College Admissions 101: How to Start the Application Process

Padya Paramita

College Admissions 101: How to Start the Application Process

You’re approaching your senior year of high school, which means one thing: it’s almost time to get started on college applications. If you’re new to all of this and have no idea how the application process works or where to begin, don’t worry. We’ve prepared this one-stop college admissions 101 guide that will hopefully provide you with information and ideas of what you’re looking for, how to get started, and what to expect out of the application season. In this guide, we’ve covered the following:

  • Application Rounds and Deadlines
  • Important Academic Components (including grades, test scores, recommendations)
  • Extracurricular Requirements
  • Making Your School List
  • How to Select a Major
  • College Essays
  • Application Portals - Where to add your activities and honors, additional information
  • What’s Next?

    If you or your parents aren’t familiar with all of this, please don’t stress out. Use all of the information provided on this college admissions 101 guide to navigate the necessary next steps.


    The first thing to know when it comes to college admissions 101 is the deadlines—exactly when should you be applying to college? There are various application routes that you can take when applying to college. The two broad categories are the early round and the regular round. The early round applications are usually due November 1st, while the regular round applications are due in early January. Early decision II applications are usually also due in January. Some schools, such as the University of California colleges, have a singular deadline of November 30, but this is a rare exception. Let’s take a closer look at the even more nuanced divisions these rounds hold.

    • Early action (EA) - Nonbinding admissions process for students to apply to college earlier than the regular deadline, usually in November of senior year. Students receive admissions notifications in December, and if accepted, are not required to commit. Example schools: University of Chicago, University of Michigan, University of Virginia.
    • Early decision I (ED I) - Binding admissions process for students to apply to college earlier than the regular deadline, usually in November of senior year. Students receive admissions notifications in December, and if accepted, are required to commit. Example schools: Columbia University, Cornell University, Williams College. 
    • Early decision II (ED II) - Binding admissions process for students to apply to college closer to the regular deadline in January. Students receive admissions notifications in mid-February, and if accepted, are required to commit. Example schools: University of Chicago, Wellesley College, Colby College. 
    • Restrictive early action (REA) or single-choice early action - Different schools refer to this policy in different ways. REA/single-choice early action is a process more restrictive than early action but less committal than early decision. Students can apply only to their single-choice EA institution in the early round, with exceptions such as nonbinding applications to public or foreign universities. Students apply in November and are notified in December with no obligation to commit if accepted. Example schools: Harvard University, Yale University, Stanford University.
    • Regular Decision - The vast majority of students apply regular decision, usually in January, and are notified in late March or early April. Students have no obligation to commit if accepted. Every college has a regular decision round. As we mentioned, the University of California colleges are a good example of schools with only one round, the regular round.


    Of course, you’re going to college for an education. Naturally, your grades matter, alongside other factors that help you stand out in the classroom. Here are the different academic components to keep in mind as you navigate college admissions 101


    Colleges expect students to perform well in difficult courses. For example, The Dean of MIT writes, “We want students to make decisions that are educationally sound for them to best prepare them to succeed in college and beyond. We want students to challenge themselves appropriately in the areas that are most interesting to them.” This means taking the most difficult courses your high school offers, consistently performing well in these classes, and demonstrating your academic interests through your transcripts and beyond. Taking rigorous courses such as AP and IB classes can help support your academic prowess. 

    Knowing how grading works at your school is also key to understanding where you stand academically. You may have heard about weighted GPA vs. unweighted GPA. Unweighted GPA is usually measured on a 4.0 scale, and doesn’t take the difficulty of your courses into account. An A in your IB, honors, and AP classes could all equate to an unweighted 4.0 GPA. But, if your school follows a weighted GPA scoring system, succeeding in more difficult courses such as AP and IB is more highly regarded. Usually, your weighted GPA is measured on a 5.0 scale. An A in an AP class could translate to a 5.0, while an A in a less challenging course could only equate to a weighted GPA of 4.0. Advanced courses could thus lead to a higher weighted GPA. 

    Test Scores

    Although many schools have currently gone test-optional due to COVID restrictions, adding SAT or ACT scores can help your application if you have good results. If you have your eyes on an Ivy League college or the likes of Stanford and MIT, it might be worth considering sending your SAT score. Since these schools are extremely competitive, and the admissions pool is full of brilliant students, admissions decisions might come down to the smallest of factors. If an admissions reader is debating between you and a student of similar impressiveness — and you have a high SAT score and the other student hasn't submitted one, you might just get the yes in such a case. Unless your score is not competitive, consider submitting them to higher-ranked colleges.

    But if you’re not a stellar standardized tester, don’t lose hope. You still have a chance if you’ve got a strong GPA as that number reflects four years and is the most important part of your application. Colleges pay more attention to how much community impact you’ve made and whether you’ve pushed yourself in your classes. You can view the full list of test-optional colleges for the 2021-22 cycle here.

    Letters of Recommendation

    A college recommendation letter is a note from someone who knows you well in an academic or professional setting, highlighting your best qualities and why they recommend you for a position or institution you’re applying for. For most cases, colleges require letters of recommendation from two teachers, one from your guidance counselor, and provide the option of one additional recommendation that could come from a coach or club advisor.

    should be written by teachers who know you the best. Here are some suggestions on teachers you could ask:

    Some of the best people to ask are:

    • Teachers who have known you the longest
    • Teachers you’ve had more recently
    • Teachers who you’ve worked the most closely with
    • Teachers with whom you’ve worked in an extracurricular setting, such as your debate team coach or dance teacher
    • Teachers who taught the subjects that align with your goals and interests
    • Teachers with connections to one of your top-choice colleges

    These are all people who have had the chance to get to know you as well as familiarize themselves with you in a deeper context than the people in the list of those you shouldn’t ask. Rather than choosing someone who taught you for a semester in the ninth grade, a teacher who’s taught you in the eleventh or twelfth grade knows what you’re like right now instead of providing outdated information that may no longer apply to you. Someone who’s fond of you or has worked with you consistently is also more likely to say yes to writing the letter over someone who doesn’t have the best impression of you. As you navigate the letter of recommendation process, remember that these help admissions officers picture whether or not you would fit in on their campus as well as contribute meaningfully — so you absolutely want to choose someone who has confidence in you and can talk about you with the utmost approval. 

    Extracurricular Requirements

    Activities are an important part of familiarizing yourself with college admissions 101. When it comes to building a strong extracurricular activities list, it’s important to prioritize your passions, career interests, and ways to establish yourself as a leader. Prestigious colleges want to see tangible achievements and commitment towards activities you enjoy. And if you see a gap in the activities at your school, or find an opportunity to involve a greater community, don’t be afraid to start your own initiative! 

    Now, if you’re in twelfth grade, it might be a little late to start something new. But generally, when you present yourself to admissions officers, make sure that you highlight the extracurricular experiences that matter the most to you, help you stand out, and are relevant to your interests.

    Colleges appreciate students who are not afraid to take charge. Rather than just joining clubs that all your friends are in so you can get more time to hang out, seek roles where you can build your leadership skills. If your achievements as a leader are quantifiable or tangible - such as successfully recruiting 20 new members to your club - that’s even better.

    Of course, you can’t immediately be voted the president when you first join, but you can start to establish yourself as a leader. When you join a new club where you think you see yourself as the president in a year or two, act accordingly. Assert yourself - promote projects, support the current president, volunteer to take on responsibilities, and grow into someone your fellow group members can rely on and respect. So by the time you’re running for president, everyone knows that you will make a great leader - because you already are. 

    When you apply to college, try to maintain a general theme for your application so admissions officers know how you’d contribute to campus, and that they remember you as one of the most memorable applicants. Your interests and future plans should align to a certain degree with your intended major, even though this may all change. Your extracurricular selection should also enhance this theme. We call this the application persona.

    Building Your School List

    An important part of getting a grasp on college admissions 101 is understanding that applying to reach schools such as Harvard and MIT isn’t enough. Yes of course it’s okay to have your dream school in mind. However, with the college admissions landscape being more competitive than ever, you cannot just leave it at choosing only reach schools. You’ll also need to be choosing target schools and safety options. 

    Colleges on your list will fit into one of three tiers: reach, target, and safety. Reach schools are schools that might be difficult for you to get into because they are extremely selective or because you fall below the average range for enrolled freshmen. These colleges often are what many applicants consider “dream schools,” and are the most competitive. Target schools are those that meet your numbers—this list of schools is entirely subjective, depending on your GPA and SAT score. Target schools don’t guarantee admission either, as a lot of factors are considered beyond your grades. Schools are defined as “safety” if your academic credentials are above the average range for admitted freshmen. This doesn’t always mean you’re a shoo-in either, but it’s good to cover your back and keep your options open.

    Reach, target, and safety choices can be entirely subjective, depending on a student’s credentials. A college where your academic credentials fall within the range of the school’s 50th percentile is generally considered a target school for you. 

    As you look through lists such as US News’s rankings, ask yourself the following questions:

    1. Do you have a location in mind?
    2. How do your GPA and SAT scores compare to medians at different colleges?
    3. Do you have an ideal class size?
    4. Do you want to go to a school that focuses on a specialty, such as business school, engineering school, or nursing school?
    5. Where are other students from your school applying?

    A good way to understand what colleges might be a good fit for you is to talk to your high school guidance counselor. They usually have a good understanding of the needs of your high school—and can help you navigate and figure out a starting point with school research. 

    Some questions you can ask them are:

    • How can I decide between a college nearby or one far away?
    • How much should I consider rankings?
    • Which colleges do students from our school commonly apply to?
    • How have our admissions results been from school X?
    • Do you think I’d be more suited for liberal arts or a large national university?
    • Do you have college handbooks or other guides that I can browse or borrow?
    • What are suitable reach, fit, and safety schools for me?
    • What are the admitted student profiles like for the schools I have my eyes on?
    • Will you host any college fairs in the upcoming year?
    • Can you put me in touch with recent alums from our school who attend the colleges I’m interested in?
    • What should I look for when visiting campuses?
    • Do you know of any schools similar to the college I’m interested in?

    How to Select a Major

    Up next on college admissions 101, what in the world should you study in college? Unless you’re applying to a specialized college such as business school, most schools don’t ask you to declare your major until sophomore or junior year. So, while the major you select on your application isn’t set in stone, it’s helpful for your admissions officers to see what you’ve chosen as your major so that they can evaluate your application accordingly. 

    Consider your primary academic interests—think about which classes you’ve enjoyed the most and what subjects you can see yourself pursuing over the next four years. Think about where your talents lie. Are you particularly stronger in one area over others? Weigh what kind of career you see yourself pursuing in the future. Are you motivated by a certain cause in your community, a passion for a certain group of people, or a desire to reach a particular goal? 

    As you explore different websites, check out how different colleges have separated subjects and topics within your chosen field. Feel free to list separate majors for your different schools. If one of your colleges has “Biology,” but another has a more specific “Molecular Biology” and that’s your specific interest, you should list the latter for schools where it’s applicable. Consider your application persona. If your profile demonstrates that you’re a STEM-focused student, don’t obviously put “History” as your primary choice of major.

    Remember, indecisiveness doesn’t look good on an application. Even if you might not know exactly which school or which major the future holds for you, you definitely have your interests, strengths, and goals. Use these to guide you through finding the perfect major for you. 

    Application Portals

    So, you’ve got all of this information. Where do you submit them in order to prepare your college application? Knowing about the college application portals or systems is an essential step in understanding college admissions 101. These portals serve as centralized locations to send your components to multiple institutions. If you fill out the different sections within these systems, you don’t have to fill them out for multiple of your schools. This makes the application process far more streamlined.

    No matter which colleges you’ve narrowed down for your final list, chances are you’ll have to use one or more of the following college application systems:  

    Some schools such as MIT also have their own application system—so make sure you do the appropriate research needed before signing up for a system.

    These systems usually have sections where you can add your activities, honors, future plans, grades, scores, personal information, and more, in order to gather all of the components in one place and submit your application to the colleges on your list.


    Next, we come to your essays. Colleges usually expect two components of writing from applicants—the personal statement and the supplemental essays.

    The Personal Statement

    The personal statement is a common essay that goes to all of the colleges you apply to within one application system. The most common of these are the Common App personal statement prompts.  You only have to write about one of the prompts provided by the Common App. The word limit is 650 words, which is a scant number to narrate a powerful story without leaving out too many important details. At the end of the day, you can write about anything, as long as it tells a story unique to you.

    The prompts are:

    • Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
    • The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
    • Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
    • Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
    • Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
    • Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
    • Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own designs.

    Regardless of which prompt you choose, it’s important to answer all of the questions. It can be very easy to get carried away with narrating the focal point of your story scene by scene but remember to save some words for other parts of the prompt. As you’ve seen above, all of the prompts have an analysis element. Once you’ve finished your first draft, re-read the prompt and make sure you’ve addressed each part of the question. If you’ve written on a topic of your choice, ensure that your essay hits on a bigger picture. How did the event help you grow? Why is the issue important to you? 

    Your response can focus on a part of your background that has shaped you or it could highlight an experience that you believe distinguishes you from your peers. You must brainstorm your essay very carefully, as well as go through at least ten drafts in order to submit a polished version to top colleges. 

    Here is a blog that can help you get started on the brainstorming process.

    Supplemental Essays

    College supplemental essays, or school-specific questions, matter because top universities and colleges care a lot about the idea of “fit”. Fit indicates whether you are the kind of student that will work well in a particular college community. Different schools have different characters, different personality types that they’re looking for, different kinds of ways they’re involved in certain activities. The most important portion for a school to know if you are or aren’t a fit for their community are your supplemental essays. Responding to the questions carefully and making sure you’re answering what they’re asking and showing your personality through those supplements can really make a difference in convincing a top school that you’re a right fit for them. 

    Some supplements ask you to be very specific about your impact through a certain extracurricular or specific research that you’ve done. Unlike in the personal statement, you don’t need to tell a story that shows your personality in some way. Instead, you can be focused on providing the concrete information that they’re looking for. One clue to that is how long is the supplemental essay that you’re writing. Some supplemental essays are relatively short. Some of them have prompts where they only give you 35 words to respond to, or 200 characters, which is much shorter compared to the personal statement.

    Some common supplemental essay patterns:

    Why School Essays:

    The most common type of college supplemental essay is the “why school” essay. Let’s take a look at how different colleges frame this question.

    • Barnard College: What factors influenced your decision to apply to Barnard College and why do you think the College would be a good match for you? [Max. 300 words]
    • Tufts University: Which aspects of the Tufts undergraduate experience prompt your application? In short, Why Tufts?’ [100-150 words]

    Why Major Essays:

    Next, we have the “why major” essays. For prompts such as these, you must prioritize clarity and precision when explaining your interest and background that make you a strong candidate for your intended major, as well as detailed knowledge of the school and its programs. Some example essay questions are:

    • University of Illinois: Please provide an essay that explains why you chose your intended program of study. What interests you the most about this major? Please be specific - those evaluating these essays are highly interested in your response. If Undecided, what areas of study do you look forward to studying in college? [50-500 words]
    • Bucknell University: Please explain your interest in your first-choice major/undecided status and your second-choice major, should you opt to list one [Max. 250 words]

    Essays on Your Activities

    Another really common set of college supplemental essays involve asking you to expand on one of your activities, or questions that ask which activity you would pursue for the rest of your life if you could only pick one. Some example prompts are:

    • Harvard University: Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. [Max. 150 words]
    • Vanderbilt University: Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. [200-400 words]
    • California Institute of Technology: Describe three experiences and/or activities that have helped develop your passion for a possible career in a STEM field. [10-120 words each]

    Make sure you’re being as specific as possible in these answers. These can be easy to write off. Don’t underestimate them! One of the hardest parts of your college applications is not the writing itself, but coming up with good ideas to answer the questions. They often require a lot of thinking and trying to come up with the best examples from your life and you don’t want to rush that. So take your time and consider the various prompts before taking the leap and writing them. You can find information about how to answer the most common questions in this blog

    What’s Next?

    Alright, hopefully, our college admissions 101 guide has given you a more elaborate idea than you previously had about where to begin. This is a lot of information so you might be confused about what to do first. Definitely talk to your high school guidance counselor. It’s important to get to know them, ask them questions, and understand the best paths for you. Another good place to start is just by making a Common App account and filling out your information. Don’t rush into things and take your time conducting research. If you need anything, we’re here for you. Good luck!

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