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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 lot of research to find the right academic and social 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.

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 94% 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 financial 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 process for applying to college, broken down into three straightforward steps:

Step 1: Make a List of Colleges to Apply To

With over 6,000 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. Once you have compiled a list of prospective colleges, take an in-person or virtual 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 one school (not recommended) to 30 schools (not recommended). Each applicant can choose the number of colleges to which they apply. Many limit the number because most college admissions applications are accompanied by a fee. College application fees can range on average from $50 to $100. 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 or match schools, reach schools and safety schools. It is up to you how many applications you send, but a good mix would include more target schools than reach schools, and at least one safety school. Make sure you properly identify where each school falls in comparison to your academic record.

Step 2: Split the List into Target, Reach and Safety Schools

Review your list and 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 a 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 How to Pay for College, and read more about how to label a school as target, reach or safety below.

What is a Target School?

Most schools will accept students with a range of test scores and GPAs, and will clearly list other admission requirements on their web site. If your test scores are in the 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 the college only accepts 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 most colleges consider all application materials and extracurricular activities in addition to test scores in their admission decision.

Also, the state or geographic region in which you live in can be a factor in a college’s admissions decision. 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 or exceed their requirements. Your test 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 fallback 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. If your reach school is very 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 you and your family do not have the financial resources, but you need ask for money by filling out the FAFSA, requesting aid from the school, and possibly taking on the responsibility to pay for school in the form of student loan debt. Total college costs should be considered when you decide where to apply, even though students will often pay less than the "sticker" price after private scholarships, federal and state aid and  merit aid are considered. Talk with your parents and read about how to pay for each specific college being considered before you apply.

Step 3: Complete and Send Applications to Colleges

Once your list is complete, you are ready to apply to college by completing and sending in admission applications! Remember, the list you create in Step 1, and refine it to include target, safety and reach colleges in Step 2, needs to be ready by November of your senior year if you are applying at the regular admission deadline, or September of your senior year if you plan to apply early decision or early action. Regular admissions applications are often due in early January, but may be due in December or earlier. Early action / decision applications are usually due in early November. You will need a month (or more) to prepare your admission applications and any supporting documents before submitting them.

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

College admission applications take time to complete – you may have to write essays or personal statements, ask for recommendations and get test scores and academic transcripts sent to schools - so stay organized! All colleges will require these types of application materials, so start thinking about these items well before September or November. Once you complete and send them, you have successfully applied to college.

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College Resources

Information to help you make the right choices

How to Apply to College

Find out how to complete your college applications, and learn the three steps to take when applying to colleges for the best chances at getting into the right college for you.

How to Pay for College

Learn how to choose the right resources for paying for college, so you can get the best education with the least amount of debt after graduation.

SAT and Test Prep Resources

A competitive score on a standardized test could help you get in to your top school. Check out these resources to help you tackle the SAT, ACT and other required tests.