How to Apply to College in 4 Steps

Ah, the college application. The troll on the bridge. Instead of quizzing you with riddles, though, this troll is asking you to submit lengthy forms full of personal information to his office before a specified date.

Regardless of any of our thoughts on the security system of this bridge, everyone who wants to get into college has to apply. There’s no way to it but through it, and here’s how it’ll get done.


1. Have your list of colleges ready.

This one’s tough. You’re going to have to figure out where you actually want to apply to at some point. 

If you’re racing against the clock, definitely start the applications for colleges you know you’ll apply to. If you have the luxury of time, though, it might be a good idea to finalize your list before you start sending out any documents or paying any application fees.

(Are you truly lost about where to apply? Never fear; we’re here to help.)

2. Know all dates and deadlines.

Once you have your list, figure out which of your colleges use the Common App, which ones use Coalition, and which have their own applications. This will help you keep track of how many separate applications you’ll need to fill out and when they’re due.

Some important deadlines to know:

  • when early action or early decision applications are due
  • when regular applications are due
  • when any documents like transcripts, letters of recommendation, and test scores need to be received by the school

3. Gather your materials.

High School Courses and Grades

Plan to share your high school courses and grades with each of the colleges to which you apply. 

If you’re asked to provide official transcripts, they usually need to be sent directly from your high school administration office to the troll—that is, to the college you’re applying to. The “officialness” has to do with the fact that you’re not the middle-man. 

If you’re asked to self-report your courses and grades, you’ll list them on your application yourself. You don’t need to send an official transcript to that college unless you later choose to enroll there. Make sure what you add matches your transcript exactly; if a college discovers any discrepancies, they can rescind your offer of admission!

Your high school counselor should help you through this process, but try to have your list of colleges ready to go when you send out any transcripts. You can request to have transcripts sent to additional colleges later if you need to, but you’ll have to fill out a new form every time you do—and who wants to do that?

Test Scores

Most of your college applications will want to know your standardized test scores (that’s the whole point of those dang things!). Again, some colleges will ask you to self-report these scores, while others will require official score reports directly from the testing agency.

When you sign up to take tests like the SAT or ACT, you can ask them to send your scores to a group of colleges. However, if you later decide that you want your scores sent to another school, you’ll have to submit a request to the testing agency. This shouldn’t be a problem as long as you notify the testing agency on time.

(If you haven’t taken your standardized tests yet, be sure to register for a date as soon as you can!)

Letters of Recommendation

“Uhh … Ms. Smith? I know that I sort of broke your leg when you tripped over my backpack that I left on the stairs, but … could you be one of my college references?”

“Why, of course, Liz! I’d be delighted!”

That wasn’t too hard, was it? But Liz could do better. How about this:

“Hi, Ms. Smith. I really have enjoyed our class so far, and I was wondering if you could write me a letter of recommendation for college.”

“Of course, Liz! And don’t worry, my leg is feeling much better now!”

Some colleges also ask students to provide them with letters of recommendation. It can be the Big Anxiety of the Day to ask someone to write you a recommendation letter, but it won’t be as scary as you imagine. Most of the individuals you’re likely to ask will probably have written one of these letters before, so this won’t be as big a deal to them as it is to you. Just make sure to keep these things in mind when you’re asking:

  • Pick people who you think have some good things to say about you, whatever those may be.
  • Ask them in person.
  • Give them enough notice to write their recommendation (at the very least, two weeks).
  • When you’re ready (it doesn’t have to be right when you ask them), give them an organized list of all the schools you’re applying to.
  • Be sure to actually ask them—don’t just put their name and email down on your application without telling them!

4. Tackle the application and the essay.

College applications start out pretty easy. You’ll probably begin by filling out simple things like your name and birthday (“Hey, I know this one!”), then move to more tedious sections like writing about your experiences and putting down any clubs, sports, or volunteering you’ve participated in (“Do I put that I was part of the Banana Club?” Yes.). You’ll be asked questions about your parents’ or guardian’s background, like what kind of education they have or where they work (“Mom, how old are you again?”). Then comes the hardest part: the essay. 

You’ll probably be given an essay question (or several) to answer in around 400 words or so. These essays are usually the biggest source of stress for students during the application process. It can be pretty hard to know what to write, especially if you’re trying to be memorable while also following the guidelines.

Want our advice? Answer the prompt. Make sure that you’re addressing the question you’re asked. While it may be tempting to respond to “Describe a time where you succeeded despite challenges” with “Banana club banana club banana club banana club banana … ,” it’s likely that some people in this world won’t possess your first-class humor, and they won’t understand why the Banana Club instantly qualifies you for admission.


Applying to Illinois?

If you’d like some pointers as you start your application, check out our application guide and how to tackle our essay question.

The bridges to college can be difficult and scary. Not every troll will let you pass. If you keep your eyes on what’s ahead and trust yourself, though, you’ll be fine. Work hard and try not to procrastinate; you’ll get there in the end. 


Illinois Admissions

Illinois Admissions

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