What are your chances of acceptance?

Your chance of acceptance
Duke University
Duke University
Your chancing factors
Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


Low accuracy (4 of 18 factors)

A Step by Step Guide to Applying to College

The college application process continues to evolve, and many parents are surprised to find just how much it’s changed since their generation applied to college. For parents who have never gone through the college application process, it might seem overwhelming or simply unclear. In any case, applying to college is a lengthy and multifaceted process, and we at CollegeVine have made it our job to simplify it.


In this post, we’ll briefly outline each step in the process and provide some resources for learning more. If you’re looking for a quick overview of each step your teen should take when applying to college, make this post your first stop.


Step 1: Research & Visit Colleges


The first step to applying to college is deciding where to submit those precious applications. Researching colleges is vitally important to decide where you want to apply. Much of this research can be done online now, with some sites even offering 3D tours of campuses and live forums to ask questions from real students.


If possible, visit the schools near the top of the list to get a better feel for campus life and the student body. Another good route to learning more specific colleges is attending college fairs, info sessions with visiting admissions representatives, or talking to current students. You can begin researching colleges at any point, but by 11th grade the process should be underway.


To learn more about researching colleges, check out our comprehensive Step-by-Step Guide to Researching Colleges.


Step 2: Finalize Your College List


Many students don’t realize when they begin the college application process that creating a solid college list is among the most important steps along the way. A perfect college list will consist of schools that your student would happily attend, which are a good fit academically and program-wise, and which represent a variety of realistic admissions chances.


When creating a college list, your student will need to juggle numerous priorities and decide which are most important to him or her. These might include things like college size, geographic location, program offerings, and student life. Then, he or she will need to find colleges that meet these criteria and represent a good balance of schools to which he or she has a realistic shot of admissions.


Ideally, your student will finalize his or her college list by the beginning of 12th grade. You can learn more about this step on our page, Where Should You Apply to College?.


Step 3: Ask for Letters of Recommendation


Whether you apply using the common app, the coalition app, or a university-specific application, you will inevitably be asked for letters of recommendation. Before you request these, be sure that you understand the requirements for them as dictated by your specific application. Some applications specify that these must be written by teachers, others request one from a teacher and one from a guidance counselor, and still others leave the decision entirely up to you.


In any case, the person who writes your recommendations should know you well enough to speak to your specific strengths and be able to provide concrete examples of these. Request recommendation letters at the end of 11th grade or early in the year during 12th grade. You learn more in our post 9 Rules For Requesting Letters of Recommendation from Teachers.


Step 4: Make Sure Standardized Test Scores Make the Cut


Standardized test scores are still an important piece of college admissions, even as more and more colleges shift towards a more holistic approach. Standardized test scores are even sometimes used as an initial screening tool, especially at large colleges where they receive far more applications than they are able to closely review.


You should take your ACT or SAT for the first time during the spring of 11th grade. This will leave the entire summer to study and raise scores, while also allowing at least two more chances to take the test in fall of 12th grade. 


Step 5: Figure Out Which College Applications You’ll Be Using and Review Them Closely


Once your college list is finalized, you can look at which applications are accepted by the colleges on it and make a decision regarding which application(s) you’ll need to complete. Once you’ve done this, you can create an online account to preview the application and get a better idea of what information you’ll need to include on it.


For more about the Common Application, which is accepted at more than 800 colleges and universities across the country, check out our Common App Help page.

Step 6: Put Together an Application Timeline


There are several different options for college application timelines. Some students decide it is best to apply early decision to a top choice school. Other students opt for early action applications, while still more pursue regular decision. You can get a better idea of the pros and cons for each option by checking out our post What Are the Differences Between Early Action and Early Decision?.


Once you’ve decided on the basic timeline for your college applications, create a calendar that includes all your upcoming application deadlines. Programming notifications into your phone or mobile device to give yourself a few reminders in the days leading up to these deadlines is a great idea.


Step 7: Create an Admissions Theme


A standout college application will present a clear picture of a student with well-rounded academic pursuits but specialized interests and experiences. Generally, to get into a selective college, you will need to perform well across the board in your academic classes, but you should also show some specialized interests, ideally ones that relate to your goals for the future. Your application theme is essentially your unique, comprehensive story of who you are as a person and a student.


For example, if you want to be a doctor, your application theme may revolve around this ambition. You would include STEM-heavy extracurriculars and perhaps a service project in the medical field. These are areas to highlight specifically on your application, especially in your essays and on your list of activities and honors. 


Step 8: Write Your Essays


The Common App essay prompts are usually released in the spring before they are due, and most other college applications are on a similar timeline. You can preview these prompts and begin brainstorming and even drafting your essays during the summer before 12th grade. This is a great time to reflect carefully since you won’t be under the constraints of a normal school year and will usually have a little more free time.


You should be writing second and final drafts of your essays by early fall of 12th grade. Don’t forget to have a teacher or mentor edit and proofread for you before you submit a final draft. 


Step 9: Consider Finances


Financial aid is a necessity for the majority of college bound students. If you’re one of this majority, you’ll need to fill out the FAFSA and learn about the financial aid that might be available to you. Check out our page Understand the True Cost Of College to learn more.


Many students also consider scholarships to help offset college expenses. These are a great option, and there are many more scholarships out there than most families even realize. Start your scholarship search early, during winter of 11th grade, and continue to work on it throughout your college application process. Some scholarships require lengthy applications with polished essays, so be sure to allow enough time for these.


Step 10: Check Everything Three Times


It’s been said that three is a magic number, and that’s the case when it comes to college applications, too. We recommend that you check every single aspect of your application three times before you submit it.


This means proofreading your final essay three times. Reviewing your activity list three times. Touching base about letters of recommendation and confirming that official test scores have been sent to the correct colleges three times. Applying to college is an involved process, and it would be a shame to present a less than perfect application due to a hasty oversight. Give your work the critical eye three times before you submit it to ensure that you present your best self.


Curious about your chances of acceptance to your dream school? Our free chancing engine takes into account your GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, and other data to predict your odds of acceptance at over 500 colleges across the U.S. We’ll also let you know how you stack up against other applicants and how you can improve your profile. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account today to get started!

Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.