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There’s more to getting into college than your grades and test scores: We’re talking about your college application.

Perfecting your college applications is easier than you might think. Here’s a quick roundup of what colleges want to see from you — and when.

In this post:
How many schools should you apply to?
College application deadlines
Early action and early decision applications
What happens if you miss the application deadlines?
What information do you need to provide when you apply?
How to make your essay stand out
Save time by applying online

How many schools should you apply to?

It’s important to apply to more than one college because you want to be in a position to compare financial aid award letters from several schools. But each application will cost you time and money — around $50, on average. It will also cost you about $12 to provide your test scores to schools you want to apply to.

The College Board recommends applying to five to eight colleges. Only about one-third of students apply to seven or more colleges. Unless you’re applying to very selective schools, any more than that could be overkill.

Even top students may be turned down by extremely competitive colleges like Harvard, Yale, and Stanford. But most schools admit two-thirds or more of all students who apply, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of applications to 1,364 colleges and universities.

Learn More: 6 Tools to Gauge the Return on your Degree

College application deadlines

You should list every school you think you’ll apply to on your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). File your FAFSA as soon as possible on or after Oct. 1 of your senior year and you’ll be ready to start submitting college applications.

Application deadlines to keep in mind:

  • Regular decision: The deadline for regular decision applications is typically around Jan. 1 of your senior year. Each school has its own deadline, so check with the admissions office.
  • Early action or early decision: Many selective schools allow students to apply in October or November for an “early action” or “early decision” admission plan.

If you apply through the regular decision process, expect to get a decision letter in March or April. You’ll usually be required to accept an offer and put down a tuition deposit by May 1.

If you apply for early decision admission, you should get a “yes” or “no” in December, giving you time to apply to other schools if you’re turned down. If you’re accepted through the early decision process, you’ll often need to put down a tuition deposit in January or February.

Check with the admissions office of each school you’re interested in attending for specifics.

Early action vs. early decision

Applying for early decision admission may or may not help you get into a selective college. At some schools, more than half of incoming students are admitted through the early decision process. While about one-third of private colleges offer early decision admission, only 6% of public schools do.

Applying for early decision admission limits your ability to compare financial aid award letters from more than one school. Here is a rundown of the different types of early admission:

  • Early action: This is non-binding — you can apply to more than one school, and wait until the spring to say yes or no to any schools that accept you.
  • Early decision I: When you apply for early decision admission, you agree that you will attend that school if accepted. That means technically, you can’t apply to more than one school for early decision admission.
  • Early decision II: Some schools now offer a second early decision window, which typically opens in January. So if you didn’t get in during the first round (early decision I), you can apply to another school that offers this second early decision window (early decision II). As with early decision I, you’re committing to attend a school if you’re accepted, so you can only apply to one school via early decision II.

What happens if you miss the application deadlines?

If you procrastinated or were just unsure about whether you wanted to go to college in the fall, there are plenty of colleges that will accept applications after Jan. 1. Check out this list of schools, published by the College Board, that accept late applications, and check with any schools that you’re interested in attending even if they’re not on the list. Some schools may have openings that they’re eager to fill and will accept late applications.

What information do you need to provide when you apply?

When you apply to a college or university, expect to provide the following information and documents:

  • Your high school transcript (grades)
  • Your SAT or ACT scores (or both)
  • A personal essay
  • Letters of recommendation

Ask your high school to send your transcript directly to any colleges you’re applying to — most won’t accept copies from students. Your SAT and ACT scores also need to be provided by the test’s administrators. The College Board administers the SAT, and ACT.org is the provider of the ACT.

How to make your essay stand out

If you’re having trouble getting started on an essay, try putting together a list of your personal strengths and use them to frame your answer. Real life experiences and honesty will resonate with college admissions officers, who wade through mountains of essays each year.

Recommendation letters may be optional, but like a personal essay, they can give your application a boost by providing deeper insights into your character and personality than grades and test scores.

Here’s how colleges rate the importance of each aspect of your application package, according to a survey of members of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA):

  1. Did the classes you took in high school challenge you and prepare you for college?
  2. Did you maintain a high grade point on important subjects?
  3. Did you score well on standardized tests like the SAT and ACT?
  4. Does your application essay showcase your personality and writing skills?
  5. Do you have activities and interests you’re passionate about?
  6. Are your teacher recommendations personalized, not generic?

Save time by applying online

If you’re applying to multiple schools, you can save time by applying online. Most colleges actually prefer online applications and many also accept standardized applications that can be submitted to more than one school.

When submitting standardized applications, you can even use the same essay — there’s no need to write a different essay for each school. The three most common standardized applications are:

After you’ve researched colleges and filled out your applications, the next step is to compare the financial aid award letters you receive from all the schools that accept you.

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About the author
Matt Carter
Matt Carter

Matt Carter is a Credible expert on student loans. Analysis pieces he’s contributed to have been featured by CNBC, CNN Money, USA Today, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.

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