Preparing for University: A College Application Checklist

Abigail Eun
Abigail Eun

Abigail Eun is a freelance writer and personal finance expert. Through diligent research and continuous learning, she has honed her knowledge in budgeting, saving, investing, and debt management. Abigail is passionate about helping people get their finances in order. She believes that everyone should have access to the information they need to make sound financial decisions. Her goal is to provide clear and concise information that is easy to understand.

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Daniel Kahn
Daniel Kahn
Daniel is the co-founder and COO at Sparrow. Daniel is responsible for the day-to-day operations of a company, working closely with other members of the executive team to develop and implement strategies to support the growth and success of the company.
Daniel was a 2023 Forbes 30 Under 30 lister in the Education category.  Daniel was born and raised in Raleigh, North Carolina and graduated from Duke University in 2020.
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Camden Ford

Camden leads Sparrow’s business operations – everything from product management to business analytics. After graduating Cum Laude from Duke University where he studied Civil Engineering, Camden worked as a Consultant for A.T. Kearney where he worked in their Strategic Operations practice. With a strong background in analytics, Camden strives to deliver data-driven conclusions and insights.

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November 10, 2023

Welcome to college application season – one of the most exciting and slightly stressful milestones in your life. 

Though the college application process may seem overwhelming, familiarizing yourself with what it entails, including admission requirements, deadlines, and application timelines, is key to being prepared.

Use this college application checklist to guide you at every step of your college admissions journey. 

When Should I Start Applying to College?

Typically, college applications open on August 1st, and deadlines range between November and February. To have ample time to finish your college applications and have a head start, you should start applying to college in the summer before your senior year. 

By beginning your college applications in the summer, not only will you have a head start on the admissions process, but you will have more time to research colleges and make sure that you are applying to schools that best fit you. 

You may also have more flexibility in deciding between early admission and regular admission, as most early action/decision deadlines are in November.

A Step-By-Step College Application Checklist

Create a List of Safety, Match, and Reach Schools

Before sending out your college applications, do your research on the schools you are considering applying to. You’ll want to divide up the colleges into the following categories: safety, match, and reach schools.

Safety SchoolsMatch SchoolsReach Schools
A safety school is one where the student is virtually guaranteed admission.A match school is one where the student has a good chance of admission.A reach school is one where the student has a slim chance of admission.

As you’re applying to colleges, you’ll want to apply to a good mix of safety, match, and reach schools. This way, you will have many different options to choose from once college decisions have been released. 

It’s important that all of your safety, match, and reach schools are schools that you would attend. While there is no “right college”, you should only apply to schools that you are genuinely interested in. This way, you can focus on putting your best foot forward toward schools you want to attend.

Gather the Necessary Materials 

As you prepare for college application season, you may be wondering, “What documents are needed for college applications?”

Here is a general checklist of the materials you will need:

  • Application Form: Depending on your preference, you can use the Common Application or the Coalition Application. The Common Application is the more widely known, popularly used application portal, having over 1000 colleges you can apply to. The Coalition Application is smaller and more specific – all of its 150+ colleges offer need-based financial aid, low in-state tuition, and has at least a 70% graduation rate. 
  • High School Transcript: Ask your high school’s administration office to send your most recent transcript to the colleges you are applying to.
  • Letters of Recommendation: Generally, you will need to submit recommendation letters from your academic teachers, though some schools may request more or less. It’s best to ask for these as early as possible, as most teachers will be swamped with requests closer to the application deadlines.
  • Standardized Testing Scores (ACT or SAT, AP exams): Generally, most schools will require you to send any standardized testing scores, including your SAT/ACT and AP exam scores. You can access your scores via the College Board.  
  • Personal Statement Essay: Your personal statement essay is what colleges use to find out who you are behind your statistics as an applicant. 
  • Extracurricular Activities: Have a list on hand of all of your extracurricular activities, including a description of your role(s) within the organization, and any positions, awards, or achievements. 
  • Application Fees: If you demonstrate financial need, you will receive an application fee waiver from your high school. Otherwise, you are required to pay an application fee for each school you apply to. 

Determine Application Timeline

After gathering all of your application documents, you will want to decide which application timeline you will be following. 

When applying to college, you can apply as an Early Action, Early Decision, or Regular Decision applicant. 

  • Early Action: You apply to the colleges of your choice by an earlier deadline and, in turn, find out if you were accepted, rejected, or deferred earlier. This is not a binding agreement, meaning that you do not have to attend the school if you are accepted.
  • Early Decision: You apply to the college of your choice by an earlier deadline and, in turn, find out if you were accepted, rejected, or deferred earlier. This is a binding agreement, meaning that if you are accepted into the school you applied early decision to, you are contractually obligated to attend. You are only allowed to apply for early decision to one school only. Early decision is best when applying to a dream school that you are absolutely certain you want to attend.
  • Regular Decision: You apply to the colleges of your choice by the regular deadline, which is generally in late January or early February. You can either be accepted, rejected, or waitlisted. You can apply to as many schools as you want. 

Mark All Deadlines

Staying organized is key to successfully navigating through the college admissions process. When you first begin your college applications, make a list of all of the schools you are interested in applying to, along with all of their deadlines. 

You can use the following table as a starting point:

SchoolEarly Decision DeadlineRegular Application DeadlineEarly Financial Aid DeadlineRegular Financial Aid Deadline
Boston UniversityN/AJanuary 4N/AJanuary 4
Yale UniversityNovember 1stJanuary 2November 10February 25
Brandeis UniversityN/AJanuary 3N/AJanuary 3

File the FAFSA

To qualify for federal student aid, you will need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). You may need your parents’ assistance when filling out the FAFSA, as you will need to compile the following financial information and documents:

  • Your social security card 
  • Your parents’ social security card
  • Any form of self-identification (driver’s license, real I.D., passport, etc.)
  • Your parents’ tax returns 
  • Your parents’ untaxed income records 
  • Your parents’ W-2 forms 
  • Your parents’ current bank statements 

Things to Consider

College application requirements are not always clear-cut. It’s important to thoroughly research colleges of interest to you and be aware of all of their specific application requirements.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Supplemental Essays: Some schools may require supplemental essays, in addition to your Personal Statement Essay. Make note of these essays, as your application may be incomplete if you do not submit yours.
  • College Interviews: Some schools offer college interviews to applicants. This is a great way to showcase yourself as a strong applicant, while getting to learn more about the school. 
  • Supplemental Application Requirements: Some schools may require you to submit supplemental application materials, such as a design portfolio, websites you’ve created, or translations that you’ve done to prove your language fluency.

College Application Q & A

Should I Apply For Early or Regular Decision?

Ultimately, whether Early Action/Decision or Regular Decision is the best fit for you depends on your individual preferences. If you already have a dream school you are set on attending, consider applying for Early Decision.

If you don’t know what school you want to attend but want a head start on your college applications, consider applying for Early Action. If you prefer to take your time and compare your college options, consider applying for Regular Decision. 

What is the Difference Between Early Action and Early Decision?

While Early Action and Early Decision both have earlier deadlines, Early Decision is binding, meaning that students must attend the school if they are accepted, while Early Action is not. 

Can I Apply For Early Decision To Multiple Schools?

No, you cannot apply for Early Decision to multiple schools. Early Decision is a contractually-binding obligation that states that the student must attend the school if they are accepted as an Early Decision applicant. All applications to different schools must be rescinded.

Closing Thoughts From the Nest

Put your best foot forward this college application season by starting early and performing your due diligence. 

If you need any assistance or have questions, consider reaching out to your school counselor or the relevant college admission office. Best of luck!

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