a student learning how to apply for college

North Central News

How to Apply for College 101

Jacob Imm

Jul 07, 2020

Everything You Need to Know About Applying to College

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” –Lao Tzu

That’s a quotation you might learn in college. All you have to do is get there!

Lao Tzu couldn’t have been more correct. You can’t get anywhere until you begin your journey, and while it’s good to take things one step at a time, that first step can be really hard. College applications can feel that way.

The college admissions process has changed a lot in the last few years, and if your parents went to college it’s bound to be very different from what they remember. Between visits, tests, forms, and roughly a million deadlines, it’s okay to feel overwhelmed. That’s why we’re here to help.

Here is an easy to follow, 10-step guide on how to apply for college, so you can stop fearing the FAFSA and get to quoting Chinese philosophy.

Step 1: Shop around

Before you apply you have to have an idea of what you’re looking for and where you’d like to attend—and no, closing your eyes and pointing to a spot on a Google map doesn’t count. There’s never been more information available about how to get into college or more ways to find it than there is today, but you need to be strategic. You can’t apply for admission everywhere.

Start small by searching the web and checking out college websites. They’re designed to show you what to expect and give you the best impression of the school. But don’t stop there—check college’s profiles on U.S. News, World Report, and The Princeton Review. Use social media to ask college students and alumni what their school is really like. And don’t be too quick to throw away those mailers you’re sure to get from every college under the sun—there’s important information there, too.

If you find a few that catch your eye, take the next step and schedule a visit. Pictures are great, but nothing beats walking around a campus and picturing yourself there. Take a guided tour and ask as many questions as you can think of, and be sure to sit in on some classes.

Step 2: Set your heart

Once you’ve checked them out, it’s important to make a list of schools you might want to attend and break them into categories. You’ll probably end up with a few schools you love, a few more you would be okay with, and your biggest pile will be the “no” pile.

Get a little deeper into what each school has to offer and how they could benefit you. Check their application standards to see how you stack up. Look at their tuition fees, room and board costs and what scholarships they offer. Think about how far they are from home and how you’ll get back and forth. And make sure they offer majors and courses you are interested in. If you have some idea about what you want to do after college, be sure your schools can prepare you for it. Will you be able to secure a job post college? Fun fact: Did you know that North Central College is one of the very few radiation therapy schools in Illinois with a 100 percent job placement rate. 

Narrow down your list to a couple of good fits, “reach” schools you want to go for, and safety schools you can live with.

Step 3: Remember please and thank you

No matter where or how you apply, you’re likely going to need letters of recommendation. Make sure you know the requirements each university has for these. They may want to hear from a teacher or school guidance counselor, and they may want them in a certain format. Get the right letter for each school.

When you are asking for letters, look for people who know you well and can speak to your qualifications. Just because your chemistry teacher is hilarious doesn’t make them an expert on why you’d be a good fit for college. If you don’t know any of your teachers, counselors or coaches well, start to get to know them.

Remember how much you hate writing essays when asking others to write your letters: be polite, let them know exactly what they need to include and when you need it finished, and give them plenty of lead time. Asking “Can you write me a letter of rec by tomorrow?” is the quickest way to get on a teacher’s bad side. A note or an email to say thank you after the fact is also a really good idea.

You should aim to get these done by the end of your junior year so you’ll have them in time for the rest of the admissions process.

Step 4: Pick your battles

While they are not as important as they once were, standardized tests are, for better or worse, still a commonly-used tool by colleges to help them make admission decisions. Be sure you know what tests your chosen schools look for, as you don’t want to waste time and money on getting ready for the wrong standardized test.

The SAT and ACT are the gold standards, and there are prep courses you can take for both. Whether you want to go to a prep class or take one online, make sure you do one or the other—don’t try to prepare all on your own. And get signed up soon, because classes fill up quickly and you want to give yourself a lot of time to prepare.

Find out from your school when and where testing days are being held and get registered. Registration deadlines are right around a month before the test, and there can be charges for registering late. You should take the SAT or ACT in the spring of your junior year. If you don’t like your test scores, that gives you the summer to get ready before you take it again the following fall.

Step 5: Get in form-ation

Find out what applications your colleges of choice take and make yourself familiar with them. Some online services can give you a preview of the college application forms you will be filling out so you know what you’ll need to include, from letters of rec to a list of your activities to test scores.

The good news is more and more schools are using the Common Application, which is accepted by close to 900 colleges and universities. There are numerous web resources for tips on completing the Common Application, and you can also find help as well as access the application form by going to commonapp.org.


Find out more about North Central College

Step 6: Set a date (or a few)

You need to know when to apply for college. Keep a timeline for yourself of all the college application deadlines you’re trying to meet. Before you put anything else on your calendar, think seriously about applying early decision to your top choice schools. Early decision applications have a lot of benefits—you have a better chance to get in, you can get more familiar with your school if you do, and you’ll have more time to look at other schools if you don’t. Not all schools have early decision applications, but enough do to find out if your school is on the list.

Here’s the obvious part, but it should be mentioned anyway: keep your timeline somewhere you will look at it a lot. Whether that’s in your phone or a tablet, over your bed, or taped to the inside of your refrigerator, you need to remind yourself to stay ahead of the calendar.

Step 7: Use your words

Remember what we said earlier about essays? There’s no way around them on the way to college. Some schools require a personal statement, and the Common Application has an essay portion. Thankfully, these essay questions aren’t a mystery. You’ll get the prompts beforehand, usually the spring before your senior year, and you can spend the summer getting your ideas ready and starting drafts (Doesn’t sound fun? Relax, you don’t have to work on it all summer).

By the fall of senior year (or whatever your last year in high school is), you should be getting final drafts ready. Be sure to ask people you trust, especially teachers and people who’ve been to college, to proofread your drafts for you and give you tips before you’re finished.

Step 8: The Money Question

Newsflash: college is expensive. You get a lot for your money, but it will take quite a bit to get you through. That’s why you may be hearing about scholarships even more than applying. Scholarships and student aid are a necessity for just about everyone, and they have their own application processes. Your school counselor should have a list of available scholarships, so make an appointment to talk with them about which ones could work for you. A lot of them have, yes, more essay questions, so budget out some time to work on those and add the deadlines to your timeline.

Financial aid is also a big part of paying for college, which is why you should get used to hearing the word FAFSA, which stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. FAFSA can get you all kinds of free money to help pay for college. The FAFSA form is available October 1 for the following academic year (October 1, 2020 if you want to start college in 2021-22), so check if your chosen schools have deadlines to get it turned in and get started right away.

Need help? Check out our page on how to apply for FAFSA for more information.

Step 9: Proofread, edit, proofread again … Send

Whatever it is you’re submitting, you need to be checking it over and over again before you actually click “send.” Scan your essays for typos, be sure you haven’t left out any community service you did or clubs you were in, and be sure you’re giving each university exactly what information and documents they ask for. Go through and ensure you completed all of the admissions requirements on your application form. A complete and accurate application says you’re a prepared student that’s ready for college and all the responsibility that comes with it.

Step 10: Keep track of ins and outs

The waiting is the hardest part, especially when you’re trying to decide between schools. But there are ways to get a decision faster than sitting by the mailbox. Many schools offer online status checking, so they can send you updates on whether or not they’re received all your materials and you can log in to see whether it’s thumbs up or down before you get sent a letter. There are also independent online services that can help you track all of your applications.

North Central College makes it easy to complete all these steps. Our helpful college admissions staff will show you a path and guide you along the way. Visit northcentralcollege.edu/apply to find out more.

Jacob Imm is a communications specialist in the North Central College Office of Marketing and Communications. He has 10 years of collegiate communications experience and has worked with hundreds of college students. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University.