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 initially seem intimidating, breaking it down into a few simple steps can make the entire journey more manageable. Understanding what looks good on college applications can give you a leg up. With a clear idea of your goals and the college application process, you’re sure to find success.


If you’re considering applying to college in California, knowing there are many paths to get in is essential. Community colleges are open to everyone, while four-year universities typically want things that look good on college applications, like test scores, application essays, and a minimum GPA. When weighing a prospective student’s application, admissions counselors look at the life experience the candidate can bring to the school. A person’s experiences, community activities, and personal statement can speak volumes.

You can submit California college applications online. Some schools depend on a common application (like the UCs and CSUs), while others use a 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 of 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.


Just what do colleges look for, anyway? Most people know that good grades matter. However, many hopeful applicants are surprised to learn that grades aren’t the only factor determining admission. While GPA is important, colleges look at the big picture of each application. Admissions officers are eager to go beyond data points. They’re looking for prospective students with well-rounded backgrounds who participate in extracurriculars and exhibit leadership skills.

College admissions essays (or, for the University of California, Personal Insight Questions) can be as critical as your GPA. Well-written essays can showcase your writing skills, personality, and life experiences. A personal, thoughtful piece can set an applicant apart from the competition, so it pays to do extra work on this portion of your application. You can speak directly to the admissions team and tell them exactly why you want to attend their school.

What do colleges look for in applicants? Each school will have its own list of attributes, but admissions officers generally want students with diverse interests and life experience who are passionate about learning. You have a good chance of being considered for a spot if your application tells a story of your educational journey, highlights the goals you still hope to achieve, explains challenges that you’ve overcome, and showcases why you are a unique candidate.


Understanding what colleges look for in applicants is just the beginning. The most challenging part of applying to colleges is deciding which schools you are most interested in. Once you’ve narrowed your list, it’s time to determine which application materials you’ll need, and 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 California and 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 Application is the solution for many private schools and some out-of-state public schools. Gather your transcripts, college application essays, test scores, and letters of recommendation, and you can instantly submit to many schools nationwide with the click of a button.
  • Individual School Applications – Many universities and colleges still rely on their own specific college application process for prospective students. Don’t be deterred if your preferred school doesn’t offer a Common Application admissions process. With a little extra work, you can submit your application with ease.


The college admissions process can sometimes feel like navigating a complex maze, especially for first-generation college hopefuls. However, with a little understanding and preparation, the process becomes more manageable. At its core, applying to college means being evaluated by universities and colleges to determine your fit for their institution.

The process should always begin with research. Understanding what looks good on college applications is key. Students should identify schools that align with their academic, social, and career goals. Next comes the application, which typically includes academic transcripts and personal essays. Some applications also include standardized test scores (like the SAT or ACT), recommendation letters, interviews, or portfolios for specific courses.

Deadlines are crucial. While many colleges have regular admission deadlines, some offer early action or early decision options with earlier cut-off dates. Financial aid and scholarships are also important and often require separate applications.

After submissions, there’s a waiting phase before schools send out acceptance, waitlist, or rejection letters. While the journey can be stressful, it can also be a transformative experience, shaping a person’s educational future.


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

  • Your Social Security number (If you don’t have a social security number, you can still apply to college. Ask your college counselor for advice.)
  • Personal information: In the first portion of a college application, you must 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 unsure what schools you’ll be applying to, it’s best to err on the side of caution and take these tests.
  • Extracurricular resume


Building a strong college application profile goes beyond just academics. Good grades and high standardized test scores are helpful, but colleges also look for well-rounded individuals who can contribute to their campus community. The best extracurriculars for college applications are those that showcase versatility. It’s about quantity, commitment, and depth in a few selected areas.

Leadership roles can be a real boon to your application. Positions like student body president, club leader, or team captain indicate leadership and responsibility. Volunteering also reflects well on the applicant. Community service shows compassion and dedication to causes bigger than oneself.

Relevant internships or part-time jobs in your field can also set you apart, indicating a clear direction and maturity. Even personal projects can help you stand out from the pack. Initiatives like starting a blog, developing an app, or launching a community project demonstrate innovation and self-drive.

Colleges value genuine passion and commitment. Your application is your chance to create a narrative that shows you’re academically adept and a proactive, contributing member of society.


As noted above, your high school transcript is one of the most essential application materials to submit. It records your classes and the grades 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 discussing 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 submitting 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 and the challenges presented by your classes. Your performance is also a factor, of course. Ultimately, transcripts show your student performance and how you might fit into a given institution.


Choosing what to study in college can be a challenge, especially if you’re unsure of the career path you’d like to pursue. Before committing to a particular field, consider the salary expectations and employment rates in that line of work. Your interests and personal/professional goals should also factor into the equation. Most college application requirements don’t 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 transitions can be challenging. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the options, but remember that most schools don’t require you to declare a major until your junior year. As you gather application materials, ask about requirements for specific programs of study that you’re interested in pursuing so you don’t miss any important deadlines!


We often get 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 the summer before your senior year. Refer back to this timeline for guidance throughout the process:


  1. Double-check with your school counselor to ensure you’re on track to graduate and fulfill college application requirements.
  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 track college students’ application deadlines. 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. You’ll need your parents’ tax documents from last year to complete your CA Dream Act application or your FAFSA. If you don’t have these, you can ask your counselor for advice.
  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 on your academic abilities, personal qualities, and other types of achievements. Provide recommenders with a copy of your resume or list of ideas to help them cover all the bases.
  6. Research scholarships. Ask your counselor, 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 submission.
  2. Every college will require a copy of your transcript from your high school. Follow your school’s procedure for sending transcripts.
  3. Ask your counseling center or registrar in January to send first-semester transcripts to your preferred schools. At the end of the school year, they will need to send final transcripts to the college you will attend.


The college application process is a marathon, not a sprint. With the finish line in sight, it’s easy to lose sight of the minor details. As they say, the devil is often in the details, so spending a few extra minutes reviewing the college application process before submitting is essential.

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 if schools request additional materials from you. A little extra effort now will pay off in spades!


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