How to Get Ready for The College Application Process

Gather your application materials: it’s time to submit essays, meet deadlines, and achieve your dreams of getting into college! While applying to college might seem like an intimidating process at first, breaking it down into a few simple steps can make the entire journey much more manageable. With a clear idea of your goalsand the college application process, you’re sure to find success. 

Applying to College in California

If you’re considering applying to college in California, it’s important to know that there are many paths to get in. Community colleges are open to everyone, while four-year universities typically have test score requirements, application essays, and a minimum GPA to meet. When weighing a prospective student’s application, admissions counselors tend to look at the life experience the candidate can bring to the school. A person’s experiences, community activities, and personal statement can speak volumes.

California college applications can be submitted online. Some schools depend on a common application (like the UCs and CSUs), while others use their own unique application. Campus websites are a great place to look for details on their specific application process. While it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the expense associated with each application fee, many schools have fee waivers available for applicants. Explore the possibilities for each of the schools you’re interested in – you might be surprised at how straightforward and affordable it can be to apply.

What Colleges Look For in Applicants

When it comes to the college application process, good grades matter. Many hopeful applicants are surprised to learn, however, that grades aren’t the only factor that determines admission. While GPA is important, colleges look at the big picture of each application. Admissions officers are eager to go beyond these data points, though. They’re looking for prospective students with well-rounded backgrounds, who participate in extracurriculars and exhibit leadership skills.

College admissions essays are perhaps just as important as your GPA. Well-written essays can showcase your writing skills, personality, and life experiences. A personal, thoughtful piece can really set an applicant apart from the competition, so it pays to do a little extra work on this portion of your application. It’s your opportunity to speak directly to the admissions team and tell them exactly why you want into their school.

What do colleges look for in applicants? Each school will have their own list of attributes, but generally speaking, admissions officers want diverse students who are passionate about learning. If your application tells a story of your educational journey thus far, high lights the goals you still hope to achieve, and showcases why you are a unique candidate you have a good chance of being considered for a spot.

Types of College Applications

Perhaps the most challenging part of applying to colleges is decidingwhere to attend school. Once you’ve narrowed your list, it’s time to determine which application materials you’ll need. This depends on what application you are submitting:

  • System Shared Applications – Some state college systems permit students to submit one application for any school in the system.The University of Californiaand California State University follow this model, allowing students to apply for any school within their systems using a singular application. 
  • The Common Application – Want to complete one single application and send it to multiple schools?The Common Applicationis the solution. Gather your transcripts, college application essay, test scores, letters of recommendations, and with the click of a button, you can instantly submit to many schools nationwide.
  • Individual School Applications – Many universities and colleges still rely on their own specific college application process for prospective students. Don’t be put off if the school you’re interested in doesn’t offer admission via the Common Application. With a little extra work, you can submit your application with ease.

Information and Application Materials You’ll Need On Hand

Every school has its own individual college application requirements. Most, however, are pretty similar; beyond the application itself, expect to submit high school transcripts, and a college application essay. Gathering these materials in advance can help set you up for success when it comes time to actually submit your application. Have these details and application materials handy:

  • Your Social Security number 
  • Personal information: In the first portion of a college application, you’ll have to provide basic information about yourself, your high school, and your family.
  • A copy of your high school transcript
  • ACT/SAT score report: Some schools no longer require you to take the SAT or ACT, but some do! If you are not sure what schools you’ll be applying to, it’s best to err on the side of caution and take these tests. 
  • Extracurricular resume

The Importance of Transcripts

As mentioned above, your high school transcript is one of the most essential application materials you can submit. It’s a record of all the classes you took along with the grades you earned in each course. You can request transcripts from your high school, but they often take a few weeks to process. Get ahead of the game by talking over your college plans with your guidance counselor or academic advisor as soon as your senior year begins. They can let you know specific procedures for requesting transcripts and offer advice on how to submit to the college of your choice. 

Your high school transcript is a defining part of your college application. Admissions officers will be looking at the rigor of your coursework – how challenging have your classes been? Your performance is also a factor, of course. Ultimately, transcripts show what kind of student you’ve been and how you might fit into a given institution. 

Choosing a Major

Choosing what to study in college can be a challenge, especially if you’re unsure of what career path you’d like to pursue. Before committing to a particular field, it’s important to consider the program costs, salary expectations, and employment rates in that line of work. Your interests, personal and professional goals should also factor into the equation. Most college application requirements don’t actually include a commitment to a particular major, so you have plenty of time to figure out what to study.

If you’re eager to make a decision, consider the following questions:

  • What do you hope to get out of the college experience? What are your priorities?
  • What interests you?
  • What are you good at?
  • What fields pay the highest?
  • How rigorous will a particular field of study be?
  • What does your mentor or academic advisor recommend?

College transitionscan be challenging. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the options, but keep in mind that most schools don’t actually require you to declare a major until their junior year. As you gather application materials, be sure to ask about requirements for specific programs of study that you’re interested in pursuing – that way you won’t miss out on any important deadlines!

College Application Deadlines

We’re often asked the question: when are college applications due? While there’s no singular application deadline for college students, most universities expect applications between October and February. You can start preparing to apply as early as thesummer before your senior year, though. Refer back to this timeline for guidance throughout the process:


  1. Double-check with your school counselor to make sure you’re on track to graduate and fulfill college applicationrequirements.
  2. Continue to take every opportunity to get to know colleges. Attend local college fairs, talk with current college students, meet with college reps who visit your school, follow schools on social media, attend virtual tours and events, and visit campuses in person.
  3. Create a checklist and calendar to keep track of application deadlines for college students. Make note of the other materials, such as recommendations or college application essays, you’ll need to complete your applications.
  4. Start working on your college application essays (also known as UC Personal Insight Questions or Personal Statements, for the Common Application). Get feedback on your drafts.


  1. Financial Aid Applications (FAFSA and CA Dream Act) open on October 1st. Submit your application as soon as possible—don’t wait until the March 2nd deadline! In addition to determining your eligibility for federal funds, many colleges and states use the form when distributing grants, so don’t delay. Expect your Student Aid Report (SAR) a few days after you’ve submitted your Financial Aid Application. In order to complete your CA Dream Act application or your FAFSA, you’ll need your parents’ tax documents from last year.
  2. If you plan to apply for Early Decision or Early Action, some colleges will have deadlines as early as this month. Mark these dates!
  3. If you can’t afford the application fees that many colleges charge, ask your counselor to help you request a fee waiver.
  4. Finalize your college application essays.
  5. If your schools require letters of recommendation, ask for those now.
    • Seek out recommenders (teachers, school counselors, coaches, employers) who know you well and can comment not just on your academic abilities but also your personal qualities and other types of achievements.
    • Provide recommenders with a Brag Sheet or a copy of your resume to help them cover all the bases.
  6. Research scholarships.
    • Ask your counselor, your colleges, and local religious and civic groups about scholarship opportunities. 
    • Check out scholarship websites like
    • Remember, you should never pay for scholarship information.


  1. Finalize and send any applications due at this time.Submit your University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) applications by November 30th! No late applications will be accepted—ever! Have a parent, teacher, counselor, mentor, or femtor review your applications before you submit.
  2. Every college will require a copy of your transcript from your high school. Follow your school’s procedure for sending transcripts.
  3. In January, ask your counseling center or registrar to send first semester transcripts to schools where you applied. At the end of the school year, they will need to send final transcripts to the college you will attend. 

Before Submitting Your College Application

The college application process is a marathon, not a sprint. With thefinish line in sight, it’s easy to lose sight of the minor details. As they say, the devil is often in the details, which is why it’s important to spend a few extra minutes going over the college application process before submitting. 

Check for any extra required essays, make sure you’ve shared your SAT/ACT/AP scores with the university, check on the status of your recommendation letters, and keep an eye on your email inbox in case schools request any additional materials from you. A little extra effort now will pay off in spades!


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