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College Admissions FAQ: All Your College Application Questions Answered


If you’re like most high school students, you’ve got a lot of questions about the college application process. But we’ve got you covered. In this article, we answer some of the most frequently asked questions about college admissions. Here goes:

Which colleges should I apply to?

Before you can decide which colleges to apply to, brainstorm a list of preferences. Consider the following:

Once you’ve got a general list going, start looking for colleges that meet your criteria. You should also think about what you want to major in, so you can find schools that have strong programs in that major. If you’re not sure, look for schools with a few majors in your main area of interest(s).

If you haven’t noticed from the numerous links above, Niche has tons of filters to help you figure out which schools meet your needs, whether you want to sort by size, selectivity, tuition price, or various other factors. Find the menu beside all our rankings and whittle away until you discover some great matches.

How many colleges should I apply to?

There’s no absolute answer to this question. Experts offer answers ranging from four to 10. At least six is a good number to shoot for, but ideally no more than 15 schools.

You should divide these schools into three categories: reach, target, and safety. To do so, you’ll need to research the average SAT/ACT and GPA of admitted students. Then, based on your numbers, you’ll determine whether the school is a reach (unlikely to be accepted), target (good chance of acceptance), or safety (very good chance of acceptance).

Want to dig deeper into to see your chances of getting in to a certain school? Definitely check out our admissions calculator.

Apply to 2-3 safety schools, 2-4 target schools, and 2-3 reach schools. This way, you’ll have some solid options to choose from no matter what happens. And you just might get into the school of your dreams!

Should I apply early?

Applying early can get complicated. There are several categories of early admission: Early Decision, Early Action, and Restricted Early Action. Here’s a brief breakdown:

  • Early Decision- This is a binding early round application. If you’re accepted Early Decision, you must enroll at the school. Use Early Decision only if you have a clear first choice.
  • Early Action- Early Action is non-binding. You can apply Early Action to multiple schools, and you aren’t obligated to attend if accepted. You can also apply Early Decision to one school and Early Action to several schools. If you’re accepted Early Decision, however, you must withdraw your Early Action applications.
  • Restricted Early Action– Like Early Decision, Restricted Early Action is binding. You must attend if accepted. The difference is that if you apply REA, you can’t apply in the early rounds to any other schools, even Early Action.

Some schools have their own variation on these categories. To be sure of the rules, thoroughly read information on the school’s website.

It’s important to note that applying early can significantly increase your chances of acceptance.

Should I fill out the Common Application or the Coalition Application?

Both the Common and Coalition applications streamline the admissions process by combing the main application for a large number of schools, but the older Common App covers more schools while the nascent Coalition App is geared toward including underrepresented students in the college admissions process. Neither application gives you a higher chance of earning an acceptance letter.

Colleges that accept both the Common Application and the Coalition Application don’t prefer one over the other. However, the Common Application is accepted by more schools. This means that it can save you time during the college application process.

Once you’ve decided which colleges you’ll apply to, check their websites to see which application(s) they accept. Then you can fill out the application that’s accepted by more of the colleges you’ve selected.

How do colleges evaluate my application?

Most colleges use a holistic review process. This means they consider your test scores, GPA, grade trend, strength of schedule, extracurricular participation, essays, letters of recommendation, etc.

Applicants are considered as whole individuals. The admissions team tries to determine which students will succeed on their campus and make significant contributions. They try to build a diverse class with varying abilities and interests.

What SAT/ACT score do I need?

The answer to this question depends on the schools that you’re applying to. If, for instance, you want to go to an Ivy League school, you’ll need to aim for an SAT score in the 1470-1600 range, or an ACT score in the 31-35 range.

Of course, many schools are much less selective. The best plan is to research the average test scores of admitted students at the schools you’re interested in. Which of your schools has the highest average? Aim for a score slightly above that number.

What should I write about for my college essay/personal statement?

Write about something that is meaningful to you. The topic you choose should also reveal significant information about your personality, your “story,” or your passions.

  • Who are you?
  • What challenges have you overcome?
  • What do you want to do with your future?
  • What lessons have you learned over the years?
  • How have you grown as a person?
  • How have you pursued your interests over the summer or your free time?

Find a story that relates to one of these questions and tell it (if, of course, it also relates to one of the college’s topics). Include some reflection on why this story is a meaningful part of who you are.

Must read: 5 College Essay Topics You Should Never, Ever Write About

Who should write my letters of recommendation?

Your letters of recommendation should be written by teachers who know you well. Ideally, they should be recent teachers from junior or senior year. Although it’s not a requirement, it can be helpful if at least one recommender teaches a subject that’s related to your intended major.

Additionally, choose teachers who have a good relationship with you. Be sure to ask the teachers if they’re comfortable writing you a letter of recommendation. If they don’t feel that they can write a quality recommendation for you, this gives them the opportunity to pass.

Do I have to choose a major?

Usually, no. You’ll spend the first two years of your college career taking mostly General Education courses. It’s typically not until junior year that you begin your “major” coursework.

Some schools require you to declare a major during the application process. In most cases, you’re allowed to change this major once you arrive on campus if desired. And many students change their major multiple times. For example, a great or terrible internship experience in a certain field can change whether you want to pursue a certain major.

For this reason, it’s often a good idea to hold off on choosing your major. As you take General Education courses, you’ll get a feel for what interests you and what classes you excel in.

Should I do an optional interview or send optional materials?

Yes! Always do anything “optional.” This is an opportunity to tell the admissions team more about you, and you shouldn’t pass it up.

Should I tell the college about any extenuating circumstances that impacted my grades?

Absolutely. Most colleges have a place on the application specifically meant for this scenario. Tread carefully, however. You don’t want to sound like you’re complaining or making excuses.

Simply state the facts about what happened. If applicable, talk about what you learned from the experience or the steps you took to overcome it. The focus should be on your growth and triumphs since then.

How can I make my application stand out?

As cliché as it may sound, the best way to make your application stand out is to be yourself. Write in your authentic voice, tell the truth, and talk about what genuinely matters to you.

See also: How to Make Your Extracurricular Activities Stand Out When Applying to College

While many applicants are concerned with impressing admissions officers, you should be concerned with helping admissions officers get to know you. If your application is truly a reflection of you and “sounds” like a real person, it will stand out.

What should I do if I’m rejected from my dream school?

Getting rejected from your dream school stings. There’s no way around this fact. But luckily, if you follow the rest of our advice, you’ll have some really solid backup plans.

Give yourself time to process the rejection. Talk it over with friends or family members, treat yourself to something that always cheers you up, or even cry if you feel the need. (No judgment here.)

But don’t wallow. Once you’ve given yourself time to process, turn your attention to your other options. You applied to those other schools for a reason. Think about the benefits of the other schools, the opportunities they offer, what you liked about the campus or city, etc. Look through the course catalog and read up on all the interesting classes or talk to current students to find out why they love the school so much. Then start getting excited about your new opportunity!

Looking for the right college? Start here

Author: Jason Patel

Jason Patel is the founder of Transizion, a college counseling and career services company that provides mentorship and consulting on college applications, college essays, resumes, cover letters, interviews, and finding jobs and internships. Jason’s work has been cited in The Washington Post, BBC, NBC News, Forbes, Fast Company, Bustle, Inc., Fox Business, and other great outlets. Transizion donates a portion of profits to underserved students and veterans in of college prep and career development assistance.