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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 seven easy steps:
- Take the SAT or ACT
- Narrow down your college list
- Complete the FAFSA
- Pay attention to application deadlines
- Gather your application materials
- Submit your application
- Learn about your financing options
1. Take the SAT or ACT
To get into college, you’ll need to complete the SAT or ACT exam. These are standardized tests that assess your readiness for college-level work.
Many students take the exams in their junior year of high school — but keep in mind that you can take the test more than once if you’d like to. The College Board recommends that you take the exam for the first time in the spring of your junior year and then again in the fall of your senior year to get the best score you can ahead of college deadlines.
Beyond taking the SAT or ACT, you’ll also need to do the following:
- Request copies of your high school transcripts
- Request recommendation letters from teachers, guidance counselors, or past managers
- Take other exams (like AP exams or SAT Subject Tests), if applicable
- Complete tours of college campuses
- Draft your application essays
2. Narrow down your college list
It’s a good idea to apply to several schools that you’re interested in — usually around five to eight — so you’ll have a better chance of getting accepted into at least one college. Make sure to include some:
- Top schools: Universities you dream of attending, regardless of their acceptance criteria
- “Stretch” schools: Universities that might not accept you
- “Safe” schools: Universities where you easily meet the criteria
Also keep in mind that most schools charge application fees, which range in cost depending on the school. For example, some application fees range from $35 to $90. Be sure to carefully consider where you’d like to apply so you can save money on application fees.
Learn More: 11 Questions to Ask on Your College Tour
3. Complete the FAFSA
Make sure you fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This is what the federal government and schools reference when determining what financial aid you qualify for. Depending on your family’s finances, you might qualify for college grants or federal student loans.
When you submit the FAFSA, include every single college you’re interested in on the application 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. You can submit the FAFSA as soon as October 1 of your senior year of high school, and you must submit your application by June 30 of the academic year to be eligible for federal aid.
- How to Apply for Federal and Private Student Loans
- Every College You Might be Interested in Should be on Your FAFSA
4. Pay attention to application deadlines
While the FAFSA deadline is an important date to remember, colleges have their own deadlines for their applications, too. There are three main categories of deadlines:
- Early action: With early action, you 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.
Note your prospective schools’ deadlines on a calendar so you don’t miss any of them. You should be able to find these dates by visiting a college’s admissions website.
Other Deadlines to Remember: When To Apply for Student Loans
5. Gather your application materials
To speed up the application process, spend some time gathering your application materials ahead of time. In general, you’ll need the following information to apply to college:
- Standardized test scores: You should have a copy of your SAT or ACT scores handy.
- High school transcripts: You’ll need to provide colleges with your high school transcripts. Some schools require official transcripts, meaning transcripts that come directly from your high school and are in a sealed envelope. Other universities will accept unofficial transcripts (such as an online version), so check your school’s requirements before submitting your application.
- Essays: Many colleges require you to craft a personal essay. This is your opportunity to show your personality, unique experiences, and writing ability.
- Personal recommendations: You might need several personal recommendations from people who can talk about your talents, community service, or work ethic. A recommendation can come from a teacher, guidance counselor, pastor, or even a manager from a job you’ve had.
6. Submit your application
Once you have all of the necessary information together, you can apply to your selected colleges. Most schools allow you to apply online.
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 the application only once. These are used by many schools, so you’ll likely be able to apply to most if not all of the schools on your list.
There are three main common application types:
- The Common Application (used by more than 800 colleges)
- The Coalition Application (accepted by more than 130 schools)
- The Universal College Application (used by 18 institutions)
Learn More: 11 Questions to Ask On a College Tour
7. 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:
- 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. Be sure to consider as many lenders as possible to find the right loan for you. You can do this easily with Credible — you’ll be able to compare multiple lenders after filling out just a single form instead of multiple applications.
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.
|Lender||Fixed rates from (APR)||Variable rates from (APR)|
|3.5% - 12.6% APR9||1.13% - 11.23% APR9|
your credit score. 100% free!
Lowest APRs reflect autopay, loyalty, and interest-only repayment discounts where available | 1Citizens Disclosures | 2,3College Ave Disclosures | 7EDvestinU Disclosures | 8INvestEd Disclosures | 9Sallie Mae Disclosures
What to do next
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.