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How to apply for college: Your step-by-step guide

Wondering how to apply to college? You're not alone. Here are seven steps to help you choose schools and submit your applications.
Written by Genevieve Carlton, Contributor
white collar worker or businesswoman tired and sleep at a table with a pile of papers

Feeling intimidated or worn out by the college application process? We can help! 

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Applying for college can feel like being buried under an avalanche of paperwork — and having a deadline for digging yourself out.

Fortunately, applying to college doesn't have to be overwhelming. By researching schools and understanding the process, you can submit your applications before the deadline. 

Our guide walks through how to apply for college, step by step — from choosing schools to hitting submit. 

1. Consider what you want to major in.

You don't have to declare a major in your first year, but knowing your areas of interest will help you choose a college. For example, if you're interested in marine biology, apply to schools with marine biology programs.

If you know exactly what you want to study, research colleges with a strong reputation in that field. And if you're undecided, consider schools that offer majors in diverse areas, like the schools featured in our best online colleges list.

2. Decide what colleges you want to apply to.

The College Board recommends applying to five to eight colleges. Some students apply to even more schools. But how do you decide where to apply?

Consider your academic record and compare it with admitted students at your prospective schools. 

Many students apply to "safety schools" — where their GPA and standardized test scores exceed the averages — along with schools that match their record and admit a high percentage of applicants.

You should also consider applying to "reach" schools. These are competitive schools you'd love to attend but where your GPA and test scores match or are slightly below average. Avoid only applying to reach schools to increase your odds of an admission offer.

3. Decide when to apply: Application types and deadlines

Colleges have many application types and deadlines. Around 450 schools offer early action and early decision applications. With these options, students apply and hear back from the school earlier. 

The big difference: Schools require early decision students to accept an admission offer.

In addition, nearly all colleges offer regular decisions, with application deadlines typically in January. Finally, some schools use a rolling admission process where applicants submit at any time. Make sure to do plenty of research about the application options at your schools.

Application option

When to apply by

When you'll find out if you're accepted

Why apply using this option?

Early action



Students with a top-choice school benefit from early action applications. And unlike early decision, early action is not binding. That means you can apply to multiple schools.

Early decision



For students with one top choice, early decision can increase your odds of getting in. However, early decision admissions is a binding application. That means if the school accepts you, you must attend.

Regular decision



Regular decision is a great option for students who want to apply to multiple schools. Early action and decision applicants can also submit regular decision applications to additional schools. 

Rolling admission

Any time

One to two months

Some schools use rolling admission with no set deadlines. This option appeals to students who want to start college today — or at least not wait six to nine months.

4. Decide if you'll be using the Common App to apply to multiple colleges at once.

The Common App lets you apply to up to 20 colleges with a single application. And more than 950 schools accept the Common App. 

What should I know about the Common App?

What is the Common App?

The Common App is a single application accepted by more than 950 colleges. Rather than submitting multiple individual applications, prospective students submit one application for several.

Why use the Common App?

Applicants find it easier to manage the Common App rather than filling out individual applications for multiple schools. The option helps streamline the application process. 

Which schools accept the Common App?

Currently, 978 schools accept the Common App. Small liberal arts colleges, large public universities, and elite private schools use the Common App. Check the Common App site to learn which schools accept the Common App. 

Is the Common App free?

Applicants can use the Common App for free, but they must pay application fees for each school they apply to. Students can request a fee waiver to multiple schools through the Common App.

When does the Common App open?

The Common App opens on August 1. After that date, applicants can begin filling out a profile and completing application requirements.

What are Common App deadlines?

Admission deadlines vary by school. Early decision applications generally use a November 1 deadline, while regular admission applications use a January 1 deadline.

5. Complete the FAFSA.

The FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It's a good idea to fill out the FAFSA even if you might not qualify for need-based scholarships. 

Many schools use the FAFSA to calculate financial needs and create financial aid packages, including grants and federally subsidized loans. You'll need to complete the FAFSA to qualify for many merit-based scholarships, too.

Students fill out the FAFSA on the federal student aid website. The application requires financial information, including parental information for dependent students. 

Here's the good news: many online colleges accept FAFSA, and financial aid can make the cheapest online colleges even more affordable. 

6. Fill out the Common App.

Filling out the Common App can save time. But it still requires keeping track of a lot of information. Stay organized throughout the process.

First, you'll need to gather information. You'll need a copy of your high school transcript and college entrance exam scores. Keep in mind that some schools are test-optional or don't require standardized test scores at all. 

You'll also need information about your academic honors, activities, work history, and achievements. Finally, the Common App requires parent or legal guardian information.

Second, you'll create a first-year Common App account. Use an email address you check regularly and provide basic information like your address, date of birth, and legal name. 

Next, add colleges to your Common App. You can add up to 20 schools. The Common App will list the official school forms you'll need for each school. The app also lists which schools require letters of recommendation and how many you'll need to submit.

You'll write the Common App personal essay, which will go to all your schools. You'll also track college-specific questions and writing supplements through the Common App dashboard. 

Finally, the Common App will help you track your school's deadlines and application fees. The Common App student solutions center provides support throughout the process.

Common App components: What to prepare, request, and fill out

Plan ahead when filling out the Common App. Check each school's requirements for additional material, including college-specific essay questions and portfolio requirements. 

Most applicants need the following to submit the Common App:

  • Official high school transcripts
  • SAT or ACT scores (See: What is the ACT? and What is the SAT?)
  • A list of academic achievements
  • A list of extracurriculars
  • Common App personal essay
  • Supplemental essays
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Fee waiver (if applicable)

7. Or apply to individual schools without the Common App.

The Common App is one way to apply to colleges. But not every school accepts the Common App. So you might also apply to individual schools. 

Make sure to check the Common App schools first. 

Next, visit the school's website to learn about the application procedure and requirements. Reach out to your school counselor for assistance. You'll likely need letters of recommendation and original essays for each school. 

Track deadlines closely to make sure you get your applications in.

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