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How to Apply to College

A beginner's guide from Admit Report

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Ready to learn how to apply to college? You've come to the right place. 

We've written a massive amount on the college application process on our blog, helping thousands of students and families build strong college applications and get into school.

But it can be hard to pick through these resources on your own. They aren't organized linearly, so it can be hard to find a place to start.

That's why we created this guide. Whether you're just getting started on your college admissions journey or already know the basics, this page is your gateway to crafting an amazing application that's both strategic and honest. 

We hope you enjoy this guide. Check back frequently because we're always adding to it and changing things around. 

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If you're interested in getting help with your applications, we do that too. 

The Beginner's Guide to Applying to College 

This eight-chapter guide takes you through everything you need to know about the college admissions process — from a basic crash course to advanced strategies for writing your college essays. 

Pt. I: College Application and Admissions Strategy

1.1: How applying to college works, grade by grade

Chapter 1 is all about the basics — let's talk about how the college application comes together on a nuts-and-bolts level. We also want you to know what an "ideal" prep progression looks like from one grade to the next. 

This chapter is for the absolute beginner who is just starting to think about the application process. By the time you're done reading, you'll have a sense of your next steps. You should also know exactly where you are (or need to be) in the preparation process.  

1.2: What admissions officers look for in college applications

Applying to college is daunting because you have to pass muster before a panel of admissions officers, the gatekeepers to any school. Fortunately, the author of this chapter used to be an admissions officer at one of the most selective schools in the country. He breaks down exactly how admissions officers evaluate students.

This chapter should give you a more detailed understanding of what happens "behind the curtain" of college admissions. 

1.3: How to strategically approach your college application narrative

Your college application is, more or less, a story about your time in high school. A story that takes grades, extracurriculars, and personal experiences into account. How you craft your narrative matters a lot.

This chapter is all about making the most of your narrative/story. It's one of our "core" pieces of writing that anchors our work. 

1.4: Building a good college list

Building a good (emphasis on good) school list is hard, first and foremost because most of the schools we hear about are extremely hard to get into. Building a good school list is all about finding diverse schools that fit three buckets: safeties, targets, and reaches.

In this chapter, We show you how to do this by looking at your own grades, test scores, and more. This is an important one. 

1.5: Your Early Decision (ED) and Early Action (EA) strategy

As if building a good application and school list weren't complex enough, you also have to decide whether you're going to submit "early applications" to those schools. There's a definite strategy to early applications, and we recommend that most students at least understand the difference between different early application options. 

This chapter is all about laying out those differences and helping you come up with an early application strategy. 

Chapter II: Tackling the College Essays

2.1: Our complete guide to the Common Application

For 99.9% of all college applicants, the common application will be the main portal they use to create and submit their applications. It's where you upload your main essay (more on that in a moment) and where you select which schools you'll be applying to. But the common application takes some effort to set up and use correctly.

This chapter helps students through the Common App setup process. 

2.2: How to write a college essay (common app essay)

The personal statement, or Common App essay, is the centerpiece of any college application. It's a long, personal essay about your life and experiences — and most students will have to write one before they can hit submit.

This chapter is a guide to writing an effective essay that is both personally meaningful and that connects with admissions officers. 

2.3: How to write supplemental essays

Supplemental essays are short(er) unique essays required by different colleges. To apply to most colleges—about 70% of them—you'll need to write at least one supplemental essay. But because there are so many types of supplemental essays, it can be overwhelming and frustrating to know where to start.

This chapter gives best practice principles for you to write your supplemental essays. It also includes some great links out to other pieces of writing where we go deeper into detail about particular types of essays. 

2.4: How to write the UC essays

Not every student will be applying to the University of California system. But for those who are, this chapter is for them. The UC system requires four shorter essays known as "personal interest questions" that are similar to supplemental essays. But the UCs have very different grading criteria than most other schools, so it's important to know what they're looking for before you start writing.

This chapter goes into how to write powerful UC essays. 

2.5: How to use the additional information section

The additional information section of the Common Application and UC application is a confusing one. It's a place where you can add more info (duh) about your life context and background. But not everyone should use the additional information section, because using it for the wrong reasons can damage your application. 

This chapter covers when (and when not) to use the additional info section. You should read this if there are parts of your story that just don't seem to fit neatly into your main essay or supplementals. 

2.6: How to fill out the activities section of the Common App

The activities section is your "resume" in the college application process. There are activities sections on the Common App and on the UC application. We focus on the former in this chapter, discussing how to use the activities section to its fullest potential. We also go over some of the most common missed opportunities in the activities section. 

Chapter III: Other Useful Things to Help You Apply

3.1: How to use the Common Data Set

Every heard of the Common Data Set? Most folks haven't. But it's a major resource and set of data that helps applicants understand their realistic admissions chances at most schools. It can also give you an edge and insight into the admissions priorities of your schools.

This chapter lays out the basics of the Common Data Set and information about how to use it in your college application.  

3.2: A guide to having great college visits

Once you've settled your list, you should think about making some college visits. Ideally, actually, you would visit colleges before you put them on your list! It's easy to have a bad college visit. By "bad" we don't mean that it rained — we mean that you didn't come prepared to get the information you need to make a good decision about whether the school is right for you. 

This chapter is a resource for anyone about to go on a college tour. 

3.3: Basic guide to financial aid

Ah, financial aid. If only college were free! Thinking about the financial side of the application process is so important for most families. We put together a basic guide to financial aid for the final chapter. Here we talk about the different types of aid (merit aid? dean's scholarships?) and key tools like net price calculators. Share this one with your family! 

How to Apply to College Glossary

There's a lot of jargon in the college admissions space. It might be a bit overwhelming, but no worries — we've got you. Each term links out to a more in-depth post about the concept.

PIQs: The University of California system calls their supplemental essays "Personal Interest Questions," or PIQs for short. There are eight options to choose from, and you'll respond to four.

Personal Statements: The personal statement, also known as a college essay, is the centerpiece of your college application. It is a deeply meaningful, personal reflection on who you are, and it is the keystone of your application narrative. Your personal statement is one of the key application components admissions officers evaluate when they decide whether to admit you.

Supplemental Essays: Supplemental essays are essay prompts required by a particular school. They typically range from 50 to 500 words, and you write them in addition to your personal statement. They tend to fall within a few common categories, and they are a great place to show academic and school fit.

Application Options (action v. decision v. regular v. restrictive early action): When you apply to college, you choose which application option to apply under. Different options have different rules and due dates. The standard option is Regular Decision, which is typically due around January. Early Action and Early Decision are both due earlier—usually in November—but Early Decision is binding, whereas Early Action is not. Restrictive Early Action also tends to be due early. Unlike Early Decision, Restrictive Early Action is not binding, but it is restrictive. See our post for more details.

Extracurriculars: An extracurricular is any activity you do outside the classroom. It can be formal, like soccer or orchestra, or it can be more informal, like watching a younger sibling or doing art.

Letters of Recommendation: Letters of recommendation typically come from a school counselor or a teacher. You waive your right to read them when you request them through the Common App. They typically tell admissions officers about your community fit and academic promise.

School Report: Your counselor sends a school report alongside your transcript. It tells admissions officers information about your school, like the demographic makeup of students, the kinds of courses offered, and more. Admissions officers use it to contextualize your application.

Academic Score: Like personal scores, some admissions offices use academic scores to combine all your academic factors—like GPA, test scores, class rank, rigor, and more—into one metric. Your academic score then plays a role in determining how far your application moves through the evaluation process.

School Fit: School fit is a way of assessing how well you fit within a particular school's academic and co-curricular culture. You can use your supplemental essays to show strong school fit.

Personal Score: Some admissions offices award applicants a "personal score" that factors in things like extracurriculars and letters of recommendation. It's a way of quantifying your impact on the world around you.

Weighted vs. Unweighted GPA: Weighted GPAs give more weight to rigorous classes like AP, IB, or dual-enrollment. With weighted GPAs, it's possible to get over a 4.0. Unweighted GPAs do not account for rigor and only go up to a 4.0. Which GPA a college will look at varies by institution.

Demonstrated Interest: Demonstrated interest is how you show that you are interested in attending a college. Some schools track it through their online systems, while others don't. You can show demonstrated interest by doing registered virtual or in-person visits, opening your school emails, and interacting with your admissions counselor.

Merit Scholarship: Merit scholarships are awards you earn based on academic (or extracurricular) merit. They are scholarships, so you are not required to pay them back.

Test-Optional v. Test-Flexible: Test-optional admission means that you are not required to submit your standardized test scores to apply to a school. Test-flexible means that you don't technically need to submit your scores, but you are strongly encouraged to submit them. There's a lot of nuance with test-optional, so be sure to read our post about it.

Summer Programs: Some colleges and universities hold summer programs for high school students. They can be great opportunities to get on a college campus and spend your summer learning. They can also look good on a college application. But beware: admission to a summer program does not guarantee admission to the school that hosts it.

Common Data Set: The Common Data Set, or CDS, is an organized institutional effort to make college admissions and enrollment data more transparent. Hundreds of colleges release their data, so it's open for the public (and students like you!) to look at. The data can be helpful for assessing the strengths and weaknesses of a school, and you can get a sense of how applications are evaluated.

LOCI: Letters of Continued Interest, also known as LOCIs, are letters you write to a school to which you have been waitlisted. Their purpose is to show admissions officers that you are still interested in attending the school and are eager to be moved from the waitlist to the admit pile.

Safety v. Target v. Reach Schools: Safety schools are schools that you're very likely to be admitted to. They often have acceptance rates over 70%, and your statistics fall above the middle 50%.  Target schools are the bread and butter of your school list. They're the ones you're aiming for—usually with acceptance rates above 50%. And a reach school is any school you're unlikely to be admitted to. All schools with sub-10% acceptance rates are reach schools. You might also count a school as a reach if your statistics are below the middle 50%.