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Tips for Applying to Top Colleges

After you narrow down your college list, you can start planning your application strategy. Below are some tips to help you save time and money on your applications.

Minimize Applications, Maximize Success

Having researched the colleges on your initial list and narrowed your choices down to 6 to 12 colleges, we recommend subdividing the list into three categories: reach, likely and safety. We recommend having at least two colleges in each category. Rank the colleges within each category in order of your preference and decide how many colleges you are likely to apply to. It is prudent to choose at least two safety schools and at least one college in each category. If you decide to apply to more than four colleges, we recommend that you limit the number of schools at which you chances of admission are in the single digits (i.e., 2% or 6%) to one or two.

You may be able to use Rolling Admissions and Early Action to reduce the number of schools that you need to apply to. Colleges that offer Early Action generally let you know their admission decisions by mid-December. Check the schools that you have selected to determine if any of them offer Rolling Admissions or Early Action.

If some of the colleges that you are interested in offer either rolling admissions or Early Action, below is an approach designed to save money on application fees and eliminate some of the anxiety inherent in waiting to be accepted by a college.

Assume that you have selected the following 10 colleges and your chances of admission are below:

  • Reach : Princeton 19%, Dartmouth 45%, Columbia 48%
  • Likely: Georgetown 55%, Wesleyan 65%, Bowdoin 68%, Bates 71%, Middlebury 74%
  • Safety: Michigan 86%, Connecticut College 90%

With a little research, you find that Michigan offers Rolling Admissions and Georgetown offers Early Action. You apply to Michigan as early as possible and find out in early November that you are accepted. Now, you don't need to apply to your second safety college — saving you an application fee and a lot of time spent completing the application and writing essays. Next, you apply to Georgetown in the fall. Georgetown accepts you in December. Now, you only need to apply to those colleges that you prefer over Georgetown. So, if you only like Princeton better than Georgetown, then you only have one more application to complete.

This is just one example of how you can strategically consider application options and deadlines to make the application process easier for you. In addition, applying to fewer colleges allows you to focus more on each application to ensure that you’re putting your best foot forward.

Application Choices — Early Action, Early Decision, Rolling and Regular Admissions

Early Action

Early Action option allows students to receive a decision by December without committing to attending that college. In other words, the application is non-binding, so it allows students to apply to other colleges as well. Applications for Early Action must be completed generally by sometime in November; however, the deadlines for some colleges vary, so make sure you find out each college's deadline. Colleges that offer Early Action option will notify you of your acceptance early (usually by December). Your deadline for notifying them of your decision to attend, however, remains the regular May deadline.

Early Decision - Phase I

Applying Early Decision (ED) is for students who are positive that they want to attend a certain school. By applying ED, you are making a commitment to one school. If you are accepted, you are obligated to attend the school. You MAY NOT apply to more than one college under the Early Decision plan. The deadlines for completing Early Decision applications are in the fall of your senior year, usually no later than November 15. The college will usually notify you of its decision in December.

If you are interested in one particular school, check if they have an Early Decision option. If they do, make a note of their application deadlines. Be sure to read all of the application materials carefully, and if you have any questions consult your college counselor or contact the college's admissions office.

Early Decision - Phase II

Early Decision Phase II is for students who arrive at a final college choice after the Early Decision Phase I deadline or for those students who wish to have their senior year first semester grades included in their application. Like ED Phase I, you are committed to one school. If you are accepted, you are obligated to attend the school. The application deadline for ED Phase II is usually in January. The college will typically notify you of its decision by the middle or end of February.

Rolling Admissions

Colleges that offer rolling admission continuously evaluate applicants and notify the applicants regarding acceptance on a month or two after the application is completed.

Regular Admissions

Most colleges require that applications for regular admissions be mailed by December 31. Check the websites of the specific colleges you are interested in to confirm their deadlines. Most colleges will inform you of their decision by April 1 and require that you make your decision about whether to matriculate by May 1. If you are considered to be a "hot prospect," you may receive a letter from a college admissions director prior to April, which will not give you a formal acceptance, but it will give you an indication that the acceptance is extremely likely and encourage you to attend that college.

Financial Considerations in Choosing Colleges

We would urge you not to initially rule out a college because it seems too expensive. Various types of financial aid are available; therefore, a lack of funds is unlikely to prevent you from attending a college of your choice. However, if all or a large portion of your financial aid for your top choice turns out to be in the form of loans, you may wish to evaluate whether attending one of your other choices would make more sense financially. You will not be able to evaluate the financial aspects of attending various colleges until you are accepted and receive your financial aid packages from the colleges and outside sources.

Most colleges offer financial aid based on the need of the applicant. Generally, the package includes scholarships and low interest loans. In some cases, it also includes an on campus job, usually in a library or food service. You will likely find out that the total package you receive from each college varies by several thousand dollars. In addition, the scholarship portion of the package is likely to significantly vary for each college.

For additional information see Paying for College.

When to Start Your Applications

To make the process less stressful, we recommend starting to work on your applications early as possible! The applications and essays take longer to complete than most students realize. Even before the applications become available, you can set yourself up for success by finalizing your list of colleges and starting to think about potential essay topics.

Applying

Confirm Deadlines & Admissions Requirements

Mark your calendar with the application deadlines for each college you’re considering. You should also include deadlines for submitting test scores, transcripts, and recommendations. And make sure you have taken the standardized tests (SAT, SAT Subject Tests, ACT, etc.) required by the colleges you are interested in. This all may sound obvious, but when you’re juggling deadlines and application requirements for a number of colleges, it is important to be organized.

Obtain Applications

Look over the applications for the colleges you’re considering and start filling them out as early as possible. Most applications are available online and can be filled out electronically. Many top colleges also accept the Common Application, so be sure to check whether the colleges on your list do. Most likely, a Supplement will also be required.

Request Recommendations

Most colleges require two or three recommendations from teachers, guidance counselors, advisors, coaches, or even peers. Choose people who know you best and can articulate your strengths.

Also, since they will be doing you a favor and will probably be quite busy writing recommendations for other students, make their job as easy as possible by giving them plenty of time. Ask them for recommendations about two months before the letters are due, so they have enough time to write a thorough recommendation. And do not forget to provide them with all of the information they need to submit them. Writing a thank you note to them after the deadline may also be a nice gesture.

Colleges usually give you the option of waiving your right to see each recommendation. Choosing this option makes the recommendation appear less biased, since the person writing it knows that only the admissions officers will be able to read it. While you may be curious about what was written about you, we suggest waiving your right to view the recommendation.

Submit Standardized Test Scores to Colleges

Most colleges require verification of your standardized test scores from the College Board or the American College Testing Program, the organizations that administer standardized tests. When you take the SAT or ACT, four free score reports are included with your registration, so be sure to take advantage of that service at that time. Additional reports may be ordered for a fee. If you request your scores to be sent at a later date, be sure to allow enough time for them to get to the colleges. Check each college's deadlines for receiving these materials; some colleges may have deadlines that fall after the applications are due. If you are considering applying Early Action, Early Decision, or Rolling Admission, we recommend taking all of the required standardized tests before the fall of your senior year.

Request Transcripts

Most colleges will require you to send them an official copy of your transcript. Find out what your high school's policy is for requesting transcripts. And remember, if you get an official transcript to mail to the colleges yourself, do not open the sealed envelope that it comes in. If you do, the college will not accept it.

Essays

This is the part of the application that students seem to agonize over the most, so make it easy on yourself and start thinking about your essays early. The key to writing your essays is to be yourself and find your own voice. Try to pick an original topic that demonstrates what makes you unique. Write a number of drafts before the final one and be sure that your final draft is free of typos and spelling or grammar errors.

Many online services offer personalized, one-on-one writing and editing assistance for college admissions essays. Take a look at our Resources page for a list of companies that help with admissions essays.

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