How to Apply to College: A Comprehensive Guide

Group of college students holding notebooks and smiling at the camera

How to Apply to College: A Comprehensive Guide

Published July 3, 2023

Group of college students holding notebooks and smiling at the camera

Between applying to colleges and preparing for graduation, your child’s senior year of high school is a busy time. You and your student need to work together to decide where they should apply. Filling out applications and keeping track of deadlines can feel overwhelming and stressful. Use this step-by-step guide on how to apply for college to make the process as easy as possible for yourself and your child.

Step 1: Take Standardized Tests

While some colleges have moved to a test-optional or test-blind admission process, most schools still expect students to submit standardized test scores as part of their application. In some states, taking one of the exams is a high school graduation requirement. 

There are two standard college entrance exams: the SAT and the ACT. Your student can take one or both, and they may want to take the exams multiple times to try to improve their test scores. Some colleges accept both scores while others prefer SAT scores or ACT scores

These standardized tests are traditionally given in-person at certain times: 

Some students choose to take the SAT and ACT during their junior year. That way, they can have time to study and retake the exams in their senior year if they aren’t happy with their initial test scores.

There are many ways students can prepare for the SAT and ACT:

  • Work with a tutor
  • Use test-prep books or online study guides (ACT resources, SAT resources)
  • Take practice exams

The College Board recently announced it will transition to an entirely digital format for the SAT. The change will take effect in 2024 for U.S. students (2023 for international students). The new online test will be shorter and allow students to use a calculator in the math section.

Step 2: Make a List of Colleges

College applications require a significant investment of time and money, so it’s not practical to expect your child to apply for dozens of schools. One of the most important parts of the college application process is creating and narrowing down the list of schools your child will apply to.

There are several things to consider when helping your child narrow down their list:

You and your child can work together to figure out which factors are most important. The R2C Insights tool is an excellent resource for researching colleges. You can use it to learn more about the schools your child is considering. Your child’s high school guidance counselor may also have some good resources for researching and selecting colleges.

For most students, a college application list should include 10 to 12 schools evenly split between three categories:

  • Safety: These are schools your student expects to get into based on their stats and the school’s admission requirements. Help your student choose safety schools they actually want to attend, not just those that are “easy” to get into.
  • Target: These are schools that fit your student’s academic goals and your financial resources. Your student’s GPA and standardized test scores should be between 50 percent of 75 percent of the accepted grades/scores.
  • Reach: These schools have very low acceptance rates and/or extremely high admission requirements. If your student’s stats are between 25 and 50 percent of the accepted test scores/grades, it’s a reach school.

Make sure to create a realistic list; you don’t want your child to get into their dream school only to realize there’s no way to afford it.

Step 3: Keep Track of Application Deadlines

Once you and your child have finalized the list of colleges they plan to apply to, you can create a schedule. Verify each school’s application deadlines, and make a plan to ensure your child gets their paperwork in on time.

Remember, if your child chooses to apply Early Decision (ED) or Early Action (EA), those deadlines will be significantly earlier than the regular decision deadline. ED and EA applications need to be very strong, so your student should start working on their essays and requesting letters of recommendation as soon as possible. 

Usually, regular admission deadlines and rolling admission windows are much later in the year than EA and ED deadlines. However, it’s best to encourage your child to get their applications in as soon as possible. Some schools with rolling deadlines may fill up before the last application window closes.

Help your child create a calendar with all of their application deadlines. Then, use that to work backwards and figure out when to take standardized tests, write essays, and complete all other application tasks.

Step 4: Pay Attention to Financial Aid Deadlines

Application deadlines aren’t the only dates you and your child need to keep track of. You also need to focus on financial aid deadlines. For example, there is an annual deadline for students to submit their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms. 

Your student should complete a FAFSA even if you think you won’t qualify for aid. You won’t know for sure whether you’re eligible unless your student submits the form. Many colleges use FAFSA information when deciding how to give out merit-based aid as well.

It’s essential to verify whether any of the schools on your child’s list require a CSS Profile in addition to FAFSA data. The CSS Profile offers a more in-depth look at your family’s finances, and many private colleges use it along with the FAFSA when making financial aid decisions.

While the government’s FAFSA deadline is fairly late in the year (end of June), many colleges have their own deadlines for financial aid applications. These are often much earlier. Take some time to help your child find the financial aid deadline for each college on their list, and then mark those dates on the calendar. 

It’s generally best to get financial aid paperwork in as soon as possible. Many schools offer more financial aid to students who apply earlier. The sooner you know what sort of financial assistance package each school is offering, the sooner you can decide how to pay for college and help your child figure out which schools are financially realistic.

Step 5: Request Letters of Recommendation

Many colleges require students to include letters of recommendation as part of their application packet. Recommendation letters are also essential for many scholarship and grant applications.

Teachers, coaches, and other individuals who work with students often have many recommendation letters to write. One of the best things your student can do is make their request early, and then do whatever they can to make it as easy as possible for the person writing their letter.

Even if your student requests a recommendation letter from a teacher or coach in person, encourage them to follow up with a written note or email. The written request should remind the instructor about any noteworthy contributions your child made in their class or team. It should also include the application deadline so the writer knows when they need to submit the letter.

Your student may also want to create a “brag sheet” to give to each person they’re requesting a recommendation letter from. This is a short list of the student’s accomplishments, especially those that are relevant to the letter writer. A brag sheet can make it much easier for a teacher or coach to create a customized and persuasive letter of recommendation.

Step 6: Write Essays

Another key part of the college application is the personal essay. Although not all colleges require applicants to submit one, many do. Additionally, it’s a good idea for your child to submit an essay even if it’s listed as “optional.” A well-written, compelling essay can be the thing that ensures your child gets into the school they want.

Essays aren’t just important for college application packets. They are also a big part of many scholarship applications, especially those offered by private sources. 

Writing a strong personal essay can be challenging, especially if your child isn’t a confident writer. Starting the process as soon as possible can give them enough time to draft, edit, and rework their compositions so they are in top shape when it’s time to submit application paperwork.

Step 7: Request High School Transcripts

Most colleges require applicants to submit an official high school transcript as part of their application packet. They use information about your child’s academic performance to make decisions about admission and financial aid.

For example, your child’s overall GPA can be a significant factor in whether they are admitted to a certain college or university. But the details of the transcript matter too. If your child wants to get into a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) degree program, the college may look at their high school grades in relevant courses. 

A transcript that shows good performance in Advanced Placement (AP) or honors classes can encourage a college to offer a generous financial aid package to attract an excellent student. If your child’s grades aren’t stellar, but they show improvement over the course of high school, that can be an encouraging sign to a college admissions officer.

In most cases, your child’s school will send official transcripts, but your child needs to request them and make sure they will be sent to the correct schools. It’s important to do this early enough to meet each college’s deadline. However, if your child is working hard on improving their grades during senior year, they may want to wait a bit longer to make sure their transcript reflects the highest possible GPA.

Step 8: Collect and Submit Application Materials

You and your child have worked together to request transcripts and get recommendation letters. Your student has written excellent personal essays and received their SAT and ACT scores. It’s time to put all that information together and submit those college applications!

Many colleges use the Common App, which streamlines the entire application process. It’s a good idea to check whether any of the schools on your child’s list use the Common App. Otherwise, follow the application instructions for each school.

Whether your child is applying online or with hard-copy paperwork, take the time to double-check everything  to ensure there are no mistakes on the application before submitting. Make sure all the required documents are there and that there are no errors in your child’s personal information or contact details.

Your child should use a simple, professional email address (e.g. Have them make a new email for college applications if their existing address includes inappropriate or juvenile references. Help them proofread their essays to check for grammatical errors and misused words that may have escaped a spell checker.

Step 9: Make a Decision When All Acceptances Have Arrived

Once your student has submitted all their applications, the next step is to wait for responses from schools. It’s best to wait until you have all the responses before making a decision.

As your child is trying to decide where to go, remind them of the factors you discussed when making your college list. Take a hard look at your finances too. Analyze each school’s financial aid package to figure out how much you’ll actually pay for your child to attend. Use all of this information to help your child make the best decision.

Remember, each application has a financial cost. Along with application fees, there are fees to submit ACT/SAT scores. If you have to submit a CSS Profile, that’s an additional cost. Some schools will allow applicants to self-report grades and test scores. If that’s an option, your student can do this to save some money and then submit their official grades and scores to the college they end up choosing to attend.

A Detailed Plan Makes College Applications Easier

Senior year of high school is an exciting time for students and parents, but it can feel overwhelming without a plan. Following a college application checklist can make the whole admissions process simpler. If your child is worried or unsure about how to apply for college, use this guide to help them make an efficient and realistic plan. Support and encouragement are some of the best things you can give your child during this crucial time. 


Use R2C Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.  

Other Articles You Might Like:

Choosing a College: Henry’s Story

How to Pick a College That Loves You Back

I Watched My Average Student Get Into College Against All Odds




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