The Ultimate College Application Checklist
The fall of your child’s senior year of high school is the time to start the college application process. It will give your student the opportunity to write essays and to meet submission deadlines without the added stress of trying to do it all at the last minute.
Review this comprehensive college application checklist together–it will help ensure all the necessary steps are completed before hitting the submit button.
What Should Be Included in a College Application?
Read Through the College Application Packet Before Beginning
Whether your child is applying to schools that accept the Common Application or to universities that have their own admissions process, the essential elements of the application packet will be similar.
To make sure your student has the materials and information they need to apply, it’s best to read through the packet carefully before beginning.
Here’s what will likely be included/required:
- An application form
- Standardized test scores (ACT, SAT)
- A supplemental essay
- Recommendation letters
- Extracurricular activities information
- Fees (or a fee waiver form)
- A school profile (if your child’s high school provides one)
Mark Your Calendar with Dates and Deadlines
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Start by working with your child to narrow down their college list to about a dozen schools. Our College Insights tool includes hundreds of data points, making it easy to compare colleges based on the things that matter most to you and your child.
Once you’ve finalized the list, mark your calendar with these dates:
- Application deadlines: Regular Decision, Early Decision (ED), Early Action (EA), and Rolling Admissions (if applicable)
- Financial aid deadlines: Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), CSS Profile, and scholarships
- Standardized testing dates: to take or retake the SAT or ACT (if necessary)
- College admissions test: for universities with their own entrance exams
Decide on an Application Type and Strategy
The next step is creating a strategy for your child’s applications and financial aid documents. It’s especially important to help your child decide as soon as possible about the type (deadline and requirements) of college admissions they prefer:
- Early Decision
- Early Action
- Rolling Admissions
- Regular Admissions
For example, if your child applies Early Decision, they’ll need to put a very strong application packet together early in their senior year. Remember that if your child applies ED anywhere, they are committing to attend that school if they get in.
Also, they aren’t allowed to apply to any other schools.
Early Action admissions don’t usually have the same restrictions as ED, but the deadline is often significantly sooner than the regular decision date. As with ED, EA packets should be as strong as possible, so only encourage your child to apply EA if they have high test scores, good grades, and plenty of extracurriculars to include.
Colleges with rolling admissions accept students on a first-come, first-served basis, and the open spots may fill up before the window closes. It’s best to get application packets in as close to the beginning of the window as possible.
Get Financial Paperwork Together
Next, it’s time to get your financial aid documentation together. You’ll need to be involved in this. It’s vital to fill out and submit the FAFSA even if you aren’t sure your financial circumstances will qualify your child for aid.
Many colleges require students to submit this form to be considered for scholarships and other types of merit aid. Before you start work on the FAFSA, gather this information:
- Identification numbers (Social Security, driver’s license)
- Tax returns
- Details of untaxed income, such as child support and Social Security benefits
- Financial asset details: bank balances, cash, investments, and business assets
Some schools also require a CSS Profile to be completed. It requires similar information to FAFSA, but you may need to provide more details about your household income. Make sure to have W-2s, tax returns, and bank statements ready.
What Looks Good on a College Application?
Submit or Self-Report Test Scores
Your child should send their ACT and SAT scores to prospective colleges that require them. If the school(s) your child is applying to allows self-reporting of test scores and grades, they can wait to see where they get accepted, then pay the fee(s) to officially submit the scores to the intended school(s). This will help your family avoid paying submission fees for the official scores until you know it’s necessary.
Craft Supplemental Essays
Although they’re called supplemental, it’s best to think of your child’s essays as essential. Providing a supplemental essay when it’s an option can help set your child’s application apart from others.
Here are some tips to share with your child as they compose their essays:
- The essay should feature your child’s unique voice, opinion, and perspective.
- The tone should be natural but not too casual.
- It’s important to proofread the document for grammatical errors, typos, and misused words.
Encouraging your child to start writing early in their senior year gives them enough time to polish their essays to perfection.
The last step is to have your child take the time to check the application packet for:
- Their essay, activities list, and resume (for the Common Application)
- Personal information– is it complete and correct?
- The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) waiver — has it been signed?
- An email address without any juvenile or inappropriate references
- Additional required paperwork for colleges that don’t use the Common Application
Encourage your child to follow up with each school about a month after they submit their packet to make sure it was received. Verify that each college has test scores, transcripts, financial aid forms, and recommendation letters.
Simplify Senior Year with Our College Application Checklist
If your child is starting their senior year, it’s the perfect time to get going on college applications. While the amount of paperwork and forms may seem like a lot, the process can be straightforward if you have a plan in place.
Follow the steps on our checklist to make each deadline, submit all the required paperwork, and give your child the best chance of acceptance.
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