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How to apply to college

Applying to college costs money, time, and effort—it can feel overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. Doing a little research and understanding some of the basics can help make it easier.

How many colleges should you apply to?

Counselors suggest 5–8 college applications as a manageable number. A reasonable strategy includes applying to a couple of safe schools, a couple of selective schools, and a couple of schools on par with your school records.*

When should you start applying to college?

It’s recommended you start the process the summer before your senior year. This gives you time to start gathering materials required by your desired schools.

What online forms are necessary to apply?

Whether you’re applying for financial aid or looking for an online application, these forms are the most common and can be used for multiple college applications.

  • Free Applications for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®): A federal form used by colleges, as well as many state and college financial aid programs, to determine a student's eligibility for federal aid.
  • CSS Profile TM: An online application used by almost 400 colleges, universities, professional schools, and scholarship programs to award non-federal financial aid.
  • The Common Application: A standardized application used by more than 800 colleges that lets students apply to multiple institutions at once.

What do colleges require in your application?

Most college applications require high school transcripts and ACT or SAT scores. Some colleges also want:
  • In-person interview with a local alumni or school representative
  • List of extracurricular activities
  • Personal essays
  • Recommendation letters
  • Resume, including awards and achievements

How to stay organized?

The application timeline can span several months, with overlapping dates, decisions, and documents. We recommend keeping a detailed spreadsheet to track progress and due dates.

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*"Applying to College: FAQs," The College Board,

This information is general in nature and provided for educational purposes only.