The year leading up to your first semester of college is an exciting time. It can also be hectic and stressful, particularly if you are not certain how to apply. Although the requirements for an application vary widely between schools, there are certain common aspects — and there are also certain pitfalls you should try to avoid.

Application Form

The school-specific application form can be as short as two pages or much, much longer. Most schools accept online applications as well as paper forms. However, keep in mind that an application form is only part of the entire packet, so even if you submit an online application, you will still need to send the rest of the documents requested.

Another option is to use the online Common Application, which is currently accepted by more than 300 schools. The advantage is that you do not need to complete a separate application for every college you are considering. Not every university or college accepts the Common Application, however, and even those that do may still require a short supplemental application. You cannot be penalized for using the Common Application; colleges who have agreed to accept it are obligated to give the same consideration to prospective students submitting the Common Application as they give to those submitting a school-specific application form.

Pitfalls:

• Each school sets a deadline for applications, and generally, the more competitive the admissions process, the earlier the deadline. Allow yourself plenty of time to assemble your application package and submit it before the deadline.
• Double-check your application form to make sure that there is no missing information. An incomplete application form could result in your missing the opportunity to attend the school of your choice for the year you need.

Test Scores

Some universities accept both SAT and ACT test scores, but others accept only one or the other. When you take the tests, you have the option to list the schools you want to receive your scores. Since 2009, students have had the option of choosing whether prospective schools receive all, some or even just one of their SAT scores, but you must register for this option by phone or online or else all of your scores will be submitted.

Pitfalls:

• It takes time for your test to be processed and your scores sent to the schools. Be sure to schedule the test session that allows sufficient time for the school to receive your scores before the application deadline.
• Verify which test the university of your dreams accepts early enough to schedule the appropriate test.

Letters of Recommendation

Each school determines how many letters of recommendation you need to submit and who should prepare them. Typically, you will need a minimum of two letters written by your high school guidance counselor or teachers.

Pitfalls:

• Choose people who can attest to your strengths. This means that you should choose teachers or counselors who know you reasonably well.
• Ask for letters of recommendation early enough for the teacher or counselor to have adequate time to prepare a well thought-out letter.

Personal Essay

Most colleges will ask you to prepare a personal essay or statement as part of your application package. For many, this is the most difficult piece of the application process. The length depends on the school’s specific requirements, but most ask for 300 to 500 words although longer essays may be required by some universities. The topic also varies by school.

Pitfalls:

• Proofread your essay carefully to make sure that there are no errors in spelling or grammar. If necessary, ask one of your teachers to edit or review your essay.
• Do not wait until the last minute to start your essay. You will probably need to prepare multiple drafts, and allowing yourself some time between drafts helps you catch awkward sentence structure or errors that you might miss if you are rushed.

Transcript

Your application packet is not complete until the college receives an official transcript from your high school. Some schools will only accept transcripts sent directly to them from your high school. Others will allow you to pick up a sealed envelope containing your transcript and mail in to them.

Pitfalls:

• If you pick up your transcript, be sure that you do not open the envelope. If you break the seal, the school may refuse to accept it.
• Do not wait until the day you need to have your application packet in the mail to ask for your transcript. Depending on your high school, it can take a few days for an official transcript.

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