College Admission Process, Step-by-Step

When you break the college search and admission process down into steps, it’s really not that scary. (We swear!)

We don’t mean to toot our own horn, but—beep beep—we have everything you need to find the perfect college. No, really. It’s like having your own fancy private college admission advisor. Except, you know, free.

Now, before you dive into your college search, you may be tempted to just skim the subheads below and make sense of these college search steps on your own. But that won’t be enough to really help you. And, believe us, you do not want to take a shortcut through your college search. Instead, go through all of these helpful articles, because if you follow the advice inside, your college search will get way easier.

An important note about college costs: We'll get to financial aid in a minute. But as you're figuring out your college search criteria, it's often best to leave cost out of it. Just ignore the "sticker price." Not that cost won't be a factor—it obviously is—but your goal right now is to find colleges that really and truly fit you. Academic fit. Social fit. Career prep fit. All the fits. Because, when a school is the right fit for you, the financial aid tends to fall into place. And, believe us, financial aid changes everything. (In fact, you might find that the fancy private school that seemed out of reach is actually your most affordable option, once you get their financial aid award letter.) Eventually, you'll have a spreadsheet (or two) listing out the college tuition and other costs for all your schools, along with the financial aid package they awarded you. You'll have lots of research and data points to look at when making your final college choice, a choice you and your family can afford. You're not there yet, but you will be...

Soon horse

Ready to start your college search?! Let’s do this! (And if you have any questions for the CollegeXpress staff or our Experts, let us know here or through Twitter, Facebook, etc.)

Step 1: Know your college search timeline

Before you even fire up a college search engine, it helps to know what’s ahead of you—what you need to do and when.

Whichever grade of high school you are in, chances are you have experienced the typical I-AM-A-(insert grade level)-AND-COLLEGE-IS-IN-(insert number of years until college)-AND-I-AM-NOT-PREPARED-TO-FILL-OUT-APPLICATIONS!-WHAT-IS-MY-GPA?-DO-I-GET-A-GPA?-WHAT’S-MY-NAME?-WHO-AM-I? spurt every once in a while. It happens to the best of us. Read more. 

Other helpful info:

Step 2: Consider your major and academic options

Majors aren’t the scary, career-binding contracts they often appear to be. We promise.

What do you excel at in and out of the classroom, and more importantly, do you actually enjoy it? Students shouldn’t choose their major solely based on “what they might have been told they ‘are good at,’” says Beth Howard, Director of Advising Services at the University of Montana. Your friends may come straight to you whenever they need help editing an essay, but if doing that for a living doesn’t excite you, then you shouldn’t feel pressured to major in something like journalism or English. Read more.

Other helpful info:

Step 3: Make a list of all the things you want and need in a college

Why do you want to go to college? What do you hope to find when you get there? What do you need to succeed in college and after you graduate? You need to ask yourself these questions (and more) so you know what to look for in a college.

Instead of asking “Where do I want to go to college?” it might be simpler to start by thinking about your own personal values, your activities and interests, your character and friendships, and your likes and dislikes about school in general. Read more.

Other helpful info:

Step 4: Search for schools that fit your criteria and make your initial college list

Now that you have a good idea of what you want from your future college, you can actually start looking for it!

Students often tell me they are playing it safe and sticking to well-known names in their college search, be it the school closest to home or universities that are featured on football Saturdays every fall. This is a huge mistake. Read more.

Other helpful info:

Step 5: Go on campus visits

This is a surprisingly crucial part of your college search. You really won’t know how you’ll feel about a school until you step foot on campus.

The campus visit is one of the most, if not the most, important steps you can take when considering what college to attend. The campus visit will give you a firsthand view of the school’s size and layout, the types of students it attracts, and where you will be living, learning, and enjoying the next several years of your life. Read more.

Other helpful info:

Step 6: Take standardized tests (or don’t!)

Prepare for the tests you need to take and/or get to know what it means to apply to a test-optional school.

The standardized tests that most universities and colleges require may seem like the most daunting part of the application process. But if you view the tests as obstacles to be overcome or barriers to admission, your performance may reflect your perception. Read more.

Other helpful info:

Step 7: Find recommendation writers

Ask early. Stick with people who know you well. And don’t forget to thank them!

Ideally, your recommendation letters should come from teachers who know you well in an academic subject. It’s nice to hear that you got an A in their class, but it’s even better when an instructor can talk about how you think, solve problems, and engage with new material. Read more.

Other helpful info:

Step 8: Participate in admission interviews

They may or may not be required, but either way, admission interviews are a valuable part of the getting-to-know-your-college puzzle.

In today’s competitive environment, institutions of higher learning are promoting more and more what makes them unique—what they can offer that no other school can and thus give students an advantage. But in the application process, students must demonstrate what makes them unique as well. Read more. 

Other helpful info:

Step 9: Start your application essay

Who knew writing about the subject you know best (yourself) could be so tricky? That’s why it helps to start preparing for your application essays a little early.

Your college application essay needs to capture your personality and breathe life into your application, explaining who you are even if the reviewer knows nothing else about you. But the best part is that you choose what to share and how to share it. Read more.

Other helpful info:

Step 10: Narrow your college list

Because five to 10 schools are all you need.

When researching and applying to schools, it’s important to seek out institutions that fall into one of three categories: reach, realistic, and safety. And though you might already be familiar with this trifecta of terms, you may not realize how important it is to seek out a good mix of schools. Read more.

Other helpful info:

Step 11: Fill out and send your college applications—on time

Name, address, date of birth: this is the easy part. Just make sure you meet those deadlines!  

All that soul searching to find the perfect college has come down to this—the application. But what actually goes into that mythical document? Who's responsible for your standardized test scores? There's a lot to consider. Read more.

Other helpful info:

Step 12: Wait...

This is perhaps the hardest step of all, because basically all you can do at this point is wait for admission decisions to come in. At this point, college and university admission committees sit down with the thousands of applications they receive and carefully review them to find students who fit their school. (Here's a basic breakdown of what they're looking for in your applications—things like the academic rigor of your classes, extracurricular involvement, standardized test scores, and more.) They also want to make sure the students they accept will be happy and successful at their institution. It's a complicated process, but it's also nice to know that there are a bunch of people who really care about making the right college fit happen. And if you've followed the steps above and worked hard to find colleges that fit you, there's no reason why you won't have at least one (and hopefully several) acceptances to choose from.

Step 13: Begin the financial aid process

Remember how we weren't going to worry about college costs just yet? Well, it's about time that we did. But it's a big undertaking, almost as involved as the college search itself. Sooo...just go here.

And last but not least: make your final college decision!

With any luck—and by “luck” we mean hard work and following all the advice above—you’ll have a few college acceptances to choose from. (WOO!) But even if you were accepted by your #1 school, it’s a good idea to explore your options, especially by comparing your financial aid award letters. 

After you receive your acceptance letters, it’s the perfect time to pull out those college brochures, revisit your notes about each university, and make your final reviews of your scholarship and financial aid awards. Colleges expect responses, and you should try to make your final decision by May 1 (the universal acceptance date) at the very latest. Read more.

Other helpful info:

Of course, your college adventure doesn’t stop here; it’s just the beginning! Financial aid—including the scholarship search—is the next big step. You can also start preparing for your crazy and amazing life on campus. And we can help with this stuff too!

Note: Did you know you could win a $10,000 scholarship for college or grad school just by registering on CollegeXpress? This is one of the quickest, easiest scholarships you’ll ever apply for. Register Now »