Applying to College

How simple or extensive your application process will be depends on the types of colleges on your final list. This section addresses components of college applications, types of college applications, deadlines, action plans and special circumstances affecting admission.

All colleges require that you submit personal information and a copy of your high school transcript. For many two-year colleges, that may be enough to complete the application. Most four-year colleges will require more than that, possibly including:

SAT/ACT Test Scores Standardized tests widely used by American college admissions to assess applicant readiness in reading, math and/or writing.

Teacher Recommendation Letter A teacher's appraisal of your academic performance and intellectual promise in a subject area. It can convey the teacher's classroom experience with you, in particular your motivation, work habits or contribution to the class environment.

Counselor Recommendation Letter Your counselor's broader description of you and the role you played in the school community. It can explain your transcript and special circumstances, highlight your school participation, and elaborate on your personal characteristics.

Personal Statement An opportunity for you to convey who you are beyond your grades or test scores. It demonstrates that you can write clearly, express yourself effectively, and allows you to describe your aspirations, values or passions. Colleges that require this essay expect about 500 words

Supplemental Essay(s) Answers to college-specific prompt(s) which can allow you to provide more information about yourself, such as why you chose to apply to a college or department.

Interview A conversation with a college admissions officer or alumni. It gives the college a chance to get to know you better, and gives you an opportunity to ask informed questions about the school.

The vast majority of colleges employ services that provide standardized online forms. These services allow students to apply to multiple colleges without having to re-type common information, while still providing a means for colleges to ask questions particular to their programs. Some institutions accept applications from a particular service exclusively, while others accept alternatives. Colleges offer students three primary types of application for undergraduate admissions.

The Common Application is the most widely used application service today.

The Common Application, also known informally as the Common App, is an electronic application system for undergraduate admissions to over 600 member colleges and universities. It is designed to combine questions from many college applications into one universal document that can be sent to any member college.

Depending on the college and/or major, the student may be required to answer supplemental questions. While each school has a different list of requirements, the Common App provides a general form requiring common information for all schools.

The Coalition Application

The Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success is a group of over ninety colleges and universities committed to providing access to students of all backgrounds. They believe this can be done through free technology that introduces students to college planning and guidance early in their high school years.

Membership in the Coalition requires that colleges present a 70% graduation rate (six-year rate) and meet their criteria for “affordability.” Public universities must demonstrate relatively low tuition, in combination with need-based financial aid, for in-state students. Private universities must commit to provision of enough financial assistance to meet demonstrated financial need for every admitted U.S. student.

College-Specific Applications

Some colleges provide their own, college-specific application systems, allowing them to control and customize questions, forms and final data collection. These are offered instead of or as an alternative to services provided by the Common Application or the new Coalition Application. If the college name does NOT appear on the lists of member colleges for the Common App or the Coalition App, then it likely provides a college-specific format. To verify which application types a college accepts, search the college's website for freshman or undergraduate admissions instructions.

Colleges offer application deadline choices called Decision Plans (also known as "Admission Plans"). These choices are provided by each college to accommodate an applicant's readiness for application completion (i.e., all required components are ready and submitted by the deadline). At times it can convey an applicant's level of commitment to the college.

College decision plans fall into three major categories

Regular Decision (RD)

Rolling Admission (RA)

Early admission options

The vast majority of students apply Regular Decision (RD). If there is not a compelling reason for you to apply under another option, RD is the plan you will likely use. Typically, the deadline for RD applications is in early January, though deadlines for many public universities can fall much earlier. Admission notifications occur around April 1st. Accepted students must respond by May 1st.

Advantages of Regular Decision include:

  • Unrestricted choice.
  • Time to decide where you want to apply.
  • Time to assemble a considered and strong application.
  • Ability to submit your first semester senior year grades for consideration.
  • Ability to take more standardized tests in the first semester of your senior year.
  • Financial aid and scholarship awards are available to help you make your decisions.

Most colleges that offer Rolling Admission (RA) don't offer other decision plans. Applications are accepted over a large time period that may begin as early as August, until all seats are filled. You are notified soon after your application is received. Your response is usually not required until May 1st. RA colleges believe they can assess qualified students individually rather than compare each student to the rest of the applicant pool. Since slots fill up, and in some schools, financial aid, merit scholarships, and housing choices may start to run low, it is strongly advised that you apply earlier in the process rather than later. If you apply earlier, your junior year record should be strong and your testing should be complete by the time of application.

About 450 colleges offer Early Admissions, either Early Action (EA) or Early Decision (ED) plans (some offer both). Applications are usually due from mid-October to November under these plans, and most notifications of acceptance, denial or deferral are received by mid-December. Deferral means your application will be reconsidered with the Regular Decision pool.

Early Decision (ED) plans are binding, which means you commit to enroll in that school if you are admitted. You are allowed to apply early decision to only one college. If you are accepted and receive a financial aid package offer around the same time, you must withdraw any applications already submitted and you may not apply elsewhere.

Because an ED acceptance is a binding commitment, this choice must be very carefully weighed. Involving your parents early in this decision process is critical as your family will not be able to compare financial aid packages or merit scholarship offers between colleges. If financial aid is an absolute need, it is not a good idea to apply Early Decision. You will be required to sign an Early Decision Agreement by the College to which you are applying, usually through the Common Application, as well as the Early Decision Agreement.

Early Action (EA) is the more flexible way to apply early. Almost all early action plans allow applicants to apply to other schools either early or regular. You will receive notification of acceptance, denial or deferral usually by mid-December. If you are accepted, you are not committed to enroll and have until May 1st to decide. This allows your family the ability to compare financial aid packages among colleges to which you are accepted. It is assumed that acceptance by an early action college represents a top choice on the part of a student, and therefore will necessarily reduce the total number of regular decision applications in January.

The advantages to applying early will vary from school to school and from one applicant to another. There may be an advantage at colleges who put great emphasis on their Early Decision admissions, i.e., select a significant percentage of their incoming class from their ED pool. This can be ascertained by speaking with respective admissions offices.

While it’s true that early applicant pools are smaller, students who apply early tend to have very strong profiles or belong to special circumstance groups that are priorities to the college. Applying early will not turn a weak candidate into a strong one, and such applicants tend to receive an early denial rather than an early admission or a deferral. These pools, while smaller, tend then to be much more competitive.

If you choose to apply early, it is advised that you not delay in continuing the application process for your Regular Decision list. If you are denied or deferred, you have approximately two weeks after notification in mid-December to complete your Regular Decision applications (most deadlines are January 1st).

Detailed timeline of each step in the application process

Not every path to college is smooth and predictable. Some students will encounter special circumstances in their college applications, such as deferred action and waiting lists. It's important to understand what these mean in order to make the best decision for you.

Deferred admission occurs when a student has applied to a college either through Early Action (non-binding) or Early Decision (binding) admission programs, and they are neither accepted nor denied admission. Instead, they are “deferred”.

Notice of deferral does not mean you are on the wait list. A deferral notification means that the school is not in a position to admit the applicant in the early round, but considers the student to be a strong candidate. The deferred student will be added to the college’s regular pool of applicants and will be considered a second time through that process. Usually colleges will notify students of their deferral in mid-December.

Students who wish to remain competitive through this second round of consideration should maintain contact with admissions representatives to re-affirm their continued significant interest in the school.

If you are deferred:

  • Stay calm. Remember, a notice of deferral is not a rejection and can be a great opportunity to let the college know some additional information about you. Tell the school that they are still your top choice, if they truly are, and explain why that is true.
  • Update your application with any new material you feel would be helpful. (For example: an additional letter of recommendation, honors or recognition, continued rise in grades from first to second semester, etc.), new accomplishments or awards in activities and competitions since you first submitted your application.
  • Be sure to send your first semester, senior-year grades.
  • Consider contacting, or having your counselor contact, the school to see if it would be helpful to provide any specific information or explanations about you based on their initial reading of your application.
  • Keep a good perspective on the admissions process. If you have a balanced list of schools where you have applied, you will have a wonderful choice of campuses no matter what happens to the deferral decision.

While disappointing, applicants should not be too disheartened by receiving a deferral letter. The relative rates of admission for Early and Regular Decision vary greatly from school to school and most competitive schools fill the majority of admission spots from the pool of Regular Decision applicants.

Many Early Decision or Early Action spots are filled by students with some particular talent or quality that the school is seeking (athletes, musicians, diversity, etc). Schools will admit some students that have been deferred, so the waiting game continues until Regular Decision notifications are sent out in late March.

It is important to know that once you have been deferred by a college, you are no longer bound by that school’s early application rules. You are free to consider any offers and financial aid from all colleges that you have applied to.

Sometimes instead of either admitting or rejecting a student, a college will offer the student a place on its waitlist. Unfortunately, this can cause a lot of anxiety for students and their families because the process is unclear and there is no guarantee of a positive outcome.

Who Gets Waitlisted

There are various reasons why students are waitlisted. Now that more students are applying to more colleges, it has become harder for colleges to predict which admitted students will enroll. Consequently, colleges are waitlisting more students as a form of insurance. Colleges may waitlist qualified students whose grade point average or test scores are a little lower than the students who received an offer. Then, the lower statistics do not bring down the average test scores of the new freshman class, but the college can accept such students if they absolutely have to in order to fill all available slots.

Other students may be waitlisted because they have not shown enthusiasm for the school by visiting the campus, meeting their respective college admissions representative when they are in the student’s area, conversing with their representative via other avenues such as email, or just not showing enthusiasm for attending the campus in the written format of the application. They may calculate that the student is not interested enough to enroll if the college admits the student.

In addition, even overqualified students are sometimes waitlisted because the college assumes the student has applied to many of the very competitive schools and will not choose them over one of these other schools instead. In both cases, by waitlisting the student the college is acting to protect its yield—the percentage of accepted students who actually enroll at the college. A high acceptance rate makes the college look less exclusive or desirable and can hurt its ranking and prestige. Colleges like to show a low acceptance rate of students who receive an offer of admittance and a high yield of admitting those who do receive an offer.

Another factor is that colleges have to hedge their financial aid budgets. They can only accept as many students with financial need as their budget allows. When a college offers an early action or early decision plan, many admission offers have already been made by November. So when regular decisions are made in March, a waitlist can serve as a way to play it safe until the college has acceptances in hand and knows how much financial aid money is left.

Waitlist Statistics

Colleges and universities vary widely in how many students they waitlist and in how many waitlisted students they ultimately admit. Not all colleges report their waitlist statistics, but those that do are searchable on the College Board website. Go to the College Board’s website and type in the name of a school in the search box. After you are directed to the school’s profile, click on the “Applying” hyperlink. Then look for "Waitlist Statistics.” The statistics are somewhat grim. It is not uncommon to have 100s to 1,000s of students on a waitlist. Sometimes the number on the waitlist even exceeds the number of spots in the freshman class. Do not infer that because a college accepted a high or low number from their waitlist in the previous year that the same will hold true the following year. Circumstances vary year to year so while a college may report having taken 50 students from its waitlist last year, this year that number may be zero.

Ranked Waitlists
Some schools rank their waitlists. Students should check with the college’s admissions office to find out whether it ranks their list or not. If students can find out where they are ranked on the list they can better gauge their odds of admission. However, many schools do not rank their waitlists. Rather, they use the waitlist as a means of replacing a student who declines admission with a student who is similarly situated, e.g., to fill an orchestra spot, to replace someone on a sports team, to admit another student within a particular major, etc.

First Decisions: Take Action

The first thing waitlisted students should do is accept an offer from one of the colleges or universities that did accept them and pay the enrollment deposit to that school by May 1st. The student must then decide whether or not to accept a place on the waitlist of the other school. Students are advised to only accept a place on the waitlist if the student intends to enroll at the college if admitted. If the student decides to accept a place on the list, the student should follow the college’s instructions for accepting the waitlist invitation, usually mailing in a card or electronically accepting via the student’s online portal with that college. It is important to keep in mind that colleges may have very little financial aid left for students admitted from their waitlist.

Strategies for Getting Off Waitlist

Most students will not get off the waitlist, but there are ways to improve the odds. Most importantly, a waitlisted student needs to be proactive; the student should be eager and creative without appearing distraught or desperate.

  1. The student should mail an eloquent “letter of enthusiasm” to their assigned college admissions officer. If appropriate, this letter should state that the college is the student’s first choice and that the student will definitely enroll if admitted. The letter should also state why the college and the student are a great fit, identifying specific academic programs or activities. The letter should point out what the student will contribute to the campus community. If the student is able to pay for the college without financial aid, this is the time to let it be known with wording such as, “My parents have been saving and investing for years so that I could attend my dream school Your College Name. My enrollment is not contingent upon receiving financial aid.”
    Some sources also suggest having the school counselor contact the college’s regional admissions officer on the student’s behalf. It may also be a good time to send an extra letter of recommendation if it will add a perspective they have not already heard. It could be from a teacher different than the one who submitted a recommendation at the time of the application, or anyone else who knows the student well and can speak of their recent accomplishments, character, academic abilities, or special talent.

  2. The student should update the college with any recent accomplishments, such as took the SAT/ACT again and scored higher, won an academic competition, founded a new club, nominated for a special honor, raised a grade in a class, etc.

  3. The student should study hard to maintain strong grades and stay involved in high school and community activities.

  4. The student should continue to touch base every two weeks with the admissions officer, indicating continued interest and enthusiasm. Some students continue to communicate with colleges even after the official date for consideration is closed.

  5. If the student is still on the waitlist after graduation, the student should update the college with a final transcript and any new AP and IB test scores. 

What Students Should Not Do

  • Do not ask alumni of the school to make calls on their behalf.

  • Do not let their parents interfere. The student needs to be the point of contact.

  • Do not tell the admissions officer stories such as how they have attended every football game with their family since preschool and simply can’t imagine attending any other school. Keep the reasons for wanting to attend related to special programs and academic opportunities.

  • Do not pester the admissions office—don’t call/email them over and over again, don’t show up at the admissions office. Keep the communication on task as described above.

  • Do not try gimmicks such as sending the admissions office cookies, etc. It won’t work and might even backfire. This is a matter to handle maturely.

If accepted off the waitlist, be ready to make a decision very quickly. Typically the offer will be made via a phone call and the timeframe to respond will be very short; 24-48 hours is common.

If a student changes his or her mind, and no longer wants to be on the waitlist, the student should immediately contact the admissions representative and ask to be removed from the list and/or do so via the student’s online portal with that college.

In the End

Be prepared not to be accepted. Be prepared to attend elsewhere. Move forward. There is more than one good fit. The student can find happiness elsewhere!