How To Get Into College: Ultimate Guide to Admissions

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While high school students do not actually submit their college applications until their senior year, they should start preparing for college as early as ninth and 10th grade. Students and parents can demystify the college admissions process by visiting campuses. There, they can familiarize themselves with college applications and connect with current college students to learn about college life.

Throughout high school, students should consider what kind of story their transcripts and activities will tell college admissions officers about them. Likewise, trying out various activities in high school can help students determine where their interests and passions lie, so they can seek out colleges that will best support their goals.

This guide provides an overview of the college application and admissions process for high school students, as well as for nontraditional students and transfer students. It also includes a list of resources to help students navigate the process.

College Admission Timeline for Seniors

Students should enter their senior year of high school with a clear plan and schedule for their college application process to avoid unnecessary stress and confusion. The following timeline suggests what students can do in each month of their senior year to ensure that their college application process goes smoothly.

TimelineDescription
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

Because each college maintains different entry requirements, students must familiarize themselves with what each prospective college of interest requires. Some colleges, for example, only consider students with standardized test scores in a certain range. Others do not require standardized test scores at all. Many, but not all, colleges accept the Common Application.

Memorable Applicant Traits


Traits that often indicate a strong and memorable applicant include leadership skills, community service, and artistic or athletic talents. Other traits include a strong sense of social justice and responsibility, and genuine curiosity and love of learning. Since standardized tests cannot measure these traits, students must demonstrate them in their personal essays, including the Common App essay.

Apply to a Balanced List of Schools


When deciding on where to apply to college, students should create a balanced list that includes schools with various college acceptance rates: at least three “reach” schools (schools at which the average freshman’s SAT or ACT score range exceeds yours), two “match” schools (schools at which the average freshman’s SAT or ACT score range matches yours), and one “safety” school (schools at which the average freshman’s SAT or ACT score range is lower than yours). Students should want to attend every school on their list, even the safety schools. Most students apply to 7-10 schools.


This section covers some of the factors that make up a college application, and provides students with tips on how to complete them.

The College Application Checklist

Having a clear list of steps to follow helps students meet deadlines and make the college application process smoother. While learners should also consider other components, such as completing additional supplementary materials and requesting high school transcripts, the following list covers some of the basics.

Choosing a College
In addition to ensuring that their school list includes reach, match, and safety schools, students should consider how much they can afford to spend on college application fees. They should also think about what kind of environment they prefer, and what academic and non-academic opportunities interest them.
Take Standardized Tests
Most colleges accept both the SAT and the ACT. Both cover similar topics, and help colleges make admissions decisions and award scholarships. Although learners do not need to take both, many students choose to do so.
Complete Your Essay
The Common Application essay (in addition to any supplemental essays that some schools require) allows students to show colleges a unique aspect of themselves, in their own words.
Ask for Letters of Recommendation
Letters of recommendation can come from recent teachers, school counselors, coaches, or even employers. Students should request them well in advance and inform their recommenders of application deadlines.
Complete the FAFSA
To receive financial aid from the government, students must fill out the FAFSA. Financial aid might come in the form of grants, work-study programs, or low-interest loans.

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Nontraditional Student College Acceptance

Nontraditional college students in the U.S. generally include GED recipients, students over age 24, and/or students with more financial or family responsibilities than traditional students. College requirements for nontraditional students may differ from those of traditional students.


  • No Standardized Tests Required

    Many nontraditional college students attend community college, either as an alternative or a stepping stone to a traditional four-year college. While community colleges do not require SAT or ACT scores, placement tests determine which class students belong in.


  • More Flexible Programs

    Nontraditional students who balance college with family responsibilities and jobs require programs with flexible scheduling. Online programs, or weekend or evening courses, can benefit working students.


  • Earn life Experience Credits

    Many nontraditional college students have gained expertise in subjects through jobs or independent study. Some colleges offer credit for these experiences, allowing students to save money and earn a degree faster. At reputable colleges, the fee for these credits is much lower than that of an actual course.


Transfer Student College Acceptance



Students transfer from one college to another for various reasons. Some transfer from a community college to a four-year college. Others transfer when they return to college after taking some time off. Transfer students face challenges that traditional students do not face, such as struggling to adjust academically or socially. College credit transfers that do not go smoothly can create additional stress.

Transfer students’ college transcripts are more important than their high school transcripts in the application process. Some schools require SAT or ACT scores. The table below explains additional differences between transfer students and traditional first-year college students.

FRESHMANTRANSFER
ApplicationsRequires a student to write essays, gather recommendations, show proof of diploma and ACT/SAT scores, and potentially sit for an interview.Students can 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 that this level of study is more rigorous. Students in their first year may also be still acclimating to requirements. GPA requirements for transfer students tend to be slightly lower than for incoming freshmen.
FamiliarityFirst-time college students have never experienced the process of applying to and being accepted to a school, making it a daunting task that can sometimes feel overwhelming.Transfer students have experienced 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 have gathered, but they will not really know how they fit into the community for a few months.Transfer students move schools for a variety of reasons. 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 for which schools attract them.

CEO and founder

Expert Advice on College Acceptance

Katie Schellenberg

Q. 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 look for a well-rounded student and cohesive package. They 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, and the anarchist, in one student. It is up to the applicant to convey how they are many things and have many passions.

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

Students 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. 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.

Q. 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. Write persuasively, why you want to go there, and why you would make the campus better.

Q. 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.


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

College Admission and Acceptance Resources

This section lists various resources that can aid students during all stages of the college application and admissions process, including building a list of schools and writing the application essay. It also includes resources aimed at nontraditional college students.


  • College Data This resource helps students make informed decisions about college, with tools like a scholarship finder and college admissions calculator.
  • College Navigator Using this resource, students can build a list of schools. They can also search for schools using criteria like location, institution type, and majors offered.
  • Common App The Common App website not only provides access to the Common Application itself, but also offers a variety of college planning tools and information.
  • Fair Test This organization, which works to end educational inequity caused by standardized testing, provides a list of colleges that do not require SAT or ACT scores.
  • How I Conquered the Application Essay Here, students can read advice from other students about the college application essay. Learners also see examples of what other students wrote about.
  • EduNova This site provides information for and about nontraditional college students, including other useful resources for students.

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