A Simple Guide to the College Application Process

What you need to know.

     It is that time of year–college application season! While some of you are right in the thick of it, freshmen, sophomores, and juniors should start thinking about this process because, as many of you know, your four years of high school can go by in the blink of an eye.

STEP 1: The first step is not to form a college list, but to consider if a 4-year college is the right decision for you and your family. Sometimes going to community college is the right choice, but please discuss with both your parents and counselor. 

STEP 2: The next step is to form a list of 6-12 schools you plan to apply to. Make sure you  have 2-4 safety schools (ones you are almost guaranteed to be admitted to), 2-4 target schools (ones you have a good shot at being admitted to), and a few reach or dream schools (ones where your admission may be more of a stretch). 

Each school will have a few different deadlines in addition to the regular application deadline, so pay attention and apply at the time appropriate for you.

Early Action (EA) is a non-binding process where students may apply earlier and receive a response earlier. You still, however, typically have until May 1 to make your final decision. Most Early Action Deadlines are November 1 but some are due as early as mid-October and others as late as mid-November. 

Early Decision (ED) is a binding process for students. This means that, if accepted, the student must attend the school unless there are compelling reasons that cause you to change your plans. One disadvantage of Early Decision is that students will unable to compare financial aid packages.

Less common is Restrictive Early Action, which is utilized by many top institutions such as Stanford, Harvard, University of Notre Dame, Georgetown, and some others. Restrictive EA is when you are allowed to apply to multiple school EA but cannot apply ED. You receive your decision earlier and still have until May 1 to commit, but you are unable to apply to any other school via their EA or ED programs. However, each school that utilizes REA rules may slightly differ.

Step 3: Once you have your list and know when you are going to apply, you should make a Common App Account. Fill out all the personal information with your parents and counselor and begin your Common App Personal Statement.

The Common App provides seven different prompts for your personal statement. You can only choose one. Senior College Counselor Jessica Lewis added that “Students should usually stray away from the first prompt, the one regarding identity, because many schools have that as one of their supplemental essays.”

Here are the 7 Common App Prompts:

    1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
    2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
    3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
    4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
    5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
    6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
    7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

While the Common Application is almost universal, a few notable schools have different ways to apply. MIT, Georgetown, the UC System, Cal State System, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Washington do not use the Common Application. 

Other parts of the Common Application, such as course history, family history, and activities are things to do with your counselor.  

Supplemental essays are those essays that schools will require in addition to your personal statement to get a better understanding of who you are as a person. Common prompts are “Why us”, “Why this major”, “Your Identity.” One common format is the school will provide you a quote by someone associated with the school, and they will ask that you connect that to who you are.

Now it’s time to get started! Go form your list on Naviance and start working on your essays! 

Pro Tip: There is no such thing as an optional essay!

Here is a mock college list for the average ND Senior:

  1. UC’s (Target-Reach)
  2. USC (Reach)
  3. California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo (Target)
  4. University of Oregon (Target)
  5. Loyola Marymount (Target)
  6. San Diego State (Target)
  7. Penn State (Target)
  8. ASU (Safety)
  9. University of San Diego (Safety)
  10. University of Colorado Boulder (Safety)
  11. California State University-Northridge (Safety)