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Understanding the College Admission Process

Updated on August 13, 2012

The search for the right college can be overwhelming and at the same time incredibly exciting. Once you have done your research, made your school visits and narrowed down your choices, it is time to sit down and submit your application(s). But what does it all mean? How does the admissions process work? What makes a strong application? What is required?

Below is information to help better understand the types of admission colleges and universities use, what they may require, and how to put it all together. All the answers aren’t here, but hopefully enough information to make this process a little easier.

Types of Admission

There are different types of admission used by colleges and universities and it can be confusing. If you are not sure what sort of admission process a school uses, just ask them. Schools generally use one or some combination of the following.

Rolling Admission is not deadline driven. Colleges and universities using rolling admission review and accept applicants continuously, in some cases right up to the deposit date of May 1. Depending on the school, this could mean you may find out whether you have been accepted sooner than with deadline driven admission. In some cases an admission decision may be made relatively early in the fall, sometimes before Halloween, or could happen as late as February. This is no to say there are no deadlines. Rolling admission schools may have a priority deadline they would like the application and materials to be in by.

Deadline Admission works just as it sounds. There are specific deadlines for the application and supporting documents to be in by and a decision is announced to all applicants starting on a specific date. Dates can vary by school, but in most cases the deadline for regular admission applicants is somewhere between early January and early February. Decision dates vary as well. Depending on the school, students will generally hear back with a decision sometime between mid-February and early April. It is crucial that you know when deadlines are. If you submit an application or materials past the deadline you may risk hurting your chance for admission or may not be considered at all.

Many deadline schools offer Early Decisionor Early Action. The deadline for either of these early admission options is usually early to mid-November and a decision is generally made by January. Early Decision is binding and this is very important to understand. If you apply early decision and are accepted, you must commit to attending that school and have to withdraw applications to other schools. This application should only be used for that number one dream school on your list, because of the commitment. Otherwise, regular decision admission to the same school is a better choice, as it will leave you with more potential options. The decision for Early Action is generally non-binding, meaning you do not have to commit to that school just because you have been accepted. Be sure you understand which of these early decision options you can apply for if you are considering it.

The Application

There is generally more than just one way to apply to many colleges and universities. Over 400 schools across the country accept the Common Application. The Common App, as it is generally known, is one stop shopping to apply to many schools. You can use one application to apply to a number of schools. This can be the quickest and easiest way to apply to more than one school all at once. However, because not every school accepts the Common Application, you may not be able to use just this one application to apply to every school of interest.

For those schools not on the Common Application, filling out an Online Application is the best option. Some schools do still offer a Paper Application as well, but many have moved entirely online. The online application is the easiest and cleanest way to apply, both for the student and the university, particularly if the student has poor handwriting. Online applications often offer the ability to electronically upload additional documents like essays and recommendations and send everything at once. The online application also allows you to pay any fees right online while applying.

Most colleges and universities charge an Application Fee. This can vary greatly from as little as the $25 range to over $100. You may not necessarily have to pay this, though. In some cases, if you visit a school or attend a school sponsored event (open house, regional event, etc) or college fair they may give you a fee waiver which would eliminate the cost of applying. A coach, admission counselor, or other school administrator may also give you a waiver for various reasons. While there are many schools that do give out fee waivers, do not automatically expect this to be the case.

Required Documents

Along with the application, colleges and universities require other documents. All require a copy of the high school transcript (or home school equivalent). Many will also require all or some combination of the following – test scores, essay, letter(s) of recommendation, interview, and resume. Below is more detailed information on each.

High School Transcript

When schools receive a transcript, they will be looking at and for certain things. The grade point average is one key piece of information that many schools will use to help make an admission decision. Some schools take the score right off of the transcript, while others may recalculate it or even calculate out a second GPA based on core academic coursework. There is more to a transcript than just the GPA, though.

Colleges and universities will generally be looking at the types of classes you took in high school. Schools are looking for students who challenge themselves, so AP, Honors, IB or other high level courses can be important. If you have the opportunity to take your high school’s most challenging courses, take advantage and do so.

Most high schools send a school profile with the transcript. This allows colleges and universities to better understand what classes are available at that high school, as well as how competitive it is academically, how many students go on to college, average test scores, etc. Along with the types of classes taken, schools will also looking seriously at your grades, particularly as it pertains to their major of interest. For example, if you are applying to major in Biology your science and math grades will likely be scrutinized than others. Overall, your core academic classes (English, math, science, social science, foreign language) will usually be given the strong weight during application review. Schools will also often look at your grade trends. What type of student are you – steady every year, improving, declining, all over the map? These trends will likely be taken into account during the admission review process.

Test Scores

Some colleges and universities are now test optional, meaning the SAT or ACT is not required. For many schools, though, this is still a requirement. There are advantages to taking one or both tests more than once, unless you have done really well the first time around. The testing process for the SAT and ACT is oftentimes very different than what you are used to (it’s not that often that you test locked in your high school cafeteria on a Saturday morning with no bathroom breaks). An already nervous student can sometimes be negatively affected by being in an unfamiliar testing environment. The second time around, you generally have a better sense of what to expect, both from the test (having had more time in classes and to study) and from the testing environment. This should work to your advantage. Statistically speaking, students generally tend to do better the second time around.

Advantage number two to taking the test more than once - some colleges and universities use a “super score” when reviewing your test scores. They take the best set of scores from each testing section (three for the SAT, four for the ACT) and combine them. If your score goes up in one section and down in another the second time you test, the school only takes the improved score. In many cases the overall score schools that use this model look at when reviewing an application is higher than the score you received at any single testing. This can be another benefit to taking the test more than once.

There is a point where continuing to take the SAT or ACT can become counterproductive, though. Usually by the third or fourth test your scores will peak and any testing beyond that is unlikely to see improvement. However, if your score is still not where you want it to be, it may be advantageous to take the other test. If you have taken the SAT three times and are still not quite where you want to be, taking the ACT can sometimes help bump the scores up, or vice versa. Both tests test similar subject matter, but do so in slightly different ways. Depending on how your mind works and how you test best, scores on one test versus the other may be slightly higher or in some cases dramatically higher. For this reason, it can be advantageous for a student to take both the SAT and ACT at least once and then decide from there which test (if either) to take a second time.


Some schools may require an essay, while it may be optional for others. The essay is one place where you have the opportunity to sell yourself to the university. What sets you apart from the other hundred or thousand or seventy-thousand applicants? Some schools will require students to answer a specific question, or more than one. Others may have very open ended topics. Regardless of the topic, putting forward the best, most polished piece of writing is important. This is not something that should be started the night before it is due. Time and energy should be put into the writing process. Editing is crucial. Use spell and grammar check as well as have at least one trusted person (English teacher, guidance counselor, parent, etc) proof read and edit the paper. With the technology available today there is no excuse for a paper with spelling or grammatical errors.

An essay can be a great place to discuss an anomaly in your record, whether it be one bad semester due to illness or a move, or a suspension freshman year for fighting. These are the types of potential flags on a transcript schools take a hard look at and applicants can be guaranteed to be asked about. Be proactive and up front with the information from the start.

In some cases you may be able to use one essay for more than one school. If the topic is the same or is open ended, it is perfectly fine to do the writing once. It can save plenty of time and energy, but it requires thorough review before sending out. Be certain that the school mentioned in the essay is the one you are sending the essay to! An essay talking about your interest in college X when it has been sent to college Y is not the best way to put your best foot forward!

Letter(s) of Recommendation

Similar to the essay, some schools with require a letter or letters of recommendation while it may be optional for others. It is important to provide what the school is asking for. If it is one letter, provide one letter. If it is three, provide three. If there is no set number, three or four is generally more than enough. It can be helpful to mix up who the letters come from though, to better show that school who you are as a whole person. Find a person or two (guidance counselor, teacher) who can speak to your academic potential. If using a teacher, it is important that it be teacher in a subject directly related to what you want to study in college (a recommendation from a math teacher if applying for an engineering major goes a lot farther than one from a history teacher, for example). A letter from someone who can speak to your strengths as a leader and team player can be helpful, like a coach or junior ROTC instructor. A recommendation discussing your potential to be a well rounded member of the campus community can also be helpful, be it someone you volunteer with, someone in your religious community, etc.


An interview may be required as part of the admissions criteria at some colleges and universities. Some will be very informal, others quite formal, either in person or by phone. Oftentimes the interview can be scheduled and done during a campus visit. It is important to go into an interview as prepared as possible, having done some research about what the school offers and how your strengths could play into that.

While you won’t likely know the questions that will be asked ahead of time, being ready to talk about strengths and what makes you a good fit for the school is important. This will allow you to expand on an answer from a simple yes or no to talking about what sets you apart or where your strengths lie. For example, if asked about being involved in volunteer work instead of just saying “yes” you can expand to discuss some of the projects you have been associated with and tie that in to what the school offers and how your experience and ideas could add to that program. Like the other application items discussed above, this whole process is about showing what differentiates you from the pack and makes you a good fit. Don’t be afraid to sell yourself.


While generally not required, a resume can be a useful piece to help show colleges and universities all the things you have done during your high school career. Don’t leave anything out. Be thorough. List the volunteer work you’ve done, clubs you belong to, sports teams you’ve played on and captain positions held, JROTC participation and ranks held, leadership conferences attended, etc. Let the school decide what is important and what isn’t from the resume and don’t short change yourself by leaving something out.

On to the Application!

The above information has been ideas and recommendations to help prospective college students better understand how the application process works and what schools are looking for. It is by no means all-encompassing. Hopefully you will find it helpful and be able to incorporate some of the suggestions into your own college application process. Good luck!


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