Everything You Need to Know About Applying to College

13 Things to Know Before Applying to College


Having survived the grueling process of applying to college just last year, I can think of a few things that would have come in handy to know at the time. High school students: thirteen lessons I learned for you.

It’s cool to do well in school.

The schools you apply to in your senior year will look at your entire high school career. Remind yourself of this when you don’t feel like studying for finals. You don’t have to have a 4.5 GPA and a test score in the 95th percentile, but seriously – make an effort.

Start researching early.

Don’t underestimate the importance of beginning your college search early (like, freshman/sophomore year early). Try to have a solid list of schools you want to apply to by the end of junior year, and become familiar with the application process over the summer before senior year. You’ll be much less overwhelmed if you can sort out the process a little at a time. (You can use websites like CollegeBoard, Cappex, and Unigo to help you research schools and narrow down your list by factors that are important to you.)

Visit colleges, if you haven’t already.

This may seem like an obvious thing to do, but I was surprised how few people I knew (including me) actually visited schools before starting the application process. Chances are there’s probably a college nearby, if not in your city. Even if you’re not interested in going there, visit the campus. It’ll give you a glimpse of college life, and it’ll probably show you what you want (or don’t want) in a school.

Related: 5 Questions to Ask on a College Tour

Unless you absolutely can’t, visit the schools you’re planning on applying to. Take a campus tour, and then explore on your own. You won’t really know if it’s the right place for you until you visit. You can also use resources like CampusTours or YouVisit to take a virtual tour of the schools you’re interested in before you visit.

Don’t get too hung up on college rankings.

Of course everyone wants to go to a good school, but you shouldn’t let a ranking hold too much weight. A school’s rank doesn’t necessarily take into account the things that are important to you, like cost or the size of the school. You could get into the best school in the country, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best fit for you.

Consider taking both the SAT and the ACT.

Most schools accept either test, so it can’t hurt to take both. Plus, students usually score better on one over the other, so you can gauge which test you’re most suited for. (Pro tip: to save time and money, you can take free practice tests for the SAT and ACT to get an idea of which test you’ll do better on before you register for both.) Few schools require you to submit all of your test scores, so you’ll most likely be able to show off your best score. (If you’re unsure, check with your college counselor or the school's official website.)

Take the SAT and/or the ACT twice.

Even if you take both tests, I’d recommend taking one of them twice. (The SAT and the ACT usually have six or seven test dates a year, so you still have time to test even during the fall of your senior year.) These are scary tests, I know. Still, most students do better when they test a second time, because the second time around, you’ll know what to expect. Plus, you’ll have another opportunity to prepare if you didn’t do as well as you hoped on the first try.


Get in touch with an admissions counselor at the school(s) you’re applying to.

You can probably find a list of admissions counselors by region on a school’s website. Email them, introduce yourself, and ask a question. Don’t be scared to talk to them. They want to see that you’re interested in going there!

Think about applying early.

You probably associate applying to college with the typical January deadline, where you wait until late March or early April to find out your admission decision. This type of application deadline is called "Regular Decision," but there are actually a lot of other types of deadlines: Early Action, Early Decision, Restrictive Early Action, and Rolling Admission. 

Personally, I’m all for the early deadlines. All of these share an early to mid-November deadline, and in this case, you only have to wait a few weeks to get your decision. You could know where you’re going to college by New Years! (And even if you don’t, you still have until May 1st to decide where you’ll go.) You may find yourself in a crunch to finish your applications two months early, but if you can get it done, you could have a lot of extra weight off your shoulders for the second half of senior year.

Use the Common Application.

When it comes time to start your applications, the Common App is a godsend. It makes it so you only have to fill out one application instead of a separate one for every school you apply to. Not all schools accept it (you can see if your school is a member by searching for it here), but even if half of the schools you’re applying to do use the Common App, it’ll save you major time (and, again, stress).

Personalize your essays.

A lot of schools will ask you to write a “why (insert school name here)?” essay in addition to your main one. A lot of students recycle these essays for every school they apply to, and while you may be able to use a few of the same lines, I wouldn’t follow suit. Any student can write a 200-word essay filled with keywords they found on the school website. Tell them what actually excites you about going there, not that you like the small class sizes or the beautiful campus. They already know these things. Don’t be afraid to stand out a little.

Related: How to Craft the Perfect College Application Essay

Take challenging classes even during senior year.

Yes, even during second semester. There’s this thing called “rescinding” - where schools can withdraw an admission acceptance if you slack off too much – and they will use it. It’s hard to resist the pull of senioritis, but it’s important to keep your grades up. You’ve made it this far; continue working hard as you finish high school.

Apply for scholarships.

Any you can. The majority of scholarship competitions have application deadlines before New Year's, but you can still find plenty later in the year. It’s boring, but it’s also important to devote time to researching and applying for these things. If you qualify, apply – you’ll find it a lot less boring once the dollars start rolling in. The more free money you get, the less you’ll have to repay in loans!

Don’t take it (too) personally.

You might get rejected. It’s okay. At the end of the day, you were a number in a stack of applications. The colleges you applied to only know a tiny piece of who you are. Be sad, but not for too long. Remember that what you do at a school is more important than where you go. And if it’s really bad, transferring is always an option.

More Articles

Donna Vieira
Finding Your Path to Success: Highlight on Sallie Mae's Donna Vieira
Career, Academics
Donna Vieira, Executive Vice President and CMO of Sallie Mae, shows us that courage and diligence can have a strong impact on accomplishing one’s dreams.
Read Article
How to Take Advantage of College Student Discounts
How to Take Advantage of College Student Discounts
By Sydney Grant in Student Life, Money
Who doesn't love a discount? Especially as a college student trying to save money. Check out these six tips for taking advantage of discounts for college students.
Read Article
Easy Ways to Save Money If You Don't Work in College
Easy Ways to Save Money If You Don’t Work in College
By Sydney Grant in Student Life, Money
Check out these ways to save money if you don't work in college.
Read Article
When to Reach Out for Mental Health Help
When to Reach Out for Mental Health Help
By Arminda Roddy in Student Life, Health
The transition from high school to college can be a scary time for many students. the stress of so many changes at once can lead to feelings of needing mental health help. Don't be afraid to reach out if you find yourself needing help.
Read Article