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Figuring out how to apply for college can feel overwhelming. But perfecting your application and getting through the process is easier than you might think.
Here’s how to apply for college in three simple steps:
- How to apply for college
- When to apply for college
- Where to apply for college
- Why should I apply for college?
- How many colleges should I apply to?
- Learn about your financing options
How to apply for college
If you’re interested in continuing your education after high school, follow these three steps to apply for college.
1. Prepare to apply
To get into college, you’ll need to complete the ACT or SAT exam. These standardized tests measure your readiness for college-level work. The College Board recommends that you take the exam twice: once in the spring of your junior year and again in the fall of your senior year to ensure you get the best score possible.
Once you’ve created a list of the colleges you’re interested in, you should visit their campuses to determine which seem like the best fit for your lifestyle and academic goals. When you’re ready to apply, you’ll need to have these documents available:
- Standardized test scores: You should have a copy of your ACT or SAT scores available.
- High school transcripts: You’ll need to provide colleges with your high school transcripts, either official transcripts you get directly from your school or unofficial transcripts that you can obtain online.
- Letters of recommendation: You might need to include several personal letters of recommendation in your application from people like teachers, guidance counselors, pastors, or managers who can talk about your talents, community service, or work ethic.
- Essays: Some colleges require you to craft a personal essay. This is your opportunity to show your personality, unique experiences, and writing ability.
2. Complete the FAFSA
You should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to see if you qualify for federal aid or student loans. When you submit the FAFSA online, you can initially include up to 10 schools, and then add more later. It’s a good idea to include every college you’re interested in to ensure they consider you for all financial aid options. Some aid is disbursed on a first-come, first-served basis, so be sure to apply as early as possible — especially if you have high financial need.
Here are the upcoming FAFSA deadlines:
|11:59 p.m. Central, June 30, 2023
|11:59 p.m. Central, June 30, 2024
|11:59 p.m. Center, Sept. 10, 2023
|11:59 p.m. Central, Sept. 10, 2024
To complete the FAFSA, visit StudentAid.gov and create an account.
3. Submit your college applications on time
With an eye on your application deadlines, you’ll want to gather and review all your application materials as soon as possible. Once you’ve confirmed that you have all the correct documentation and information, submit your applications to your desired schools. You should be able to check the status of your applications through the college website or by contacting the Admissions office.
When to apply for college
When you choose your list of top schools, you should research their application deadline dates before you begin applying. Apply to the colleges of your choosing as early as you can during your senior year to maximize your acceptance chances.
The three main categories of deadlines are:
- Early action: You should submit your application to schools earlier, usually in the fall of your senior year. While early action applications aren’t binding (meaning you aren’t obligated to go to a school that accepts you), they can help you get into more competitive schools.
- Early decision: When you submit an early decision application in the fall, you commit to attending that school if the college accepts you. You usually use early decision only for your top school choice.
- Regular admission: If you decide to apply through regular admission, you’ll typically apply in the winter of your senior year.
Although most application deadlines for the Fall 2022 academic year have passed, you should apply before Aug. 31, 2022, for admittance to a Spring 2023 academic year.
For admittance into a Fall 2023 academic year, aim to have your applications turned in between Oct. 1, 2022, and Nov. 30, 2022. Dates may vary by school, so verify their application dates and deadlines on their official websites.
Other Deadlines to Remember: When To Apply for Student Loans
Where to apply for college
You can apply for admission to most colleges on their official websites. You’ll find all the application information, including the application requirements, fees, and deadlines.
If you’re applying to multiple colleges, you can save time and money on application fees by taking advantage of common applications, which let you apply to multiple colleges after filling out a single application.
Once you’ve narrowed down your list of top colleges to apply to, research which of them are affiliated with either of these resources.
Why should I apply for college?
The benefits of getting a college degree are unique to the individual student. A degree could increase your total earning potential and may be necessary to get a job in a specific career field. Most college graduates are less likely to be unemployed compared to workers without a college degree. However, you should only apply to college if you believe that the experience and education will positively impact your future personally and professionally.
Learn More: Is Going to College Worth It? How to Decide
How many colleges should I apply to?
Choosing how many colleges to apply to is up to you. Keep in mind that most colleges charge an application fee, so applying to multiple schools will quickly add up. There’s no perfect number, though you only want to apply to schools that you’re truly interested in attending. One strategy would be to choose the schools that you want to attend the most and apply to a few other “back-up” schools.
Keep in mind that even though back-up schools may not be your first choice, you can still benefit from attending. For example, some universities have a direct-connect program that allows students from certain state or community colleges to transfer into their university after they’ve completed their associate degree.
How much does it cost to apply to college?
There isn’t a single set cost for college applications — each school charges a unique amount. For example, the University of Vermont charges a non-refundable $55 application fee for undergraduate admission. Tennessee State University charges $25 for an online undergraduate application.
Even if the application fee is as low as $10 or as high as $100, you should consider these investments in your future. It’s not wise to waste money applying to colleges you aren’t seriously considering. It’s important to spend the money on a costly application fee only if it’s one of the top schools you’re considering.
How can I get a college application fee waived?
Whether you’re applying to multiple colleges or are having trouble finding the funds to pay for a single college application, you can find ways to get a college application fee waived. Some organizations, such as the National Association for College Admission Counseling, allow qualified students with limited financial resources to apply for an application fee waiver. Some universities, including California State University, automatically consider students for an application fee waiver once they’ve submitted their application.
Before applying to colleges, contact their financial aid offices and inquire about an application fee waiver. You can also ask your high school counselor if they know of any resources that help first-time undergraduate applicants pay for their application fees.
Learn about your financing options
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.
Your financial aid package might contain a mix of the following options to pay for college:
- Grants: College grants are usually awarded based on financial need. They’re a form of gift aid and don’t need to be repaid.
- Scholarships: College scholarships are typically based on merit (such as your academic or athletic abilities) or your background. Like grants, you don’t have to repay scholarship money.
- Federal student loans: These loans are issued by the U.S. Department of Education. Undergraduate students might qualify for low-interest subsidized or unsubsidized loans, while parents and graduate students have the option of applying for PLUS Loans.
- Private student loans: If your financial aid package isn’t enough to cover the full cost of your selected school, private student loans could be a useful supplement to pay for college or graduate school. Offered by private lenders, you can usually borrow up to the total cost of attendance.
The companies in the table below are Credible’s approved partner lenders. Whether you’re the borrower or cosigner, Credible makes it easy to compare rates from multiple private student loan providers.
|Fixed Rates From (APR)
|Variable Rates From (APR)
|4.50%9 - 15.49%9
|6.37%9 - 16.70%9
Lowest APRs reflect autopay, loyalty, and interest-only repayment discounts where available. Prequalified rates are not an offer of credit. | 10Ascent Disclosures | 1Citizens Bank Disclosures | 2,3College Ave Disclosures | 11Custom Choice Disclosures | 7EDvestinU Disclosures | 8INvestEd Disclosures | 9Sallie Mae Disclosures
Learning how to apply for college isn’t as hard as it might sound. By preparing early on, you can complete the application requirements, pass the standardized tests, and meet the deadlines of the schools you’re interested in, which will give you the best chance of getting accepted.
If you need more funding than what your school has offered in your award letter, you have other options to consider, including private student loans.
Kat Tretina contributed to the reporting for this article.