Tip: Read on for our applying for college checklist – and be sure to check out our choosing a college checklist, preparing for college checklist and affording college checklist, too.
At times, applying for college can feel like you need a graduate degree just to navigate the process. The good news? Colleges are actively working to make applying easier (some don’t even require essays!). And your child’s high school has likely expanded its efforts, too, to help your child take the next step in her education.
Use these handy tips and suggestions as a guide to help you and your child understand the ins and outs of applying for college.
1. Meet with the high school counselor
Guidance departments can be a huge help in the application process. Chances are your child’s high school guidance counselor already has timelines and checklists to follow with your student to ensure he’s on track to apply for college.
That said, he still needs to do the work to apply; counselors are there to assist, but not to do the work for students. Encourage him to check in with his guidance counselor regularly (keep in mind, schools may use a different title for college counselors).
“I definitely recommend students get to know their school counselor,” says Mandee Heller Adler, a certified educational planner and founder of International College Counselors. “They’re the ones who really guide students – unless they have an independent counselor – on school selection, how to write an essay, how to interact with college reps and when those reps are visiting area schools.”
2. Create a list of colleges to apply to
Some college experts recommend having a “safety” school or two on the list, or those that your child will have no difficulty getting into. Adler, who’s been involved in counseling would-be college students for 15 years, suggests that your child develop a list of 10 schools that she’d really like to attend, particularly because she may decide she doesn’t want to attend her safety” school.
“With 3,200 colleges in the country, your child should be able to find 10 that are a good fit,” Adler adds.
List out the schools either on paper, in an Excel spreadsheet or a shared Google document that you can both access in real-time. This will make tracking where your child is at in the application process simple.
3. Review each college’s website for deadlines
Once your child has chosen the colleges where he wants to apply, review each college’s website for information on application deadlines. While each school will have its own deadlines, the basic choices include regular decision, rolling admissions, early action and early decision.
Create a column on your tracking document to write down the application dates for each school, along with any requirements for the application. For example, many schools use a shared application service, like the Universal College Application, Common Application or the Coalition Application.
Through these services, your child can create one application and then send it to multiple schools. Again, read the requirements carefully and record what you learned so that you can easily refer back to that information later.
4. Understand application deadline choices
Each of the deadline options has advantages and disadvantages that your student needs to understand before applying.
In simple terms, early decision means that if the school accepts you, you’re obligated to attend that university – that’s part of the early decision package. If your student is set on one particular school, this option may make sense for him.
With early action, your student can apply to multiple schools and will hear back sooner than with regular decision – and isn’t obligated to attend the school, if accepted. But make sure to read the fine print; some schools have “restrictive” early action applications that do require the student’s commitment to attend.
The advantages to the early options are debatable — some experts believe it can give students an edge on acceptance by showing their interest in the school and demonstrating they are organized and dedicated. In the end, it’s best to do your homework on each school and ask specific questions of the college and your student’s school counselor to determine what makes the most sense.
5. Gather your application materials
Your child can work with her school counselor to track down all the necessary elements to her college applications, including test scores (like ACT and SAT), essays, letters of recommendation and her high school transcript. Again, these are the basics, but each school may have different requirements. For example, some may require an essay and supplemental questions; others won’t ask for either.
To make this part of the process easier, Adler offers this tip: “Get as much of the application done as early as you can. Finish the ACT or SAT in 11th grade and ask for letters of recommendation in 11th grade. Use that summer between junior and senior year to get as much done as possible.”
6. Arrange for interviews, if applicable
Very few colleges still have interviews as part of their application process. That said, students should consider any interaction they have with the school as an opportunity to showcase their maturity and professionalism. Reinforce with your child that he should work to present himself well, whether that’s when meeting college reps at school, sending them emails or going on college visits.
7. Fill out and submit application materials
Once your child has gathered all of her materials, it’s time to submit. Use your tracking document to write in the dates of submissions and any other notes about when your child will hear back on her application.
Follow-up with schools, where appropriate, to make sure the application is complete. Many schools show the application completion information online, so it’s simple for your student to see that she’s submitted everything.
8. Apply for financial aid
For many students, the key piece in deciding among the various options is the available financial packages. Students can apply for financial aid through the school’s website.
Parents should also complete the FAFSA form (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), which will guide you through what financial aid assistance your child may qualify for, such as grants, scholarships and loans.
9. Start deciding
Now the good part — as your student starts receiving acceptance and rejection letters, carefully review the options together to decide on the school that will offer him the best education, along with the right cultural fit. “Applying for college carries a lot of important lessons for students,” Adler says.
“Good lessons about putting yourself out there, not always getting what you want and really working hard for something. I will tell you in the 15 years I’ve been doing this, it really does work out. There’s a college for every kid. I really believe that.”
This post was originally published in 2019 and is updated regularly.