In many ways, the college application process is like a final project before graduating from high school. It requires students to use the skills they’ve learned — and the hard work they’ve already put in — to build their case as a strong applicant. Once the application is filed, students receive a “grade”: accepted or denied.
Like with any project, it’s important to take a meticulous approach when putting together a college application. Any forgotten detail, even small details, could make the difference between a yes or a no — between getting into a safety school or a dream school.
Having a checklist of to-dos and action items can have a variety of benefits (like helping to reduce stress or improving time management). It creates a guideline for everything that needs to get done so you have an idea of what you still need to check off.
The college application process can be a doozy, and making a list could help keep the process streamlined. You can use these guidelines to develop a personalized checklist for the schools you are interested in applying to.
The college application checklist
If you’re looking for a handy-dandy section to print out and check off as you go, here’s where you can start. Then, you can read on for more details on how you might go about accomplishing these tasks.
• Gather test scores (SAT®, ACT®, etc.) if prospective schools require them
• Ask for a reference letter(s)
• Write a personal essay (if needed)
• Create a filing system for schools organized by the application deadline
• Set reminders for application deadlines
• Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®)
• Research scholarships
• Exercise patience (Okay, that doesn’t need to be checked off, but you might want to plan some fun activities that don’t involve watching your inbox for acceptance letters.)
Most college applications have a few major components. Some of the most common are test scores, references and personal essays. These take time to put together and need to be planned for well in advance.
Admissions committees will also generally look at a student’s academic record and extracurricular activities. That volunteering you did as a sophomore at the animal shelter? That wasn’t just for the dogs.
Taking the tests
Standardized tests like the SAT® and ACT®, which are required for most school applications, have set dates and deadlines that require students to register about a month in advance. (If you’re reading this around the date this post was originally published, SAT and ACT test dates have been delayed due to the pandemic, so be sure to check the testing websites for the latest news.)
For the SAT, it typically takes a couple weeks for scores to be distributed. Colleges typically receive scores 10 days after they are delivered to students. Similarly, the ACT has standard dates for delivering scores.
There are some schools that don’t require the SATs or have more flexible testing policies, so check with the schools you plan to submit applications to if you’re considering skipping a standardized test. Thanks to COVID-19, some universities are waiving their usual standardized testing requirements altogether.
Generally, however, if the college application deadline is in January, you should plan to take the SAT or ACT tests with enough time to receive and send your scores along with the application.
In addition, you might want to note the schedules for the tests and give yourself enough time to take the test again if the first round didn’t go so well. Work backward from each deadline and give yourself more time than you need.
Gathering reference letters
When asking for a reference letter, keep in mind that teachers and coaches are usually very busy and are also likely being asked by multiple students. If possible, give them at least a month to write a reference letter.
But really, the earlier the better. Some schools require recommendations from teachers in specific subjects, so be mindful of similar requirements.
You might want to consider other deadlines as well, such as applications for special dorms, department-level scholarships, registering for summer activities, and more. These things can end up coloring the college experience just as much as which university you get accepted to.
In many cases, dorms are available on a first-come, first-served basis, so applying early could mean getting the specific type of dorm you want, such as co-ed, separated by gender, or substance-free.
Applying for college can be complicated and time-intensive. Creating a system to help keep you organized could help prevent important pieces from slipping through the cracks.
Before you start printing out forms and stashing away brochures, it could be helpful to create a folder for each school and make a list on the front with important information, such as:
• College name
• Application deadline
• Type of deadline (early decision, early action, regular decision, or rolling admission)
• Application fee
• Application requirements (form, essay, references, etc.)
This could help you streamline your materials and monitor submission deadlines. Use one system to monitor submissions and deadlines, and make sure you and your parents can access that information.
One method of organization could be to organize the folders by deadline dates rather than school names to ensure you get all the information to each school on time.
You could keep copies of important documents, such as reference letters and student housing information, in each folder. Most early decision or early action deadlines are in November, while regular decision applications are usually due in January.
You might want to make a note of any schools that have extra forms, or a particular department within the college that has its own set of requirements. The university likely has a list of scholarship deadlines, which may be the same or different than its application deadline.
College application deadlines tend to be set in stone, and admission officers may even frown upon those who wait till the last minute to submit their applications — they might question your interest in attending if you wait so long to apply. It may be helpful to set reminders in your phone, computer or on the kitchen calendar.
Schedule reminders for at least a month before the real deadline so there’s plenty of time to ask questions, make adjustments and get your application in well before the deadline.
Consolidate tasks whenever possible. If you need a reference for an extracurricular activity, don’t ask the softball coach and the band conductor. Pick one and ask for a reference letter they can easily customize for both schools.
Even the simplest college application is made up of multiple forms. You can use a physical filing system or cloud-based storage to store forms, reference letters, and more. Divide everything into folders for each college and label PDFs accurately.
Applying for financial aid
While you’re gathering all the information for colleges, you might also want to be thinking about how to pay for it. Start with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA ®, the form that parents and students must fill out to be eligible for federal student loans and aid. Many colleges also use the FAFSA to decide if a student qualifies for its own grants and scholarships.
A university may offer both need-based and merit-based aid. Need-based aid is determined by a family’s income, while merit-based aid is determined by academics, athletics and other talents. The FAFSA can help colleges determine how much need-based federal aid a student qualifies for.
The FAFSA application is generally available starting in October, and the due date varies by state. It can help to apply as early as possible since some financial aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.
One common misconception is that the FAFSA is a one-time deal. In reality, the FAFSA must be filled out every year to account for any changes in income or other circumstances. For example, if one of your parents gets laid off from their job, you might qualify for more need-based aid.
For some students, federal aid (including federal student loans) isn’t enough to cover the full cost of attendance. If that’s the case, it may be time to look into some additional sources of funding.
Additional funding options
Some families are able to fill the gap in tuition costs with money they’ve saved up. Some parents may take out loans in their own name(s) to help their children pay for college as well.
Other students are able to pay for a portion of their tuition with scholarships or grants. Scholarships and grants may require those interested in applying to invest some time filling out an application (or writing an essay). They can be a useful way to cover education costs since they don’t need to be repaid.
There are quite a few scholarship databases to pursue to find some that may fit with your background and interests.
If you’ve exhausted your federal aid opportunities and are still looking to fill the gap, private student loans are an option to consider. While they don’t come with the same benefits as federal student loans (such as income-driven repayment plans and loan forgiveness options), they could be used to help pay for education expenses.
Unlike most federal student loans, the private student loan application process generally requires a credit check. Some students may find they need a co-signer, which is someone who would be held responsible for the loan in the event the primary borrower fails to make payments.
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