The College Application Process, Simplified

By Maxine Seya

“College application process.”

It’s a buzzword these days, but many people still don’t know what the college application process entails.

Yes, your student is applying to college, but what does that even mean?

Does he fill out a form?

Is it like a job application?

Is it anything like it was 30 years ago when you went to college?

Hint: Probably not.

In this article, I’ll break down the actionable steps to completing the college application process. It’s probably a bit easier than you think.

Decide if college is even a good idea.

Too many people skip this step and start “applying to college” because everybody else is doing it.

College is not for everybody, even if society pressures us otherwise. It’s a time, energy, and cost-consuming option that might not benefit certain students who have strengths or interests outside of academics. Help your student research alternative options before committing to even starting the college research.

When are you done? You and your student have decided that college is the best next option given their academics, interests, strengths, budget, and emotional preparation. Move on to Step 2 afterward.

Pick a few colleges.

This is harder than it sounds, but to sum it up, before you can do anything, you and your student have to narrow down your college options. There are some 9,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. Your student can only attend one. So choose about 10 colleges that fit.

Start by considering:

  • Career goals: majors and programs
  • Budget: tuition and financial aid
  • Personality: campus culture
  • Religion
  • School size
  • Extracurriculars: student clubs, athletics, arts, etc.
  • Location preferences

Add or remove criteria based on your student’s needs.

When are you done? You and your student have written down a list of at least 10 colleges that meet their criteria. Then, move on to the next step.

Meet with teachers to discuss letters of recommendations.

About 6 months before the application deadline, guide your student to kindly and professionally request meetings with teachers to discuss the letters of recommendations. Note that I didn’t advise asking for the completed letter upfront.

I recommend meeting with the teachers to:

  • Understand the teacher’s comfort level
  • Set up additional meetings to get to know the teacher
  • Share your hopes and dreams for the future
  • Help them understand what’s important to you

This needs to start as early as possible for detailed, personalized, and powerful recommendation letters.

If your student has completed this step, then move on to the next step.

Write the essays.

Just like selecting a list of colleges, writing the essays is time and energy-consuming. Each college on your student’s list will have some sort of essay requirement, whether it’s a 650-word personal statement or 350-word supplement on why he wants to attend that school.

Go into each college’s admissions requirements, note the essay prompts for each one, and dive right in. Some students brainstorm for weeks and some students write their first and final draft at the same time.

Hi there.

No one spotlights the human stories of college admissions like we do.

But we're independent journalists who need support from readers like you.

Your subscription keeps us going -- completely ad-free.

Already a subscriber? Log in

Maxine Seya
Maxine Seya is a former investigative journalist, college consultant, and admissions interviewer. She studied at Peking University (Beijing, China) and Université Paul-Valéry (Montpellier, France) and investigated for CNN and Huffington Post before graduating from Northwestern University. She founded SocratesPost to share the human stories behind the admission gates and offer parents clarity as they help their teens with college.