The Ultimate College Application Guide

Vice President of Admission and Financial Aid, Endicott College

All that soul searching to find the perfect college has come down to this—the application. But what actually goes into that mythical document? How do you write the personal essay portion? Who's responsible for your standardized test scores? There's a lot to consider, but, luckily, we asked an admission insider to break it all down for you. Keep reading for expert advice on how to make your application rise to the top of the heap. 

"How are those college applications coming along?” ask parents with eagerness and just a little bit of dread in their voices. “Don’t worry. I’ll get them done . . . later,” say their sons and daughters. The task may seem a little daunting at first, but as you begin this exciting journey, you will find the college application process is largely the same as it has been for generations. There are still application forms and fees, essays to be written, and transcripts to be sent.  

The process for submitting applications, on the other hand, has changed dramatically. Conveniently, you now can fill out and send most of your applications digitally. If there is a fee, it can be paid securely by credit card and essays can be uploaded as well. Even official transcripts can be sent electronically, and you are often able to check online to make sure colleges have received all your application materials.

Communication methods have also changed. You may receive electronic invitations to campus events and e-mails from members of the admission staff instead of printed invitations and letters. You can visit college websites and take virtual tours long before you drive through the gates to visit. The application folders in admission offices are often “paperless,” and staff members review files on their laptops. You may even find other prospective students from all over the world on social networks, where you may chat, text, and share information. And then, when the process is complete, students still generally receive their decision letters the old-fashioned way—a packet in the mail!

Choosing a college is one of life’s great decisions. Here are several suggestions to survive, if not enjoy, your involvement in the admission process.

How are admission decisions made?

Each college has its own criteria for making admission decisions. All colleges, however, look for strong students they believe will return each year, succeed in that particular environment and culture, and ultimately graduate.

As colleges and universities receive more applications for class sizes that will be a fraction of the pool, selectivity is inevitable. However, many colleges look at more than grades and test scores. They look at the whole student. That doesn’t mean grades and test scores are not important—they are still the most important factors in the decision-making process. It does mean that there are other considerations, such as the essay and the personal meeting/interview.

The best college

Before you apply to every college and university in the top tier of the rankings, consider the type of college environment best suited to you. Think about location, size, your career goals, academic programs, cost, campus life/culture, athletics, extracurricular activities, and other interests and priorities you may have. Then make a list of these items that are most important to you.

Ask yourself about each of the items above. How does a campus with 5,000 students sound to you? Maybe you would prefer a smaller setting where getting to know faculty and many students by name is a common occurrence. Maybe a campus of 10,000 with a wide range of programs is your niche. How about location? City, suburban, or rural campus? Close to home or far away? Are you undecided in the program you would like to study or have you already chosen a profession? Is an internship program important to you for the experience, contacts, self-assurance, and other opportunities offered? What interests, both inside and outside of the classroom, are important to you?

Next, consider cost. Speak with your parents/guardian. Are there family funds available for your education? Would you like to attend a public or private institution? Are you eligible for scholarships? Will you apply for federal and state funds? Be sure to consider whether you expect to have loans to repay after graduation.

As you compile your list, consider these items in tandem with your academic profile. Have you taken standardized tests such as SAT or ACT? In what range do your scores fall? What is your GPA?

Once you have compiled this information, you will have a pretty good idea of the type of college/university to which you should apply! Once you find institutions that match these criteria, you are ready to plan your campus visits.

The campus visit

This is an extremely important part of the process. Carefully review the websites, brochures, and publications for your “best match” institutions to decide which you should visit. Check the visit policy of each school. Do you need an appointment and if so, how far in advance should you schedule it? Does a visit consist of only a campus tour, or a tour and an information session, or is there an individual interview? If you will be meeting with an admission staff member, do your homework. Dress appropriately and know something about that college ahead of time so you are able to have an intelligent conversation. Also, be ready to ask questions! It is important that you find out if the college has any or all of the important items on your list. For example, if the college you are visiting has an internship program, you may want to know if the program is required, how students choose their internship sites, and how many students find employment from their internship experience.

Take a campus tour and get the student perspective of campus life. Check out campus bulletin boards, the library, residence halls, dining halls, and, of course, the bookstore. Consider the “feel” as you visit various campuses. Your impressions of the people, facilities, and community are very important in your decision-making process. Most importantly, ask questions of current students. Why did you select this college? What do you like most? What could be improved?

If the college you are visiting is your first choice, be sure to let them know! And don’t forget to see if a coach is available if you intend to be involved in athletics; the coaching staff always has a wealth of information and knowledge to impart. Finally, be sure to take some notes to remind you of the visit and keep the notes handy for the next step.

Get organized

The most important part of the application process may be organizing your application materials. Once you have the final list of schools to which you will apply, get your facts together. Make sure you know each school’s requirements, and don’t be afraid to call the admission office if you have a question about an application element.

A couple of organization tips: Use a calendar to keep track of important dates and deadlines. Create a folder for each school you’re applying to and keep any relevant documents—applications, essays, brochures, or other correspondence. Start a spreadsheet tracking dates of your involvement/communication with each school (e.g., when you visited the campus, met a counselor at a college fair, had an admission interview, requested your high school transcript, sent a thank you card, etc.). This may seem like a lot of work now, but you’ll be glad you have a record, especially if the school informs you they’re missing a part of your application.

An admission counselor’s checklist

Though criteria vary from school to school, here’s the basic breakdown of application elements.

  • Grades/GPA and rank in class—they speak for themselves. However, many high schools are choosing to no longer report rank in class; in that case, many colleges look more closely at GPA.
  • Standardized test scores—some colleges may be SAT/ACT optional. Other schools require electronic testing, and scores are an important part of the review process.
  • The essay is very important because it gives admission reviewers insights that no other piece of documentation provides.
  • Personal meetings/interviews are important to both the student and the admission interviewer. Again, valuable insights are gained on both sides of the desk.
  • Letters of recommendation provide additional information from teachers or counselors who are able to comment on the academic highlights of the student.
  • Academic rigor—have you been enrolled in advanced or standard classes?
  • Your hours of community service, special talents, leadership qualities, and athletics/clubs/extracurricular activities all enter into the decision.
  • Demographics, legacy relationships, and ethnicity are also considered.
  • Intangibles such as timeliness and meeting deadlines, quality of the overall application (admission staff can tell if it’s a rush job), and the feel that you really would like to attend the college are taken into account.

Standardized test scores

Colleges use the SAT, ACT, and other standardized test scores in different ways, some in the admission process and some for placement. While the application essay is an important sample of the student’s writing ability, the SAT and ACT writing sections demonstrate other writing skills. The test sections are timed and show the student’s ability to write a cohesive, intelligent first draft. Since writing skills are crucial to succeeding in college, the writing test score is helpful in the admission process.

If you take the SAT multiple times, you may choose which score you send to your colleges and universities. However, if you do not highlight a particular score, the College Board will report all your scores to your schools. It takes the College Board five weeks to send your test scores, but you can request “rush reporting” if necessary, which takes two business days and costs extra. Keep in mind not all colleges and universities accept rush reporting.

Some schools, particularly selective institutions, also require SAT Subject Tests, which focus on specific areas like world history, literature, mathematics, and foreign languages. Colleges and universities will typically ask for two SAT Subject Tests, and you should take the test in your strongest subjects. Make sure you know which schools do and do not need to see your SAT Subject Test scores.

You may also encounter some test-optional schools, a growing list of colleges and universities that do not require standardized test scores. (For a full list, visit the National Center for Fair and Open Testing at However, these schools may still “recommend” you send in your scores or may require supplemental materials in lieu of scores.

Recommendation letters

Recommendations are another facet of the college application that enable admission representatives to see the person behind the GPA and test scores. When it comes to recommendation letters, you won’t be doing the writing. However, you do need to put some time, consideration, and effort into coordinating the people who will be.  

You may need only one recommendation, often from your high school guidance counselor, or as many as three. Ask professors, employers, or organization leaders who know you well and can speak to your character. Even if you have access to a “notable person” (your aunt works for a state senator), you are much better off with a letter from your pastor who led your sophomore year service trip to Central America—someone who knows from experience just how great you are. (Please do not ask Mom or Dad to write a recommendation, as it may be somewhat biased! Believe it or not, this happens on occasion.)

Make sure you give your recommendation writers ample time to compose their letters; a month is usually sufficient, but it’s helpful to give them a “heads up” several months in advance. And don’t forget to send them a thank-you note when all is said and done.


Staying organized will also ensure you submit your applications before the deadlines roll around. All of your application elements, including test scores and transcripts, should be in well before the deadline. Classes and certain programs may fill up early; don’t be left out because of procrastination.

There are several types of application deadlines. The most common are Early Decision, Early Action, Single Choice Early Action, Regular Decision, and rolling admission deadlines. Most students choose the Regular Decision deadline, which usually falls between January 1 and March 1 of the year they plan to enroll. If you apply Regular Decision, you should receive a response in April. You then have until May 1 to accept or decline any offers of admission.

You may also apply early, but the early admission options can get confusing, so make sure you know the differences between them. Early Action deadlines generally fall between mid-October and mid-November, depending on the school. You should receive a decision in December. Early Action applications are non-binding, so you may apply to as many Early Action schools as you would like and choose among all that admit you.

Early Decision applications are not to be taken quite so lightly. The due dates are similar to Early Action, but Early Decision applications are binding, which means you must attend if the school admits you (and also withdraw all other applications submitted to other institutions). You should only apply to a college or university Early Decision if it is your absolute top choice. Another warning: you may be committing to the school before you receive your financial aid package.

Single Choice Early Action is non-binding, but if you go this route, you cannot apply to any other schools early; you can apply to other schools Regular Decision, but not Early Action or Early Decision. You are then guaranteed a prompt admission decision, and you will still have until May 1 to accept or decline.

Schools offering rolling admission do not have an official deadline, per se; students can submit their application materials throughout the year. Admission decisions are then normally made in just a few weeks. However, students are also accepted on a first-come, first-served basis, and positions can fill up quickly. Modified rolling admissions may include a submission deadline.

Application essay/personal statement

When admission staff members read your application, they’re looking for a glimpse of your personality in addition to all the facts and figures, the classes, and extracurricular activities. That’s where your essay may distinguish you from other candidates for admission—this is your opportunity to stand out among other applicants. If two students have equal GPAs and test scores, your essay can help you immensely, tipping the scales in your favor. Use the essay to explain why you think the institution is a good match for you. Or convey your views on education or careers or politics or literature. Give the application reader some insight into your life, your personality, and your values. Make sure you do not, however, hurt your application by making spelling, punctuation, or grammatical errors or by failing to adhere to the given word count.

But where do you even start? First, make sure you respond to the statement given and/or answer the question that is asked. This may seem obvious, but numerous students submit misguided application essays because they fail to take the time to truly understand the prompt. And don’t forget that the essay should always be about you. If the prompt asks about “someone you admire,” your essay should not be a biography of that person, but a reflection of his or her influence on your life.

Spend time on your essay, think about what’s important to you, brainstorm ideas, and outline possible options. (And make sure you check out the example essays on CollegeXpress!) Have other people, including your professors, read the essay and listen to their feedback. You’ll only have a few hundred words to make a lasting impression, so choose a topic that’s specific, unique, and memorable. Above all, be genuine.

Extracurricular activities

Whether or not you played three varsity sports, volunteered 20 hours each week, or played Evita in the senior musical, extracurricular activities are not going to make or break your college application. That being said, they are definitely considered and help admission representatives see the student behind the test scores and course work. Again, they want to see your personality and get a feel for what’s important to you.

When listing extracurricular activities, remember that it’s about quality, not quantity. Don’t stuff your application with extracurriculars you joined for a week and then abandoned. Or, if you really are a member of a dozen different clubs and committees, highlight those in which you were most involved. Leadership roles, like editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, are great, but you can also discuss projects you led or sub-committees you were a part of.

Wrapping things up

Before sending in your forms, double-check the application checklist of all the necessary elements. It is your responsibility to make sure that all required documents have been submitted so a timely decision can be made. Again, you can call and ask if you have outstanding materials or check your application’s status online if you receive instructions to do so. A phone call or an e-mail can often kick-start an overlooked item.

Take care of the things that are in your control. Make sure you read and follow the directions completely and that there are no spelling mistakes or grammatical errors. Check again. Save copies (a separate folder on your computer for each school is best) and mark the dates that you sent each application, fee, and supporting documents. It also doesn’t hurt to have someone, like a family member or trusted friend, review your application for errors as well.

Yes, the waiting is difficult, and sweating the details can be frustrating, but the end result is often exhilarating. And you’ll breathe a very big sigh of relief when that big packet comes in the mail! 

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