Applying to College: FAQ

Find the right college for you

Applying to college is a big moment in your life. It’s understandable if you have questions about how to go about it the right way. Here are some of the most common questions about the application process.


When should I start applying to college?

Start the application process the summer before your senior year. You can also do a lot of prep work your junior year, such as taking the SAT, researching campuses and visiting them, getting recommendation letters, and adding to your extracurriculars. Use the BigFuture college application timeline to guide you through the process.

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How do I begin applying to college?

First, consider creating a spreadsheet listing each college you plan to apply to and the items needed for each application. Find out what each college requires in an application, and make a checklist with due dates within the spreadsheet. Then, start gathering the items from each checklist, and keep them organized digitally.

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How many colleges should I apply to?

Apply to several schools to keep your options open and improve your chances of getting into a program of your choice. Apply to at least three reaches, two matches, and one safety school. Only apply to colleges you'd be happy to attend.

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What are reach, match, and safety schools?

BigFuture has developed a system to help you rank schools and weigh your options, based on your SAT scores or GPA. On BigFuture, if your SAT Score (or GPA, which we convert to an SAT Score) falls within the 25–75 percentiles for that specific school, we consider it a match. This range marks the middle 50% of admitted students. If your score is under the 25th percentile, we consider it a reach. If it’s above the 75th percentile, we consider it a safety. We’ll help you find reach, match, and safety colleges so you can build a balanced college list.

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What are early action and early decision plans?

Students who are ready to apply to their preferred schools in November or December can early action or early decision. The important difference between them is that early decision is binding to one school, while early action allows the student to apply to multiple schools.

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Should I apply for early decision?

There are pros and cons to applying by November or December to qualify for an Early Decision. The best option is to research early decision and early action plans to learn if what’s the best choice for you. Early decision is binding. You’ll have to withdraw your other college applications if you’re accepted. If you’re not sure, it’s best to select early action or regular admission, both of which are nonbinding. Early decision plans are best for students who are accepted by their first-choice school and receive the required financial aid. You also won't know your financial aid package until you're accepted. If you're still considering your options, you may not want to lock into a school just yet.

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Should I use an online or a paper application?

Check with the college to see which is preferred. Most colleges prefer online applications because they’re easier to review and process. Some even offer a discount on the application fee if you apply online. Applying online can also be more convenient for you—it’s easier to enter information and correct mistakes

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Should I send additional material?

You should follow the college's instructions to provide them with everything they need to know about you. Colleges are clear and specific about the materials they need in order to consider you for admission. If you wish to submit additional material, speak with your counselor about doing so or ask the admissions officer at that school.

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Is it OK to use the same material on different applications?

You can use the same essay or personal statement on different applications as long as it answers the question on the application. Think about how you can make each essay the best it can be, and don’t try to force similar material to fit different essay questions.

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What are the Common, Coalition, Common Black College, and Universal College Applications?

These are platforms that allow you to apply to multiple schools with a single, standardized application. Instead of filling out multiple applications, you fill out one application that you can submit to each college. Compare your college list to the schools that accept each application to decide which one(s) might be right for you.

Remember that you'll still need to pay each school's application fees, and some schools may require additional materials. Speak with your school counselor if you need college application fee waivers to cover this expense.

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Should I apply to colleges if my admission test scores or grades are below their published ranges?

You should absolutely consider applying to a school you're interested in, even if you're worried about your test scores and grades. Colleges look at many factors when deciding which students to accept. They consider such factors as your application essay, classes you took in high school, recommendations, and extrcurriculars. Because of current test optional options policies, we recommend you submit your scores if they strengthen your application. If you’re unsure whether your scores strengthen your application, talk to your counselor, or ask the college’s admissions officer.

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Should I even bother applying to colleges I don’t think I can afford?

Absolutely. Remember that after financial aid packages are determined, most students will pay less than the "sticker price" listed on the college website. You don’t know if you can afford a college until after you apply, are accepted, and find out how much aid that college will offer you (if you’re accepted). Fill out the FAFSA® as early as possible after October 1 to qualify for the most aid.

Even if the aid package the college offers is not enough, you have options . Many colleges are willing to work with students they have chosen for admission to ensure that those students can afford to attend.

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How long does it take to fill out a college application?

You may need a month or more to gather the materials needed, such as letters of recommendation and transcripts. Once you have all your materials gathered, you can complete the basic information on an application in less than an hour.

Writing the essay and personal statement can take a few days up to a few weeks, depending on the content and number of revisions.

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How do I apply for college online?

Whether you go with Common App, Coalition, or directly through a college, you’ll be taken through the process step by step by the online application platform to see where to enter your information.

You may also need to upload documents like your transcripts and confirm that letters of recommendation have been submitted by your recommender. Some platforms have a link your teachers can use to fill out their recommendations instead of giving them to you. Check with your counselor if you’re unsure.

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When are applications due for college?

Although application deadlines vary, most schools require you to apply sometime between January and February. If you plan to apply early decision, the application is typically due in early November. You’ll find deadlines listed on each College Profile in BigFuture, or you can check directly with the school.

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When do colleges start accepting applications?

Most colleges begin accepting applications in early August. If you know you'll have a busy senior year ahead, consider gathering your materials over the summer so you can start the process in August and September.

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Where should I apply to college?

Consider applying to at least six colleges. Have a mix of reach, match, and safety schools. Having a balanced list of schools to apply to increases the chances you’re accepted by one or more colleges where you'll be happy.

You also shouldn't rely solely on a school's ranking or the advice of others. Take many factors into account. Remember that the best school is the one that makes you feel at home. The best one is also the one where you can thrive. Look at schools that have programs that interest you. Visit the campus. Talk to students who go there. Only apply to schools at which you can see yourself being happy.

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What happens if I make a mistake on a college application?

Even if you're meticulous when completing your college application, there's a chance that you'll make a mistake. You may leave out something, fail to follow instructions, or do something incorrectly. If you realize you've made a mistake, don't panic. College admissions officers aren’t going to nitpick over a minor error, but several errors may show you in a bad light. If you have significant errors or omissions, reach out to the admissions office of the college you applied to.

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How do I correct my college application?

The best option is to ask your school counselor how to proceed or contact the admissions office of the institution directly.

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