How to Apply for University: Your Step-by-Step Guide

clerk or businesswoman tired and sleeping at a table with a pile of papers

Do you feel intimidated or exhausted by the college application process? We can help!

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Applying for college can feel like being overwhelmed by an avalanche of paperwork — and having a deadline to dig yourself out.

Fortunately, applying to college doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Researching schools and understanding the process will help you submit your applications before the deadline.

Our guide will show you step-by-step how to apply for college – from choosing schools to clicking submit.

1. Think about what you want to study in.

You don’t have to declare a major in your first year, but if you know your areas of interest, you can choose a university. For example, if you are interested in marine biology, apply to schools with marine biology programs.

If you know exactly what you want to study, research colleges with a strong reputation in that field. And when in doubt, consider schools that offer majors in various fields, such as the ones on our list of the best online colleges.

2. Decide which colleges you want to apply for.

The Executive Board recommends applying for five to eight lectures. Some students enroll in even more schools. But how do you determine where to apply?

Consider your academic record and compare it to admitted students in your prospective schools.

Many students apply to “safety schools” — where their GPA and standardized test scores exceed the averages — along with schools that match their record and admit a high percentage of applicants.

Also consider applying to “reach” schools. These are competitive schools that you would love to attend but where your GPA and test scores match or are slightly below average. Avoid just applying to reach schools to increase your chances of an admission offer.

3. Decide when to submit an application: types of applications and deadlines

Colleges have many types of applications and deadlines. About 450 schools offer early action and early decision-making applications. With these options, students sign up earlier and hear from the school earlier.

The big difference: Schools require early decision students to accept an offer of admission.

In addition, almost all colleges offer regular decisions, with application deadlines usually in January. Finally, some schools use an ongoing admissions process where applicants apply at any time. Make sure you do sufficient research into the application possibilities in your schools.

Application option:

When to apply for

When you find out if you’ve been hired

Why apply with this option?

early action



High school students benefit from early action applications. And unlike an early decision, early action is not binding. This means that you can apply to multiple schools.

early decision



For students with one top pick, an early decision can increase your chances of getting in. However, early admission to a decision is a binding request. That means if the school accepts you, you must attend.

Regular decision


March April

Regular decision is a great option for students who want to apply to multiple schools. Early action and decision applicants can also submit regular decision applications to other schools.

Rolling Admission

every moment

One to two months

Some schools use rolling admission with no fixed deadlines. This option appeals to students who want to start studying today – or at least don’t want to wait six to nine months.

4. Decide if you want to use the Common App to apply to multiple colleges at once.

The Common App allows you to apply to up to 20 colleges with a single application. And more than 950 schools accept the Common App.

What is the common app?

The Common App is a single application accepted by more than 950 colleges. Rather than submitting multiple individual applications, aspiring students submit one application for several.

Why use the Common App?

Applicants find it easier to manage the Common App rather than fill out individual applications for multiple schools. The option helps streamline the application process.

Which schools accept the Common App?

Currently 978 schools accept the Common App. Small liberal arts colleges, large public universities, and elite private schools use the Common App. Check the Common App site to see which schools accept the Common App.

Is the Common App free?

Applicants can use the Common App for free, but they must pay an application fee for each school they apply to. Students can request a fee waiver at multiple schools via the Common App.

When will the Common App open?

The Common App will open on August 1. After that date, applicants can begin to fill out a profile and complete the application requirements.

What are Common App deadlines?

The deadlines for admission vary by school. Early decision applications generally have a November 1 deadline, while regular admissions applications use a January 1 deadline.

5. Complete the FAFSA.

The FAFSA is the free application for federal student aid. It is a good idea to complete the FAFSA even if you may not qualify for need-based scholarships.

Many schools use the FAFSA to calculate financial needs and prepare financial aid packages, including grants and federally subsidized loans. You must also complete the FAFSA to be eligible for many merit-based scholarships.

Students complete the FAFSA on the federal student aid website. The application requires financial information, including parental information for dependent students.

Here’s the good news: Many online colleges accept FAFSA, and financial aid can make the cheapest online colleges even more affordable.

6. Complete the Common App.

Completing the Common App can save time. But it still requires keeping a lot of information. Stay organized throughout the process.

First you need to collect information. You will need a copy of your high school transcript and college entrance exam scores. Keep in mind that some schools are test-optional or don’t require standardized test scores at all.

You will also need information about your academic awards, activities, work history and achievements. Finally, the Common App requires information about parents or legal guardians.

Second, you create a freshman Common App account. Use an email address that you check regularly and provide basic information such as your address, date of birth, and legal name.

Then add colleges to your Common App. You can add up to 20 schools. The Common App displays the official school forms you need per school. The app also tells you which schools need letters of recommendation and how many you need to submit.

You write the Common App personal essay, which goes to all your schools. You’ll also keep track of college-specific questions and writing supplements through the Common App dashboard.

Finally, the Common App helps you keep track of your school’s deadlines and application fees. The Common App Center for Student Solutions provides support throughout the process.

Common App Components: What to Prepare, Request, and Complete

Plan ahead when completing the Common App. Check each school’s requirements for additional materials, including college-specific essay questions and portfolio requirements.

Most applicants need the following to submit the Common App:

  • Official High School Transcripts
  • SAT or ACT Scores (See: What is the ACT? and What is the SAT?)
  • A list of academic achievements
  • A list of extracurricular activities
  • Personal essay from the common app
  • Additional essays
  • Letters of Recommendation
  • Fee Waiver (if applicable)

7. Or apply to individual schools without the Common App.

The Common App is a way to apply to colleges. But not every school accepts the Common App. So you can also sign up for individual schools.

Check the Common App schools first.

Then visit the school’s website to learn more about the application process and requirements. Contact your school counselor for assistance. You will probably need letters of recommendation and original essays for each school.

Keep a close eye on deadlines to make sure your applications come in.