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How to Apply to College

While applying to college may seem easy, getting in can be tough! When you apply for college, you will have to be honest with yourself and do a bit of research to find the right fit. This section is about how to apply to college, and the three steps to take when applying to colleges for the best chances at getting into the best college for you.

Successfully Apply To College in Three Steps

While an education from Harvard University may seem ideal, it isn't the right fit for everyone, only a select amount of elite students get admitted each year (Harvard University rejects 93% of applications.) When you apply to college you need to pick a school that aligns with your interests and academic profile, and that can meet your education goals and needs. To do this, you need to make a list, then by looking at admissions statistics, including the test scores and GPA of students admitted the previous year, get a feel for a school's selectivity and whether or not you would get in. Here is the applying to college process broken down into three easy steps:

Step 1: Making A List Of Colleges To Apply To

With over 6000 colleges in the United States, the first step in applying to college is to do some research and make a college list. This process will be different for everyone. Some students have schools in mind, some know the state they want to live in, and others have no clue where to start. Visit the college search page for tips on how to start searching for colleges, and, once you have compiled a list, take a tour of as many of these colleges as possible. Read on to learn about choosing which colleges to apply to from your college list.

The number of colleges you apply to can vary, from applying to 1 school (not recommended) to 30 schools (not recommended), each applicant can choose how many colleges they apply to. Many limit the number because applications are accompanied by a fee. College application fees can range, but will on average cost around $60. So, while it is important to apply to more than one college - just in case - applying to over 10 is really up to the individual. In general students will want to apply to three types of schools: Target, Reach and Safety schools. It is up to you how many applications you send, but a good mix would be more target than reach, and at least one safety. Make sure you properly identify where each school falls in comparison to your academic record.

Step 2: Splitting The List Into Target, Reach and Safety Schools

You will need to take your list, and now decide which are your top picks, which are attainable for you academically, which are affordable for you only with aid (don't discount a school because of price, but if this is a factor have a backup plan), and refine your broad list into a group of schools that gives you the best chance for success. Talk to an admissions counselor at your high school if you have questions about this. Counselors will usually have experience in what schools are a good fit for students with your academic record, test scores and extracurricular activities, and what type of aid your situation may provide. Learn more about financial aid by reading Financial Aid 101, and read more about how to label a school as target, reach or safety below:

What is a Target School?

Most schools will accept a range of test scores and GPAs, and will clearly list other requirements on their website. If your test scores are the in average range of accepted scores, and you meet other necessary requirements, this is a target school. Also consider selectivity. If you meet most of the criteria, but selectivity is high (meaning they only accept a very small portion of the applicant pool), this college may fall closer to the reach category and you will want to make sure you also apply to a backup (or safety) school. Remember to take into account that colleges consider all application materials and extracurriculars in addition to test scores in their decision.

Also, the state you live in can be a factor. State schools will often favor in-state students, so you may need to exceed requirements in order to consider an out-of-state school as a target (or safety).

What is a Safety School?

For a safety school, you should feel that you meet and exceed their requirements. Your scores should fall on the high end (or exceed) what they list. You may also want to consider a safety in terms of price, so in addition to academic criteria being met, your safety school, or one of them, should be affordable, if price is a family concern. You should have some interest in your safety school, but many don't feel as strongly about their safety as it is not their primary choice. It is not necessarily the best fit, though you should consider it to provide a quality education and the majors you are interested in. It may be an okay fit, but not your dream school - that's okay. Many choose a state school or local community college as their safety. Having a safety school is important so that you have a fall-back plan if you don't get in to other schools.

What is a Reach School?

A reach school is somewhere you choose to apply to, but you knowingly fall short of some requirements. It can still be worth it to apply, because you may have some outstanding qualities that will see you through. Fact: 100% of students that do not apply to Harvard, do not get into Harvard. Keep your hopes in check when applying to a reach school, but you can't get in if you do not apply. If your reach school is really selective you can expect to have stiff competition.

To be clear, schools are labeled as safety or reach based on academics, but financial situations can warrant these labels too. Remember there are many ways to pay for college if your family does not have the money, but you need ask for it by filling out the FAFSA, requesting aid from the school, and possibly taking on the responsibility to pay for school later in the form of student loan debt. College tuition costs do not have to be tied to your decision on where to apply, students will often pay less than the "sticker" price after scholarships, federal aid or merit aid are added in. Talk with your parents and read about how to pay for college before you apply.

Step 3: Completing and Sending Applications to Colleges

Once your list is complete you are ready to apply to college by completing and sending in applications! Remember, the list you create in Step 1, and refine into to include target, safety and reach colleges in Step 2, needs to be ready by December your senior year if you are applying at the regular deadline, or October senior year if you plan to apply early decision or early action. Regular applications are due early January, and early action / decision are due early November, you will need a month (or more) to prepare your applications before sending them.

>> View our College Admissions Calendar to view a more detailed timeline.

College applications take time to complete - you have to write essays, ask for recommendations and get test scores sent to schools - so stay organized! All colleges will require these types of application materials, so start thinking about these items well before October or December. Once you complete and send them, then you have successfully applied to college. The resources below provide more detail on college applications themselves and the components that make them up.

>> Learn more about College Applications and how to complete them.

>> Learn more about College Admissions Essays and tips on developing essay topics.

>> Learn when and how to request Letters of Recommendation.

>> Learn how Test Scores and Transcripts are used admissions.

>> Learn how to ace a College Interview.

>> Learn more about applying Early Decision and Early Action.

>> Learn the Financial Aid Questions to Ask when applying to college.