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Applying to an On-Campus College or University

Deciding which college or university you want to attend and then applying to potential schools is a long-term process, one you should begin as early as your sophomore year in high school. In general, you can break down the college search and application process into these steps:

  1. Research schools (sophomore through early junior year of high school)
  2. Keep tabs on recommendations (throughout high school)
  3. Narrow down your list - first round (junior year of high school)
  4. Visit schools (junior year of high school)
  5. Narrow down your list - second round (by early senior year of high school)
  6. Apply (generally no later than January of high school senior year)


1. Research Schools

Beginning as early as your sophomore year of high school, it’s a good idea to start keeping tabs on your interests and leanings toward areas of study, places where you would like to attend school, whether you are tending toward a big-campus experience or a small school opportunity, and other factors. Begin researching colleges and universities you may be interested in using sites such as and by visiting your high school’s guidance office for information. Request information from schools you are interested in to be mailed to you, or browse information online. Chances are, your first (and longest) list of potential schools will be based on some key gut instincts. Trust those instincts, and start narrowing down from there.


2. Keep Tabs on Recommendations

Throughout your high school career you will want to keep track of teachers, counselors, mentors, community leaders, and administrators with whom you get along well and who respect you, think highly of your achievements, and encourage you in your studies and extracurricular activities. These people make ideal candidates to write recommendation letters for you when it comes time to apply to college in your senior year. So, recognize these relationships early on and be sure to nurture and develop them. Not only will these supporters be likely to happily supply you with a recommendation, they also are likely to remain valuable mentors throughout your life and career.


3. Narrow Down Your List - First Round

As information from potential schools floods your mailbox (and your inbox), you’ll want to know how to evaluate your options to begin narrowing down the list of schools you intend to apply to. Keep in mind factors such as:

  • Tuition and fees
  • Size of the student body and campus
  • Admissions requirements (GPA, extracurricular achievement, community service, etc.)
  • Prerequisite courses (take note of any courses you will need to take in high school)
  • On- versus off-campus living options
  • Student social life, clubs, and Greek organizations
  • Campus athletics and arts opportunities
  • Range of possible academic majors and minors
  • Availability of financial aid and scholarships
  • Distance of the school from your family
  • Transportation options (will you need a car, or can you ride a bike or the bus?) and expenses
  • Reputation and age of the college or university, and distinguished alumni
  • Job placement statistics for students who have graduated from the school
  • On- or off-campus employment options
  • Size and quality of life in the surrounding city/town


Not all of these factors will be as important to you as others. It’s important to know what the most important factors are to you as you begin narrowing down your list. It’s a simple but true premise: if you know what you’re looking for, you’re much more likely to find it. That said, if you also know what you don’t want in a school, this also can be helpful in narrowing down your list. As anyone who has taken standardized tests (and that’s you if you’re applying to college!) is well aware, process of elimination can be a very powerful tool!


4. Visit Colleges and Universities

Once you’ve narrowed down to your short list of potential colleges and universities, consider visiting as many of them as possible. If the campuses are located far from you, check into donations of frequent flyer miles from family and friends to offset travel costs, and look into who you know living in the area. Chances are good that you can find someone with whom you can stay through your social networks. Even better, if the college or university you are visiting offers on-campus housing, you may be able to make arrangements to stay in a student dorm during your visit. Check with the admissions office to see if this is possible.


Before visiting any college or university be sure to contact the student admissions office to make an appointment with an admissions counselor and to request meetings with other students attending the school. If the school requires an interview as part of your application, you’ll be able to handle this during your visit. And meeting with current students can give you unbiased perspectives on student life and satisfaction with the school.


5. Narrow Down Your List -- Second Round

As you return from visits to colleges and universities you are interested in, you should be able to begin narrowing down your list further. Did you get quality information, positive feedback, and a good feeling from the admissions counselors and current students? Did they answer all of your questions? Did you like the campus and surrounding community? What about the student life and general vibe? Visits to campuses in person can give you a lot of information that you simply cannot get online.


6. Apply

Once you’ve narrowed down to your final list, it’s time to apply. Many students find it helpful to have a few primary, top-choice schools on this list in addition to back-up schools that they intend to apply to. The backup schools should meet most (if not all) of your criteria for the ideal college or university, but generally they have lower admissions requirements and therefore will give you some peace of mind about your chances of being accepted by at least one of the schools you apply to. Now, let’s take a look at what you’ll need to apply.


What to have on hand

  • Proof of any prerequisite courses or work experience
  • SAT, ACT, or other standardized test scores, depending on the requirements of the school
  • Proof of graduation (a copy of your diploma, when available)
  • High school transcript (if applying to an associate or bachelor’s degree program) or college transcript (if applying to a graduate program) with your current or final grades and grade point average (GPA)
  • Names and contact information for your parents or guardians
  • Personal contact information
  • Statements about your academic and career interests
  • Demographic information about your household
  • Occupation and education level information about your parents or guardians
  • Names, addresses, and dates of attendance for all high schools and any other colleges you have attended
  • Information about your extracurricular activities and work experience
  • A writing sample and/or essay
  • Recommendation letters (see number 2, above, and be sure to give your recommenders plenty of time to write the letters)
  • Information about any criminal convictions or disciplinary measures that you have been involved with
  • Application fee, depending on the school


Keep in mind that the more schools you apply to, the more your application fees will add up. Some schools will waive the application fee if you:

  • Apply early (usually by a date in November)
  • Apply online
  • Have visited the campus
  • Are backed by an alumna of the school
  • Can demonstrate financial need


Check with the admissions office to see if any of these fee waivers might apply to you. Also, save yourself time by having all information ready when you sit down to apply. Having multiple copies of required documents (like copies of your diploma, transcripts, letters of recommendation, and official test scores) on hand will help save you the time of requesting additional documents later on if you decide to apply to more schools.


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