The Application Process: An Overview

You’ve narrowed down the massive list of school choices to a select few to which you want to apply. But there’s a lot of work to be done so that you can plead your best case.

Getting Organized

The first step is to gather the information required for your application. Entrance requirements can differ for every school, so pay close attention to the application forms to make sure you provide everything they need. The earlier you determine the requirements of each school, the better.

Start by printing off a copy of each application form. Create a file folder for each school to store copies of all materials you send to that school. Put the date on everything so you know when it went out.

Jot down all the admissions deadlines on a calendar or in a date book — and check it often. You may want to record the deadline dates on the outside of each folder as well.

Useful Links:

College Application Calendar

Create a College List 

Your Counselor and the Application Process

Early Decision and Early Action 

Doing the Work

In general, schools will look at the following factors: high school courses, grade point average (GPA), class ranking, SAT/ACT test scores, personal essays, extracurricular activities, other personal or special skills and letters of recommendation. Sometimes a school will conduct an entrance interview.

Useful Links:

Preparing for Admissions Tests

What to do About Senioritis

 Application Form

Read the instructions carefully and fill in all the information. Double-check spelling, grammar, the name of the school and any numbers you had to enter.


 If there’s no formal time period for students to fill out transcript release forms at your school, talk to your career or guidance counselor about getting one completed. Do it early — at least a few weeks before the college needs the transcript — to give the office enough time to fulfill your request.

Most of the time, your transcript will be sent directly to the college, so you don’t have to worry about sending it yourself unless you’re directed to do so. Make sure you know what the school prefers.


Some schools don’t need letters of recommendation. Some only require the letters for scholarship applications. Check how many you need and who they should be from. (For example, are they looking for any teacher or a particular subject teacher?) Once you know exactly what you need, make a list of possible names. Ask yourself who knows you best — as a student and as a person — and would be willing to write a unique and positive assessment of your abilities and attributes.

Approach the person early in Grade 12 so they have lots of time to compose a thoughtful letter. Make an appointment to detail what it is you need, establish deadlines and follow up to collect your letters on time.

Finally, include the letters in sealed envelopes with your application materials, or arrange to have them sent directly to the college if that’s what the school wants.

Useful Link:

Letters of Recommendation

 The Essay

Not all schools require an essay. But if you do have to write one, consider it a blessing. Think of it this way: an essay offers a chance for the real you to shine through to the admissions board. Contrary to popular belief, schools aren’t looking for studying machines — they’re looking for bright, well-rounded people. Here are some tips to help you:

  • Give yourself a deadline and stick to it.
  • Since most topics will ask you to talk about yourself (your interests, goals, accomplishments), start by doing some self-analysis. List all your activities, travels, significant life events, hobbies, dreams, heroes, embarrassing moments, anecdotal stories and personality traits.
  • Write what you know, not what you think you should write to make a good impression.
  • Let your first draft sit for a few days before you read it again. Then read it out loud or have other people read it to you so you can see what sounds awkward.
  • Make sure your work is fresh and original. Don’t copy someone else’s essay, or have someone else write it for you. Don’t rework a school essay you’ve already written.
  • Be simple, concise and forward — don’t wander all over the map. Have a central theme. But remember: being direct and clear doesn’t mean being boring. You can be creative and original without gimmicks.
  • Don’t be vulgar or tasteless.
  • Proofread, proofread, proofread! Spelling, punctuation and grammar should be correct.
  • Relax, be yourself and have fun!

The Interview

Not many undergraduate programs require an interview, except some selective programs such as engineering or nursing. For private, independent colleges, however, interviews are often necessary. If one is required, be yourself and do your best. Here are some tips:

  • If possible, schedule the interviews with your least favorite schools first. That’ll give you some valuable interviewing practice.
  • Look professional. Be sure to check on the dress code.
  • Research the school ahead of time so you can ask intelligent questions.
  • Keep your answers short, but don’t limit them to a one-word response.
  • Send a thank-you note afterwards.
Useful Links:

Practice Interview

Interview Checklist

Submitting Your Applications

Be sure to print copies of all your applications and prepare any additional packages that need to go out. It’s time to send everything off!

While you’re waiting for the school to respond with its decision letter, make sure you keep working hard at school. A sudden decline in grades at the end of the year — which happens all too often — may mean a closed door where there could have been a welcome mat.

You’ll also want to update the schools of any new events. If you receive any awards, for example, send the new information along.

Useful Links:

College Application Fee Waivers

College Application Checklist

Is Part of Your Application Really Missing?

Getting the Reply

If you get accepted to your first choice, great! If you’re stuck in the happy dilemma of having to choose between two or more schools, try (1) making a pros and cons list, (2) following your instinct, or (3) visiting the schools again.

When your decision is made, be sure to tell the other schools that accepted you so they can offer your spot to someone else.

In the event that you’re not accepted or put on a waiting list, talk to your counselor and mentor about your options. Try to find out why you weren’t accepted. Maybe it was a minor reason, like something missing from your application package or a misunderstanding about your academic information that you can correct.

If it goes beyond that, however, talk to someone at the admissions office and see if they will tell you how to increase your chances of acceptance the next time around.

Other Useful Link:

College Application FAQ


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