Wherever you are in the college search journey, use this guide to make sure you’re on track. Missed some milestones? Don’t panic. Talk to your counselor and see how you can catch up. It’s never too late to find the right college.

Application Elements

All colleges and universities will require a transcript of your grades to be sent directly from your school to their admissions office. Keep your grades high and challenge yourself where possible. Strong grades and rigorous classes can gain not just acceptance at your top-choice school, but also scholarships to support your education.

  • Some colleges require testing while some are test-optional or test-blind. You can check your school-of-choice’s policies on their admissions page and plan accordingly.
  • If you need to take the SAT or ACT, be sure to look at the dates on which they’re offered and find a location convenient to you. Your high school might offer test dates on campus as well. Study ahead of time!
  • If you’re an international student or aren’t studying in a primarily English curriculum, schools may require the TOEFL, IELTS, or Duolingo tests. Check which ones your target schools accept and plan accordingly.
  • Most colleges will require a letter of recommendation from your counselor providing context about your school’s grading practices and culture to help them understand your application better. Most will also require one to two letters of recommendation from teachers. Building strong relationships with your recommenders and telling them about your goals will help them be your best champion. Be reliable, punctual, and friendly, and remember that letters take time to write.
  • Some colleges will also take extra letters of recommendation from people outside of your school. This could be your boss at work, a coach from your sports team, a supervisor from your summer volunteer work – if you have somebody who knows you well and can talk about how awesome you are, consider asking them to write a letter for your application.
  • Most New York colleges and universities are on the Common Application, which includes space for a list of your 10 most important activities. These can be things that are major time commitments, that are important to you personally, or that are relevant to your potential major or career.
  • Be creative and thoughtful. All sorts of things can count. Work experiences, clubs in school, volunteer activities, sports, and summer programs are the most common. However, if you spend time caring for siblings, help run your family’s restaurant, use your time to clean local walking trails, or have any other major time commitments outside of the norm, these can have a place in your activity list as well.
  • You can also include the amount of time you spent on the activity, how long you’ve participated in it, your role, and a description of what you do.
  • The Common Application includes a Personal Statement, which is a 650-word essay that shows who you are, what matters to you, and how you think. There is no right or wrong approach, and the prompts are broad [https://www.commonapp.org/blog/2022-2023-common-app-essay-prompts]. The important thing is to demonstrate that you’re a thoughtful person who will make a great community member at the college you’re applying to.
    • Many colleges also ask for supplemental essays about your intended major, community involvements, and more. Check the college-specific application in the Common App to see what prompts are required.

If You’re A Freshman

  • Take your time adjusting to high school classes and be sure to ask for help if you need it. Pay attention to which classes are the most interesting to you and explore your favorite subject areas independently if you can.
  • Join clubs and activities that sound fun to start making friends and getting engaged on your campus.
  • Start checking in with your counselor so they can get to know you and your interests. Ask them to help you plan your classes and make sure you’re on track from the start. If there is a subject area or career you feel excited about, ask them for advice on classes to take or activities to participate in.

If You’re A Sophomore

  • Meet with your school counselor early in the school year to make sure you’re taking the right classes to graduate and be ready for college. Most colleges require a full sequence of courses in the major subject areas (English, math, science, etc.). Also, ask for help in developing a list of colleges based on your interests. (Use the decision worksheet as a starting point.)
  • Get involved at your school and in your community. Most colleges will look at your participation in extracurricular activities when considering your college application.
  • Stay engaged in your classes and get extra help from your teacher, counselor, or others if you need it.
  • Start thinking about your class schedule for next year.
  • Meet with your school counselor and talk about your college path. Be sure to bring a list of questions about college. Here are some suggestions:
    • What classes do I need to take to graduate? What classes should I take to be ready for college?
    • What elective classes should I take?
    • Would you recommend that I take any AP or honors courses?
    • How should I study for the SAT or the ACT? Does the school offer any help?
    • Can you help me develop a list of colleges to research based on my interests and the type of college I want to attend? (Use the decision worksheet as a starting point).
    • Do you have information about college fairs that I should attend?
    • Planning for Summer
  • Think about your summer plans and consider including an internship, job, volunteer position, or summer academic program. These will be part of your college application activity list and essays, and they show colleges that you’re using your time thoughtfully. Most importantly, diverse experiences can help you find your passions and interests!
  • o If you can’t attend a summer program, have household responsibilities, or need to have a paid job, don’t worry. Work experience is highly valued by colleges, as it shows that you are responsible, reliable, and mature. Family commitments, like caring for siblings or grandparents, are also valuable.
  • o Volunteer work and internships are beneficial, too. Consider reaching out to local hospitals, animal shelters, schools, businesses, and other organizations that interest you to see if they have a need for an extra pair of helping hands.
  • o Free online courses are also a great way to explore new subject areas and start developing skills.

If You’re A Junior

  • Talk to your school counselor about whether you should take any standardized tests. Some colleges and universities have “test-optional” policies and don’t require students to submit their SAT or ACT scores. Other colleges require them.
  • Attend college fairs and talk with college representatives. Ask them about campus life, application requirements, and financial aid.
  • If you’re interested in any colleges that are local to you, visit campus and take a tour! You can also follow colleges and universities you’re interested in on social media to learn more about their culture and campus.
  • Meet with your school counselor to ensure that you’re still on track to graduate and are taking the right courses to prepare for college. If you have gaps to fill in, now is the time to review your course selections for senior year.
  • Explore the career paths and subjects you might want to study in college. Attend a career fair or shadow a professional in a field you’re interested in to learn more about their work and the path they took to get there.
  • Work with your school counselor, college advisor, parent, or guardian to develop a list of eight to ten colleges that interest you. Use the decision worksheet as a starting point. Research the colleges on your list, keeping track of your questions and the things that you like about each college. 
  • Ask teachers, counselors, and mentors for letters of recommendation for your college applications. Pay attention to how many recommendations you need, guidelines about who should write them, and the required format.
  • Obtain an FSA ID needed to complete your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Your parent or guardian will need an FSA ID as well.
  • Research scholarships from outside sources like local businesses, organizations, employers, unions, churches, etc. Be sure to note application deadline dates.
  • Plan and schedule summer visits to the colleges on your list. Be sure to register online ahead of time for tours if possible.
  • Stay involved in extracurricular activities. Consider a summer job, internship, or volunteer position. If you volunteered or took a class last summer, can you build on that experience this summer to take on more responsibility or deepen your learning?
  • Set aside time to start working on application essays if possible. All schools will require an activity list and a personal statement, so it’s important to consider what activities you’ll include and what stories from your life show the type of community member you’ll be on campus. If you know some of the schools you’ll be applying to, you can also check their applications for supplemental essays to understand what you’ll need to write. Starting on this in the summer allows you to focus on having strong grades (and a lot of fun) in your senior year.
  • If you’re taking standardized tests, be sure to study!

If You’re A Senior

  • Stay on track to graduate and stay committed to your extracurricular activities. Make sure to stay focused and ask for help if you need it.
  • Take the SAT or ACT if necessary.
  • Schedule visits to colleges that interest you. Narrow down your list to about five colleges that you plan to apply to. On your list of colleges, write down each college’s application deadlines, requirements, and fees. Staying organized is key.
  • Attend financial aid workshops and begin to gather the materials you’ll need to complete the FAFSA, which is critical to securing financial aid. Most colleges recommend you complete it as soon as possible to maximize the amount of aid you receive. New York students should include a college or university in the state on your list of colleges so you can begin to file the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) grant application at the end of the FAFSA. For more information, please see our How to Pay for College guide. [hyperlink]
  • Work on your college applications and your financial aid applications. Be sure to keep track of all requirements and deadlines.
  • Complete your applications carefully, including the essay if required. Pay attention to details, proofread everything, and be sure to submit them on time. Ask others to help proofread your essays and provide feedback. Your counselor, English teacher, and friends will be happy to help!
  • Some colleges require a mid-year grade report—work with your school counselor to send that information to the colleges.
  • Look for your college acceptance notices and pay attention to important paperwork and deposit deadlines.
  • Plan for your summer job or internship.
  • If you’re taking Advanced Placement (AP) courses, the spring AP exams are held every May. Check with your school counselor for details about exam dates and the school’s plans for administration of the AP exams.
  • Stay focused—most college acceptances are contingent on students maintaining good standing in their senior year.
  • Review the financial aid packages you receive from colleges and calculate your net costs. If you have questions, contact the colleges’ financial aid offices.
  • If possible, make any last college visits before you make a final decision.
  • Decision time: Choose the college you will attend, sign a letter of intent, accept or refuse financial aid, and send in the required deposits by the college’s stated deadlines. The traditional date to notify colleges of your decision is May 1.
  • Follow up on your grants, scholarships, loans, and any other aid you received.
  • Celebrate! Don’t forget to send a thank-you note or email to everyone who helped you through your college search.

International Students

If you’re a high school student studying outside of the United States, the same principles listed above apply to your college application process. There are a few key areas where things differ.

  • Financial Aid
    • S. institutions do not offer need-based financial aid to international students, so it’s important to plan ahead to ensure that you’ll be able to pay for your education. Many colleges do offer scholarships for international students with exceptional academic records.
  • Transcripts and Recommendations
    • Depending on where you attend school, your transcripts and recommendations may not be in English. If you are not able to translate these documents yourself, ask your school counselor to help you with this part of the process.
  • Testing and English Proficiency
    • To demonstrate English proficiency, most colleges and universities require that international students submit TOEFL, IELTS, or Duolingo test results. This is to ensure that you will be able to keep up with your classes. If you have been studying in an English-only curriculum, some schools may not require English proficiency testing. Be sure to check the requirements for each school you are applying to.
    • If your scores do not meet the minimum, some schools may admit you with an additional class in the summer or fall to help you bring your English to the required level for your coursework. This varies by college and their international admissions team can help you identify any necessary supports.
  • Visas
    • International students will require an F-1 or J-1 visa to be able to study in the US. Once you are admitted to a university, they will be able to help support you through the steps of the visa application process. This may require a financial statement to demonstrate proof of funding for your education and living expenses, as you will not be allowed to work during your time in the US.


  • Applying to colleges as a transfer student, you’ll be analyzed through many of the same criteria as a first-time undergraduate applicant. There are, however, a few key differences to consider.
  • Statement of purpose: Slightly different from the first-time undergraduate personal statement, a statement of purpose is an essay which explains your reasons for transferring in general. You should demonstrate that you have made the most of the resources at your current college and explain what you’re looking for beyond their offerings. Example reasons include wanting to transfer to a smaller or larger school, major in a specific subject that isn’t available, or find a campus culture that is a better fit for you. Colleges often have school-specific supplements where you can explain why you are choosing them, so this essay does not need to have details about any particular institution.
  • Letters of recommendation: If you are thinking about transferring after one or two years in your current institution, you will have the option to include references from your current professors, internship supervisors, and others who know you well. Be sure to build strong relationships so that they can give a positive impression of what you’re like as a member of your campus community.
  • Gathering documents: Unlike students who apply directly from high school, you will be in charge of gathering and sending all of your required materials. This can include transcripts from all institutions attended, test scores, letters of recommendation, and financial aid documents. Check the website for each individual college for their requirements. If you need to request materials from your current university or a past institution, do it early to avoid delays.
  • Deadlines: Transfer deadlines are typically later in the year than first-time undergraduate application deadlines, with many of the earliest ones in mid-January. They are not on a standardized schedule, so do your research carefully to make sure you have all of the materials you need on the correct timeline.

Continuing Education

  • Returning to school after time in the workforce can be intimidating, but rest assured that there are programs available that will fit your needs and your goals. Below are some factors to consider when applying to colleges as a nontraditional student.
  • Degree type: Depending on what your goals are, you might choose a two-year degree, a four-year degree, a certificate program, or non-degree granting coursework. This will vary by field and by what outcome you’re looking for from higher education. If you’re looking to tune up a specific skill, then a program with a lower long-term commitment might be best. If you need a specific type of degree or certification to advance in your career, then this is a great guidepost to have when considering your options.
  • Practical concerns: If you’re already grounded in a career or a specific location, this will shape the list of institutions you’re applying to as you grow your future. Are you looking to stay local for family and friends, or do you want to make inroads in a completely new place? Are you advancing your current career, making a change, or just getting started? There is no right answer – just the answer that is true for you.
  • Considering cost: Higher education is an investment in your career and it’s not without its costs. Tuition varies across institutions and you’ll want to be mindful of your own finances as you consider your options. You should also consider if you’ll want to stay in your current job while attending college full- or part-time, or if you’ll want to open space in your schedule to take on paid or unpaid work in your field to grow your resume.
  • Financial aid: Most financial aid income calculations are based on dependent children and factor in parental income. If you are under 24 and your parents still claim you on their taxes, this may be the case. If you are over 24, your income alone will be assessed for your financial aid packages. When you’re researching sources of aid, be mindful of the difference in eligibility between dependent and independent students.
  • Gathering documents: Unlike students who apply directly from high school, you will be in charge of gathering and sending all of your required materials. This can include transcripts from all institutions attended, test scores, letters of recommendation, and financial aid documents. Check the website for each individual college for their requirements. If you need to request materials from a past institution, do it early to avoid delays.
  • Statement of purpose or personal statement: Depending on where you’re applying and through which platform, you may need to write a statement of purpose or personal statement. The personal statement is a reflective essay that demonstrates your critical thinking skills and growth, while a statement of purpose explains your goals in pursuing a degree. There can be overlap between these two types of essays. You can discuss your academic interests, your professional goals, and your life experiences to illustrate how you will add to the intellectual and social life on your future home campus.
  • Activity list and references: Professional experience and references are a highly valuable part of college applications for continuing students. They serve to illustrate the steps you’ve already taken and the relationships you’ve built as you’ve worked to build your life. If your break from school was due to hardship or personal obligations, these involvements can also be included here or in the additional information section of your applications.
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