How to Apply to College and Get Into Your Dream School

Applying to college can be a daunting task. With so many schools to choose from and the pressure to get into your dream school, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. However, with some preparation and common sense, you can show yourself in your best light. Here’s what experts have to say about the process.

What You’ll Need

Here’s a general list of what you’ll need and what will be required from you for your college applications:

  • Biographical and family information.
  • A list of your extracurricular activities, hobbies, and interests.
  • Letters of reference/recommendation. Usually, these are from teachers, but occasionally can be from people in your community as well (employers, clergy, coaches, youth leaders).
  • High school grade transcript.
  • SAT/ACT scores.
  • Personal essay. Most schools require that you answer their specific essay questions. This is another reason to limit your list of schools – you don’t want to have to write 15 essays!
  • Application fee.

(It’s worth noting that you will need much of this same information to apply for scholarships and grants. They can greatly reduce the actual cost of college. The Alliance Scholarship Program has awarded millions of dollars in scholarships to thousands of high school graduates and continuing college students.)

Many college applications can now be found online. Make sure that you know the specific requirements and deadlines for each school. You can find that information on the colleges’ websites under the Admissions section. Before you submit the application, have a parent or trusted adult check it over for spelling errors and possible omissions. This is vitally important in the Internet age, as one wrong click and your incomplete/typo-filled application can be submitted (disaster!).

Tips for Filling Out Applications

  • Make deadlines. 99.99% of the time, the deadline is the deadline, and if you miss it or are late, you will have to wait to reapply in the next cycle. Don’t let this be the reason you are not matriculating at the college of your choice in the fall. Be aware of each and every deadline in the application process. Make a helpful list or spreadsheet of all the appropriate dates and the application deadline for each school.
  • Proofread/write neatly. For those schools that don’t have online applications, you may need to type or write the application longhand. Make copies of the application so you can complete drafts before settling on the final version. Have a parent or trusted adult read the applications to proofread for grammar errors, spelling mistakes, syntax, and clarity before sending. Neatness counts. The better you present yourself in these simple, correctable ways, the more seriously the admissions office will take you.
  • Be truthful and proud. Making things up will only come back to bite you in the proverbial rear end. Tell the truth about who you are and what you’ve done. Maybe all you did was work at an organic grocery store after school for three years. Talk about your commitment to a work ethic and saving the planet! Take pride in your accomplishments, no matter how small they seem. On the flip side, don’t exaggerate your importance or feats.
  • Know how to write an essay. If your essay writing skills are less than stellar, make sure you review basic essay and paragraph structure. The most important thing about an essay is that it is written in your own words.

What is the Common App?

The Common Application (or Common App) is a standardized college application that can be submitted simultaneously to over 500 different member schools. The requirement for colleges to gain membership in the Common App organization is a dedication to a “holistic selection process,” meaning that they take the entire student into consideration and not just grades and test scores. The idea behind this is that students should focus on visiting schools and their senior year coursework rather than filling out multiple applications. With the Common App, you will only fill out one application, though many schools have an individualized supplement they would require with the Common App for admission.

Where Can You Use It?

The Common App is accepted at many of the nation’s best liberal arts colleges and universities, as well as smaller, less-recognized schools. The University of Pennsylvania, for example, exclusively uses the Common App with a supplement.

“It isn’t just about personal statements that focus on historical figures. Applicants too often choose to list, cite, and quote from books. It would be better if they put all of this in their own words! They shouldn’t just insert quotes from famous people in the hope of sounding more intellectual.”

—Advice from The Ivy Coach

Where do I fill it out?

The Common App is only available online at the Common App website. You’ll be able to print it out for your own use, but the version sent to colleges will be the online version. So before you hit “Send,” proofread the application several times! Once it is sent, the college receives it as is, and it cannot be corrected.

Will I have to write a separate essay for every school?

Not necessarily. It depends on where you apply. Most schools ask for a secondary supplement application to the Common App. This may include individual essay questions. However, every school will still receive the standard essay as part of the Common App.

What if I want to change it after I’ve already sent it to a school?

Unfortunately, you cannot edit the Common App after it’s been submitted to a school for that school. However, you can create unlimited versions of the Common App with variations for different schools. The only section you cannot re-edit once you’ve submitted the App to a school is the essay. So, for example, say you’re applying to Williams, Amherst, and Wesleyan in that order. Your home address changes after you submit your Common App to Williams. You can edit the Common App to reflect your new home address before submitting it to Amherst and Wesleyan.

In Conclusion

Applying to college, or many colleges, doesn’t have to be as time-consuming or confusing as it might seem. But if you get it right, you can get into the school you want with no more effort than you need.

Make sure you have all your i’s dotted and t’s crossed when you apply for college. Check out these Alliance articles about when to apply, standardized tests, and essay, recommendations, and interviews. Be sure to check out The Alliance College Guide. It explains what you need to know about choosing, preparing for, applying to, and paying for college. All in clear, no-nonsense language.

Additional Resources

Explore the Common App

College Stats

6 million – The number of applications sent using the Common App in 2021, according to Forbes