An Overview of the College Application Process

To prepare for your college applications, here are some tips, along with steps you can take on your road to college acceptance.


Ken Theimer / Unsplash

Here are the Central Libraries (Suzzallo and Allen) of the University of Washington in Seattle.

Amongst high school seniors nationwide, there are perennial questions about how to best approach the college application process. 

The college application process is new to each year’s group of high school seniors. Annually, during the months of August to late January, students experience a rollercoaster of emotions trying to figure out more information. What are FAFSAs? What is the difference between Early Decision and Early Action? How should you approach a personal statement essay? There are so many questions, and so many resources to look into. These components may feel overwhelming, but here is a rundown of the main components of a college application. 

A variety of colleges use the Common Application, also known as the Common App, as a way to centralize applications. Since the Common App is so well-known, it is a must-have before starting the applications. You only need to fill out information such as an address, GPA, and extracurriculars, once. It is simple and efficient, which is why it is used by the majority of students and colleges across the country. 

Application Requirements

Many colleges require you to submit an application form, your essays, your transcript, recommendation letters, extracurricular activities, application fees, and SAT scores. 

Essays: Almost all colleges require students to submit a personal statement. Some colleges may require students to submit extra essays, commonly known as supplemental essays. The prompts for your personal statement and supplementals can be found on the Common App website. The supplemental essays are a chance for the college to know more about you, so try to include something you have not mentioned in your application or something that lies in your application but has not been mentioned as much. 

Transcript: The transcript includes the grades, credits, and exam scores you have received so far. Usually, a college may request your senior year transcript or ask for your midterm or first semester grades, especially if you apply for early action or early decision. Transcripts are sent to the colleges you are applying to by your guidance counselor. 

Letters of Recommendation: During the middle or end of a student’s junior year, their school usually requires them to ask teachers who have taught the student to write a recommendation letter for college. These are very important because it gives teachers an opportunity to explain what kind of learner the student is, and why they are a good fit for the college. Try to find the right teachers to write your letters of recommendation; the teacher you choose should know you well. The Common App may ask you to sign a waiver asking if you will sign off your rights to see the recommendation letters the teachers wrote. It’s advised that you should sign off your rights, or else colleges may believe that you have some influence over the recommendation letters the teachers wrote, and may weigh the letter of recommendation less as a result.

FAFSAs: For students who need financial assistance, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly known as the FAFSA, is used by colleges to determine the amount of financial aid you receive. However, students should still fill out the FAFSA even if their family isn’t low-income, since it’s free and they may still be qualified for some type of aid, such as federal grants, scholarships, work-study programs, and federal student loans. You can find the FAFSA form here. It is advised that the student fill out the form as fast as possible, so the student might have a higher chance of receiving aid. The deadline for the FAFSA form depends on the state, federal, and colleges the student is applying to, but for New York, the deadline is June 30th, 2023, by midnight CT. Please note your colleges may require you to submit the form earlier. The student should use their personal email to fill out the FAFSA since the FAFSA can be used for other purposes as well. 

CSS profile: While the government uses the FAFSA to offer aid to students, the College Scholarship Service Profile, or CSS profile, in the College Board website is used to award students with non-federal institutional aid. Depending on the college, the CSS profile may have different deadlines, which you can check on the college’s website. It is noted that the College Board offers the CSS Profile for free if a family makes up to $100,000 a year. If you don’t qualify for free CSS profiles, College Board requires the student to pay $25.00 for the initial report and then $16.00 for each additional report. You can check for the list of participating colleges on the CSS profile website. 

Extracurriculars: The Common App has a section dedicated to extracurriculars, which shows colleges what skills and interests a student partakes in outside of school. These may include clubs and school teams such as Speech and Debate or Robotics. It can also include outside volunteer work, internships, hobbies, programs, and jobs. If your extracurriculars are not strong due to outside influences such as familial responsibilities, please note this in the Common App by discussing your family responsibilities in the extracurricular section. 

Application fee: Colleges usually require the student to send a money order or check along with the application, which on average costs around $50.00. However, students with financial aid may be able to get a waiver on the application, reducing or eliminating the cost altogether. To learn more, don’t hesitate to get in touch with your guidance counselor or college advisor. 

SAT/ACT scores: Although some colleges are test-optional this year due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, students can still send their SAT/ACT scores if they believe it benefits their application. If you wish to send your scores, you can access your  SAT scores through your  College Board account or your ACT scores in their MyACT account. There is typically a fee to send in SAT/ACT scores, although students with financial aid can get a waiver for it. 

School profile: Although the recommendation for the school profile is usually considered optional, some colleges may require you or your guidance counselor to send it (this is submitted automatically each year at Bronx Science). The school profile consists of the opportunities presented to the student in the school they are attending (classes, clubs, other extracurriculars), how the grading system in the school works. Colleges typically compare your school profile to your coursework to see if you are challenging yourself with the resources you are given. 

Interviews: Although interviews for selective colleges are sometimes listed as optional, they are strongly encouraged because they are a great way to show a demonstrated interest in a school, and to share more of yourself with them. Colleges will contact you about an interview if they feel like they need more information about you, but you should try contacting the school for an interview request if you wish. 


Early Action (EA): Early Action allows students to apply early so they can get their decisions around December-late January, depending on the college. This is a non-binding opportunity, meaning even if the student applies Early Action to many schools, they can still choose to reject them when the time comes to make a decision in May as to which college they want to attend. Early Action is generally regarded as useful since there is a higher chance of getting in if you apply early. A student can consider their financial aid package for each school. When a student applies for Early Action, there are generally three options that can happen: the college accepts the applicant, the college rejects the applicant, or the college defers the application to the regular decision pool to be evaluated again later. However, some prestigious colleges may require you to do Restrictive Early Action, where the student may not be able to apply Early Action to any other college. 

Early Decision (ED): Unlike Early Action, Early Decision is binding. If a student is accepted into a school they applied to Early Decision,  the student will have to withdraw the other applications sent, and accept the offer. Students are also meant to apply for Early Decision by November 1st, and get their college decision in mid-December. However, some colleges give students the option for Early Decision II, where the deadline is pushed to January. Although Early Decision II is still a binding commitment, students will be able to hear the decision of the college earlier than Regular Decision. Students may only apply Early Decision to one school, differing from Early Action where you can apply to multiple colleges. 

Regular Decision (RD): Most Regular Decisions are during the months of January and February, which takes the college more time to make a decision, around the months of March/April. Although you get more time to work on your application, many students still apply for Early Action since it has higher admit rates than Regular Decisions.

Rolling Admissions (RA): Some schools offer Rolling Admissions, in which the school gives the applicant a time span where a student can submit their college application to the college. The earlier you apply to Rolling Admissions, the sooner you’ll hear back from the college. It works on a first come first serve basis, although some colleges still have a priority deadline for Rolling Admissions. 

School Deadlines

Here are some popular school deadlines 


School EA/ED Regular Decision
Boston University  November 1, 2023 January 4th, 2023
Columbia November 1, 2023 January 1st, 2023
Cornell November 1, 2023 January 2, 2023
Duke November 1, 2023 January 4th, 2023
Harvard November 1, 2023* January 1st, 2023
New York University November 1, 2023 January 5th, 2023
Northwestern November 1, 2023 January 3rd, 2023
Princeton November 1, 2023 January 1st, 2023
Stanford November 1, 2023* January 5th, 2023
Tufts November 1, 2023 January 4th, 2023

*Restrictive EA

College Essay Tips

Colleges require students to submit a personal statement essay, along with any additional (supplementary) essays. Although writing multiple essays may seem difficult, especially while attending school and doing homework along with other extracurricular activities, here are some tips that may make this process easier. 

Students should write about what matters most to them, and how they have succeeded and impacted others. Be yourself. Not everyone will like your college essay, no matter how much you try to fit into the mold. Showing your personality, emotions, and vulnerabilities will give colleges a grasp of who you are. You may want to reinforce something mentioned elsewhere in the application in your college essay or talk about something else entirely so the colleges know more about you. However, please note that you should not be too vulnerable in your essay, since colleges want to accept students whom they believe will succeed. You may wish to write multiple essays, so that you have more than one option from which to choose. Use the essay that you believe is the best reflection of your character.

The student should also make sure they actually answer the prompt they choose. What does the college want to know? What information do you think you should include to help the college understand you as a person?  How do you contribute to the community: residential, diverse, pluralistic? Check over your grammar and spelling mistakes, and show a genuine depth of knowledge of the college when prompted to. Colleges don’t want you to know just the general information they have up on their website, but instead that you know their college more in-depth, such as information that you gleaned from an on campus visit and tour.  

For undecided majors, students should discuss what academic areas most pique their interest and how the subject suits their interest. For decided majors, students should try to answer why they are so interested in a specific major, all the while including experiences in or exposure to the major, and how they think the program is offered in the university. 

Bronx Science students work on writing and editing their college essays during a college essay workshop in A.P. Literature / Creative Writing. (Eilidh Ince)

Additional Tips

Many seniors in high school find the college process to be a challenge. As Katrina Tablang ’23 said, “There are a lot of things to keep track of and complete for the college application process, and it does not help that everything has a different deadline.” 

To combat this, you may want to find the deadlines for the college applications and keep track of them. Note them in a journal, or set a reminder to start writing the essay needed for the application. Make a spreadsheet or document to list out all your deadlines and complete research on the colleges you decide to apply to beforehand. 

When you begin to write your personal essay, just start writing. Don’t overthink it. Instead of spending hours trying to write a good essay, students should try to write something that just comes to them, and edit the essay later. You can write multiple different drafts, and even if the draft is not what you go with in the end, it might help you write your final college essay draft. Zhi Fei Mo ’23 said, “Just start it. Don’t procrastinate.”

Students may also visit their guidance counselor for advice. They can contact their English teacher to set up a college essay meeting, or ask friends and family to provide feedback on their writing. Furthermore, students may want to start their college applications early during the summer before senior year so they have time to work on everything when they have more time during summer vacation.

The college application process is new to each year’s group of high school seniors. Annually, during the months of August to late January, students experience a rollercoaster of emotions trying to figure out more information. What are FAFSAs? What is the difference between Early Decision and Early Action? How should you approach a personal statement essay? There are so many questions, and so many resources to look into. These components may feel overwhelming, but here is a rundown of the main components of a college application.