refundable application fee. Other required documentation often includes:

  • Evidence of a high school diploma, GED, HiSET, or TASC
  • Transcripts from high school and other schools attended
  • Recommendation letters
  • Goal statement/personal essay
  • Evidence of any CLEP exams passed
  • Independent financial aid information
  • Immunization certificate
  • Verification of Lawful Presence form if seeking in-state tuition

Though the documents may be the same for all students, they also provide opportunities to set yourself apart from other students. Use them to showcase the unique perspective you bring to the college as a nontraditional student.

College Application & Admissions Resources

The resources below can help both traditional and nontraditional students confidently navigate the application and admissions processes.