What's in a College Application

Find the right college for you.

It’s the combination of all components of your college application that gives admissions officers an idea of who you are. Not every college requires every one of these elements. For example, some colleges don't ask for admission test scores, but this list includes the most common requirements. Be sure to find out from your school counselor or principal which items you can send, and which items your high school should send.

Parts of the College Application Process

If you want to apply to college, you’ll need to know the essential parts of the overall application process. Besides this, you need to know the admissions process (i.e., requirements) of each college you’re interested in.

Application Forms

To fill in all the blanks on the application form itself, you may have to dig up documents or get answers from your parents. Most students use online applications, but paper applications are usually available through the admissions office if you prefer to go that route. There are also websites that let you complete one application online and submit it to several colleges.

two students on laptop

Application Fees

College application fees can vary. Some colleges charge nothing. Others charge up to $100. Fees are nonrefundable. Many colleges offer fee waivers to students who can't afford to pay. If you need application fee waivers, speak with your school counselor or principal.

Your High School Transcript

The record of the classes you've taken and your grades are important parts of the application process. Your high school should send your transcript and a school profile directly to the colleges you’re applying to. Ask your school counselor how to make this happen because this is a crucial part of the application process. Some colleges also want a mid-year transcript that shows your first-semester grades. Be sure to check the transcript for errors before it's sent.

Final Transcript

At the end of your senior year, your high school will send a final transcript to the college you've decided to attend. This transcript informs the college about classes you’ve taken and whether you kept your grades up during your last year in high school. Ask your school counselor how to complete this process. Follow up to make sure this transaction has taken place.

Letters of Recommendation

Many colleges require letters of recommendation from teachers or school counselors. Ask whoever is writing your recommendation to write their letter well before the deadlines. Ask how much time they’ll need. It’s courteous to give them at least 10 school days. You may want to give them a summary of your achievements, such as a student résumé, to help them write their recommendation.


Your essays are a chance for you to give admissions officers a better idea of your character and strengths. Make sure that you’re answering the essay question fully. Avoid recycling a previously written essay to save time. Remember to proofread your essays carefully before you send them in.

Auditions and Portfolios

If you're applying to music, art, or theater programs, the colleges may want to see samples of your work. This means you may need to audition or send portfolios or videos showing your artistic ability as part of your application.


Read College Interviews: The Basics to prepare for the interview if one is requested. An interview isn’t always required. If a college doesn’t recommend an interview or it’s not a part of their process, you’ll still have opportunities to speak with admissions reps at college events, college fairs, or school visits. If a college is far away, you may be able to speak with a local alum.

Review a list of important tasks to complete for each college application.


When should I start the college application process?

Consider finalizing the list of colleges you are considering by the end of your junior summer so you can begin your college application process early in your senior fall. This time frame gives you enough time to explore different colleges, shortlist your choices, and work on the application requirements. Getting an early start allows you to make well-informed decisions, prepare for standardized tests, gather essential documents, and draft compelling application essays. Remember that application deadlines vary across different colleges, so check the specific deadlines of the institutions that pique your interest.

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How do I decide which colleges to apply to?

When choosing between colleges, research and consider various factors. Start by researching colleges on tools like BigFuture, college websites, and attending college fairs. Prioritize your preferences and assess how well each college aligns with your academic and personal goals. Remember that the college selection process is personal, so take your time, reflect on your goals, and make a decision that feels right for you.

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What are common college application forms?

Many colleges and universities accept standardized college application forms, which can simplify the application process. The two most common forms are the Common Application (Common App), which is accepted by over 900 institutions, and the Coalition Application, which more than 170 colleges accept. Both forms include sections for personal information, academic history, activities, essays, and recommendations. Remember to adhere to deadlines and complete all components accurately and on time.

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Should I apply for an early decision or early action?

When considering applying to colleges, make sure you understand the difference between early decision and early action. Early decision is a binding agreement, meaning that you’re obligated to attend that college if accepted. On the other hand, early action is nonbinding. It allows you to apply to multiple colleges. Always consider your circumstances, preferences, and the policies of the colleges you’re considering before deciding which option is right for you.

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