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College Applications 101

Introduction

Applying to college can be an intimidating and complicated process that leaves students feeling overwhelmed. We created this guide to help students and their families understand the various steps and parts of the college application process.

Identifying which schools you want to apply to can be one of the most challenging steps for students. For the sake of this guide, we will assume you have already decided where to apply. If you still need to select your target schools, check out our Tips on picking the right fit colleges.

The Different Application Platforms

Once you have identified your target schools, the next step is determining what type of application each school requires. Most colleges will have this listed on their website, likely on their admissions pages. Universily makes this easy by identifying the application type and deadlines for each school a student adds to their profile in the Applications area.

The Common App

The Common Application is one of the most popular application platforms, with over 1,000 member colleges and universities.

The Common App is a single online application platform that students can use to apply to any of the member schools. First, students fill out the application details about their background, classes, test scores, and activities. Then, they use that information for all the schools they are applying to on the Common App.

The Common App also features 7 essay prompts for students to respond to. Most schools using the Common App require these essays, and may also need supplemental essays in addition to the prompts provided by the Common App.

While the Common App makes the application much easier for students by allowing them to reuse essays, we recommend that students create unique and targeted applications and essays for each school they apply to. 

University of California/California State University Applications

The state of California has two of the largest systems of colleges in the country, with the UC (University of California) and CSU (California State University) school systems.

The University of California (UC) school system has 9 undergraduate campuses and utilizes a unique application for all its member schools. Notably, the UC applications do not include or allow letters of recommendation.

The California State University (CSU) system has 23 campuses and utilizes a unique application for all member schools. 

Universal College Application

The Universal College Application (UCA) is similar to the Common Application in that it is a singular platform for students to fill out an application for any UCA member school. The Universal College Application is less popular than the Common App, with only ~40 schools participating. Schools that accept both the Common App and UCA typically evaluate them equally and do not have a preference. Again, we recommend checking your target school’s admissions website for more information.

SUNY

SUNY, or The State University of New York, is a system of colleges and universities based in the State of New York. SUNY utilizes its own application and platform, similar to California’s UC and CSU systems. 64 SUNY campuses accept the SUNY application.

ApplyTexas

A handful of schools in Texas use a platform called ApplyTexas to accept student applications. This platform is very similar to those used by the CSU, UC, and SUNY school systems. 

School Specific Applications

Colleges that do not use the Common App, Universal App, or are a CSU/UC/SUNY school, will typically have their application hosted on their website. These applications are similar in what they require compared to platforms like the Common App. Still, a college may create and use its own application for various reasons. As a general rule of thumb, always check out the admissions pages for your target schools to check where they have their application. For Universily users, we do this for you in our Applications section.

Components of an Application

After you identify your target colleges and learn where each school has its application, the next step is to start assembling the different parts of your applications. Each school will usually ask for slightly different information. Still, the bulk of it will be the same across all your applications. 

Background Information

For starters, colleges will ask for basic background information such as your name, birthday, gender, and where you live. 

Family Information

You will also be asked about your family, specifically if your parent(s) are employed, their occupation, and their education level. This information is essential because many schools aim to admit a minimum number or percentage of first-generation college students (if your parents didn’t attend or graduate from college). This same information is also essential in how colleges determine who receives scholarships and financial aid. However, that process is often separate and usually requires distinct forms.

Education Information

As part of the college application, schools will ask you to provide the name and address of the high school you attend and the dates you attended.

Colleges will typically also ask for your GPA, class size, and class rank. They will also ask you to list each course you took during high school individually. You will list the course name, type (honors, AP, IB, etc.), the year you took the course, and your grade.

At some point in the process, the admissions office of the schools you apply to will verify the information in the application with the official transcripts sent by your school.

Honors

After providing the basics of the courses you completed in high school, applications will have a section for you to list any academic honors you have received. These could be any recognition of academic achievement for coursework or from a club.

Test Scores

You will be asked to list which standardized tests (ACT/SAT/AP/IB) you have taken and the accompanying score. It is important to note that you are not required to submit the score for every test you took. For example, some students may want to submit multiple scores to show their improvement. In contrast, others may consider only submitting their best score. For more advice on standardized tests, check out our Resources section.

Universily makes it easy for our users to keep track of their test scores as a part of their MyStory section.

Activities

Applicants differentiate themselves by showcasing the activities they were involved in outside of class work while in high school. Colleges want to understand your involvement outside of school and will ask you to list all your extracurricular activities.

When listing activities, you will be asked for the activity “type” (sport, internship, club, etc.), what your position or role was, the organization’s name, how many hours per week and weeks per year you participated, whether you intend on continuing your involvement in college, and a brief description of the activity including any notable accomplishments.

As mentioned before, activities are a crucial way for you to stand out and show colleges what interests you. Showing a school that you were involved in a club/activity for multiple years and held a leadership position is a great way to showcase commitment. Finally, schools consider how an applicant would fit into the campus community. They want to admit students who they think will be involved and add to the community around them.

It can be challenging to keep track of all the various activities you were involved in during your high school career and even more difficult to reenter the same information for each application continuously. 

Universily makes this easy for our users through MyStory, where students can enter information about their activities once, easily keep track of them, and reuse the information for each application. 

Letters of Recommendation

Many schools will ask students for letters of recommendation as part of their application. Students are encouraged to ask figures in their life who could speak to their character. Examples would be teachers, coaches, administrators, or mentors. Typically these letters are managed through Naviance or another 3rd party system, and often the student can never read or access the letters themselves.

Interviews

Some schools require or provide the option for applicants to participate in an interview as part of their application process. Interviews are more common at competitive schools and colleges with smaller communities. These interviews can occur either in person with a member of the admissions office, locally with an alum volunteer, or virtually. Participating in an interview allows you to stand out and tell your story beyond the application itself. Though for some, an interview might make applying to a school even more daunting. 

You can find out if a college requires an interview on their admissions website. For Universily users, we include this information for all your target schools in the Applications section of your profile.

Samples of Work/Auditions

For some majors, such as art, dance, or other performing arts, there will typically be additional requirements as part of your application. Each college will have specific requirements on its admissions website or application. Still, usually, it will be some example of the applicant’s work. Students will upload images, videos or send another form of their work to the school as part of their application. For some schools and majors, a live audition may also be required.

Essays

The writing portion, or essays, of a college application, can be the most daunting part of the entire process. Colleges require anywhere from 1 to as many as 10 essays. The writing portion allows you to express yourself and provide context to your application. The essay prompts are often open-ended and are asked in a way to let you highlight your strengths and share your story. It is important to remember that your essays will often be read together and should be thought of holistically. If a college has seven essay prompts, consider it one extended essay with seven parts.

Personal Statement

The most common kind of college essay is a personal statement. A personal statement is an essay where an applicant answers the most fundamental question: “Who are you, and what is important to you?”. The personal statement has historically been the first and main essay in the Common Application.

Common App Essays

Common App essays are the writing prompts that the Common Application selects each year for their application. Every school on the Common App will require these essays, though we do not recommend reusing the same essays for each school you apply to, even if they are all on the Common App. Instead, applicants are best off researching and developing a strategy for each target school.

Supplemental Essays

In addition to the writing prompts required by the Common App, schools may require students to respond to additional prompts unique to that college. These essays are often focused on specific values or topics related to that school.

Assembling Your Applications

Transcripts

An applicant’s transcripts are almost always sent directly to colleges by the student’s counselor. Sometimes this is done automatically, and sometimes the student needs to send a request for the transcript. Applicants should speak with their high school counselor to understand the process and if the student requires any action.

Submitting test scores

Submitting official test scores such as ACT, SAT, AP, or IB scores is done through the specific test’s web portal. Applicants will need to log in to their profile on the ACT, College Board, or IBO website to submit their scores.

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