How To Get Into College: Ultimate Guide to Admissions

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College Admissions Tips, Resources, & timelines

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Applying to and gaining acceptance to college is an experience unlike any other for students and their families. The requirements for getting into college are numerous—from keeping grades up and writing entrance essays to taking standardized entrance exams and gathering recommendations, there are many steps to complete. Getting into a school that represents a student’s abilities and aspirations doesn’t have to feel like climbing a mountain, though. The following guide serves as an insider’s look at the entire process, offering a helpful timeline, tips on how to crush the college application, information for transfer and nontraditional students, and an interview with an expert in the field.

College Admission Timeline for Seniors

Senior year can feel like crunch time, with the pressures of the final two semesters of high school aligning with the demands of college admissions panels. The following timeline helps prospective college students and their families create a realistic schedule to ensure nothing falls by the wayside.

Summer Before Senior YearBefore the rigors of senior year kick in, consider using the summer months to visit a few of the schools at the top of your list. 
August: Map Out Senior YearSeniors applying to multiple schools should review deadlines for prospective schools and create a calendar showing when things like applications, grades, essays, and recommendations are due to ensure they don’t miss a deadline.
September: EssaysDepending on the number of schools to which a student intends to apply, they could find themselves writing a variety of different essays for their application.
October: Take the ACT or SATThe standardized entrance exam a student takes is sometimes dependent on their geographic location and the region of prospective schools.
October: Complete the FAFSAThe Free Application for Federal Student Aid can be completed anytime after October 1 and relies on financial information about the student’s family if they are a dependent, or their own if they are an independent adult.
November: Ask for and gather recommendationsThe number of recommendations required by institutions varies, but they typically want to see at least one academic and one personal character recommendation.
December: Send ApplicationsStudents applying for early decision need to submit their applications by December, while regular decision applications are accepted early in the new year. 
February: InterviewsInterviews are not always required, but students applying to schools that regularly conduct them should do their research and ensure they feel both confident and prepared. 
March: Pick Your SchoolThe majority of decisions are made in March and April, although schools with rolling admissions may send letters sooner. 
April: Review Financial AidAfter reviewing available federal financial aid, receiving news of scholarship decisions, and discussing available finances with their families, students need to see how their available aid compares to the total cost of their chosen institution.
May: Tie Up Loose EndsWhether it be finding a work-study job, taking AP exams, finalizing housing, or sending any outstanding documents, this is the time to do it.

Cracking the College Acceptance Code

Although every college has different requirements, students who are able to get into the mindset of providing colleges what they are looking for while also staying true to themselves are far more likely to feel confident walking into Decision Day. Some of the most common questions about the application process are answered below.

What are colleges looking for?

Ultimately, different schools are looking for different characteristics, yet many overarching qualities are sought by all. While schools like Harvard use a thorough rubric and rigorous application review process for the 5.2 percent of applicants they accept, institutions with less competition have more lenient requirements. Regardless of the school, the main characteristics an admissions panel looks for is an impressive academic career, demonstration of extracurricular and leadership interests, quality of written work, and solid recommendations from professionals who understand their potential.

Where should students apply?

Selecting schools to apply to is based on numerous factors, including grade point averages, the types of classes taken, predicted standardized test scores, and extracurricular activities of note. School counselors and admissions professionals typically suggest students apply to a range of institutions, including reach, target, and safety schools.

What are safe schools? What are reach schools?

The science of deciding where to apply is largely based on common advice from admissions counselors to apply to a range of schools with varied requirements for academics and extracurricular activities. Schools that are most closely aligned with a student’s academic record are typically called match schools, while those that are slightly above theirperformance are known as reach schools.
Conversely, schools that are below their
average levels of performance are known
as safety schools.

How many schools should you apply to?

With the introduction of the Common Application, today’s students frequently apply to many different options, giving them lots of choices when it comes to selecting their final choice. According to advice provided by The College Board, students should plan to apply to one or two safety schools, two to four match schools, and one or two reach schools.

Demystifying the College Application

Given the number of requirements to submit even one college application, applying to multiple schools can seem overwhelming at first glance. The following section breaks down individual components of the application to help students understand exactly what’s required.

The College Application Checklist

  1. Pick colleges that reflect who you are and what you want from life
    Review college websites, talk to school counselors, consult your family, and spend quality time thinking about what you want your college experience to be. Make a list of all of these things and keep them in mind while crafting your list of prospective schools.
  2. Sign up for and take the ACT or SAT
    You’ll need to take one of these standardized tests by the December of senior year at the very latest, so it’s important to get a testing date and review a test prep book early in senior year to ensure you’re ready when exam day comes.
  3. Draft and finalize your college essay
    The essay is sent as an attachment to the college application, but chances are it will take much longer to complete than the application itself. Find out what the essay prompt is early and allow yourself at least one month to think about the question fully before setting pen to paper.
  4. Ask for letters of recommendation
    It’s important to remember that, more than likely, you aren’t the only student asking a teacher for a recommendation letter. Try to ask your top choices early, providing them time to write a thoughtful and well-considered letter on your behalf.
  5. Apply to your chosen schools
    Whether seeking early or regular acceptance, being mindful of deadlines is crucial at this stage. Create a calendar with the deadlines of all the schools to which you plan to apply and consult it regularly. You’ll also need to pay any required application fees at this point if you don’t qualify for a waiver or your schools don’t accept them.
  6. Complete the FAFSA
    October 1 is the first day students can fill out this application, and it’s best to do it as close to that date as possible as many schools offer funds on a first-come, first-served basis.
  7. Provide supplementary information
    Whether it’s a portfolio or an interview, make sure you’re thinking about information you’ll want to include or topics you’ll want to discuss. 8 Review letters and accept

Depending on when you applied, acceptance or rejection letters can begin arriving early in the spring semester of senior year. Students who gain acceptance to a reach school early on may elect to accept before hearing decisions from other institutions, while others may want to gain a fuller picture of their options before signing the dotted line. Many decisions are also based on how much financial aid a school is able to provide, so review these numbers carefully and discuss with family. Download & Print Checklist

Nontraditional Student College Acceptance

Whether an adult student is applying to college for the first time in their lives or returning to college after years away, this population faces unique requirements that can sometimes be confusing after stepping away from academia for an extended time. A few of the points to be aware of so they aren’t stressful when the time comes include:

  • No standardized tests
    Because the ACT and SAT were developed to test a high school student’s familiarity with recently learned materials, these exams aren’t commonly used for students who have been out of high school for many years. Some schools instead use placement exams, such as COMPASS or ACCUPLACER, instead.
  • Flexible programs are readily available
    Unlike programs designed for 17 and 18-year-old students who more than likely plan to devote their full attention to academics, administrators of adult education programs recognize nontraditional students likely don’t have that luxury. Many schools allow adult students to start at varied times throughout the year, offer evening and weekend courses, and allow students to enroll part-time.
  • Life experience counts
    Even if an adult student has no prior college classes to their name, that doesn’t mean their life experiences won’t earn them credits. Many schools conduct prior learning assessments to see if previous experiences – be it past jobs, professional development opportunities, military service, or other independent study, can count toward postsecondary hours.
  • It may be hard to dig up necessary papers
    Although parts of the process are slightly easier for nontraditional students, they’ll still need to produce the same documents to be eligible for acceptance. Students who graduated many years ago may struggle to pull these together, especially if their high school is no longer in operation.
  • Your employer may pay
    One of the hallmark worries for any incoming student – regardless of age – is how to pay for school. For working professionals considering going back to college, employer-provided educational assistance can be of great help. Students should speak with both their employer to see if they are willing to provide funding and also their school to ensure all necessary paperwork is completed during the application process.

    To learn more about nontraditional students, see our guide on college students who are parents

Transfer Student College Acceptance

Transfer students can come from many different backgrounds. They may be transferring from university to university or community college to university. These are very specific because the college acceptance process for a transfer student is much different than the process for a student making the transition from high school to college since they are coming in with credits established. Along with this, differences between when the student transfers mean the acceptance process varies if transferring as a freshman or further into the college process.

As discussed on North Carolina Central University’s website, students who have taken at least one college credit post-high school graduation are considered a transfer student, but some may come in with the equivalent of an associate degree. If a student is planning on transferring, regardless of reason, one of the most common issues is having all of their existing credits recognized by their new institution. Because of this, many four-year schools have forged partnerships with local community colleges to ensure students aren’t frustrated when transferring to a different school. Towson University in Maryland is an example of the type of program a student should seek out, and many of these exist throughout the country.

Depending on the size of the university and their housing process, transfer students may also be expected to find their own off-campus housing. Because priority is given to incoming and existing students, many may find that no places are available for them. Lots of universities have internal message boards or other services to help new transfers connect with each other and find housing together.

ApplicationsRequires a student to write essays, gather recommendations, show proof of diploma and ACT/SAT scores, and potentially an interview.Students are able to use the same materials they gathered for their freshman applications, with the addition of their college course transcript.
EvaluationEvaluated exclusively on high school grades, extracurricular activities, and recommendations from professors.Takes into account college coursework, while also recognizing this level of study is more rigorous and students in their first year may still be acclimating to what is required of them. GPA requirements for transfer students tend to be slightly lower than for incoming freshmen.
FamiliarityFirst-time college students have never been through the process of applying to and being accepted to a school, making it a daunting task that can sometimes feel overwhelming.Transfer students have been through the process before and understand what is required of them and how admissions timelines work. Their self-confidence is often higher as they feel able to navigate the steps more efficiently.
Need AssessmentIncoming college students have chosen their school based on information they’ve gathered, but they won’t really know how they fit into the community and school ethos until they spend a few months acclimating to their new surroundings.Transfer students move schools for a variety of reasons, but one of the most common is not feeling a fit with their first school. Because of this, they have a much more finely tuned list of requirements when it comes time to selecting their second school.

For more information, check out our Guide to College Transfers.

Expert Advice on College Acceptance

Katie Schellenberg, CEO and Founder of the educational blog BeyondTutoring and Learning Lab LA, a concierge and academic advocacy firm focused on creating and cultivating lifelong success through learning, offers valuable insight into the college acceptance process.

What are some of the best kept secrets about what admissions panels are looking for when it comes to their ideal student? 

Although it may not be a best kept secret, admissions panels are looking for a well-rounded student and cohesive package.  They want to be able to envision the prospective student thriving on their campus.  Wake Forest University best depicted what the modern campus is looking for last year with one of their questions, when they outwardly stated that they want Renaissance students, not just smart students.  In “Breakfast Club” speak, they want the athlete, the nerd, the popular girl, the anarchist, in one student.  It is up to the applicant to convey how they are many things and have many passions. 

Aside from the tips you hear all the time, what are some of the best ways students can make themselves more competitive? 

Student are most competitive when they present themselves not just in the best light possible, but in the most thorough way possible. Cohesion is something I find most lacking in college applications and something that most applicants can easily improve on. Make sure you take that extra time to fill out your activity list and highlight measurable things that you have done throughout your time in college. 

What is one thing about the admittance process that most students don’t know? 

It isn’t necessarily just about grades and board scores; it is about fit. Scour the website and make sure you will be a good fit and write persuasively and about why you want to go there and why you would make the campus better.  

What’s the most common mistake students make in their applications and how can they avoid them? 

I discussed this a bit, but I think the most important mistake is not aligning yourself with the school you are applying for. That, and spelling or grammar mistakes. The supplemental essay is the perfect time for you to show how you would make their campus better and in turn the campus would make it better. 

If you are on the fence about admitting a student, what is something that’s a “make it or break it” for you?

I don’t admit students, but I advise wait list students all the time.  Here is an article I wrote on the topic.

College Admission & Acceptance Resources

7 Ways to Improve SAT and ACT Scores

  • Looking for tips on how to beat your previous standardized test score? Look no further than U.S. News’ helpful article on the subject. A Pre-College Summer To-Do List
  • The New York Times education blog offers this wisdom for students looking to make the most of their time before college. Campus Visit Checklist
  • The National Association for College Admissions Counseling offers this handy list of ways students can make the most out of their campus visits.How I Conquered the Application Essay
  • The College Board offers this first-hand account from students who found success when writing their college essay. How to Ace the Admission Interview
  • The Common Application provides a range of tips to help students walk into their college admission interview calm, confident, and competent. Incoming Freshman Resources
  • Lots of colleges, such as Villanova University, have pages on their website providing lots of resources and tips for incoming freshman. Students can research universities they plan on applying to gain a better understanding of how the university provides support.MAPP Career Assessment
  • This online quiz provided by Assessment can help questioning students better identify the academic path they should follow, based on a number of measureable factors. Resources for High School Students
  • The Higher Education Coordinating Commission through the State of Oregon offers numerous valuable resources to high school students preparing to college, and many of them aren’t specific to Oregon.Seven Really Smart Things to Do When Filling Out College Applications
  • This article hosted on Huffington Posts provides insider tips on ways to stand out from the crowd on a college application. Summer Budget for High School Graduates
  • The Pathway to Financial Success Organization provides helpful advice to students looking to save for college after high school.

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