Applying for Post-Secondary Education

Completing an application for post-secondary education is a process—an investment of time, money and energy. A commitment is required to present yourself effectively, so approach the application as an opportunity. Your application is a chance to focus on who you are and what you seek.

Know the application. Applications differ from school to school, but the following elements are common to most applications:

  • The Application Form: This is the basic form for providing your name, address and social security number. Be sure to fill it out neatly and completely. Many schools allow you to fill out an application online. Others accept the Common Application, a general application form used by over 150 independent colleges.
  • Application Fee: While many schools will waive their application fees if you are eligible, the cost can range from $25 to $60 and is nonrefundable. Check to be sure that you include your application fee with each application you submit.
  • Transcript: Your guidance counselors will complete this official document to report your coursework, grades and attendance record to admissions officers. As you consider your plans for senior year, evaluate your course of study and your academic goals as they will be reflected in this important part of your college application.
  • Standardized Test Scores: Be sure to have your SAT®, SAT Subject Tests™, and/or ACT scores reported to the colleges of your choice. Check the deadlines for registering for these exams so that you can submit your scores to your universities in a timely manner. Visit the College Resources section of this site for more information.
  • Letters of Recommendation: Pinpoint teachers who know you well, taught you recently, and will likely devote time to writing something specific to represent you. It is a good idea to provide teachers with a résumé of your experiences and a form with the specifics of the recommendation. Let them know when you need the letter and whether the letter should be given to you or mailed to the school. Explain to your teachers the particular program or goals you have identified at a specific school. Give teachers ample time to write the letter before it is due and remember to thank them!
  • Essay: This is the element that sets applicants apart in the minds of the admissions officers who try to assemble classes of unique individuals representing various experiences, locations and skills. A memorable essay is one of the best ways to reveal the true you.
  • Interview: Arrange an interview on campus or with an alumnus in your area to make a personal impression. Since most schools don't require an interview, this is an extra bonus to help you stand out. You'll want to be on time, look professional and speak thoughtfully.
  • Audition/Supplementary Material: If you are applying to a particular art program, an audition or portfolio may be required. Some schools welcome supplementary material, so sending original poetry, music or art may introduce your talent. Pick your best work. Ask teachers or artists to help you decide what to send. Read carefully to determine whether or not supplementary materials will be accepted. Don't provide, for example, an original score of your musical if the school isn't going to consider it.

Select schools that feel right for you. Each school or program you select should be one that you can see yourself attending. Keep the particular school or program in mind as you complete each application, considering why you feel that it is a fit for you. As you put together the pieces of an individual application, envision yourself at the school. This strategy might help you and the admissions officers determine if this school or program is a good match.

Plan to meet your deadlines. Pacing yourself is an important strategy. Give yourself a realistic timeline when creating a schedule for yourself.

  • Create a plan of attack. Maybe you want to dive head-first into the application with the earliest deadline or begin with your first-choice school. Whatever you decide, be sure that you remain on top of the required dates of submission—not just for the application but also for test scores, letters of recommendation, etc.
  • Invest in a calendar that you can post above your desk, in your locker or somewhere prominent to keep you on track to completing requirements on time. Write down important dates for each school. Try color coding the dates according to school or application requirements. For example, you might write deadlines for letters of recommendation in green and dates for test registration in purple or you may record all application deadlines for one school in red and for another in blue.

Use the application as a chance to present yourself on paper. The application process gives you the opportunity to identify your valuable high school accomplishments. Be specific about your leadership roles and significant contributions to an area of interest. Whether you were president of the student body, editor-in-chief of the newspaper, an accomplished athlete, or a volunteer organizer, emphasize how your experience inspired or influenced you.

Remember the housekeeping details. Take the time to be sure that the details are not overlooked. (Did you sign the application? You didn't put the wrong check in the envelope, did you?) Also be sure to proofread your application and essay with care. The spelling check feature on your computer won't notice if you have aspirations to attend an Ivory League school. Be sure that each piece of your application is polished.