Applying to Schools | Federal Student Aid

Wondering what you need to do to apply for college or career school?

Get tips on navigating the college application process.

Applying to Schools

Applying to college, career school, or graduate school means more than just filling out forms. For a successful college application, you first need to understand each school’s admission requirements, gather information, meet deadlines, and pay any necessary fees. Plus, each school has different application requirements and deadlines, so it’s important to get organized.

While the application process may seem a little overwhelming, you can use the following information to get ready and figure out your next steps.

Narrow Your Application Choices
Research Admission Requirements Carefully
Develop a Timeline or To-Do List
Consider Applying Early
Application Tips
Special Considerations

Narrow Your Application Choices

There’s no magic number when it comes to how many school applications you submit. One isn’t enough, because that school might not admit you. More than 10 might be too many because applications take a lot of work and you need to do a great job on each one. Also, most schools have application fees, so costs can add up. (Many schools waive fees for low-income students.)

The bottom line: Applying to a few schools that really interest you is better than applying to as many as you can.  If you’re not sure what schools might be right for you, see our information on choosing a school.


Research Admission Requirements Carefully

Every college has its own application requirements. Different programs within the same school may even request different items. Learn exactly what a school requires by visiting its website or checking with its admissions office.

Start preparing well before the application deadline and make sure to check and double-check everything before you submit it.



Bookbag in empty classroom

Many U.S. colleges require undergraduate and graduate students to submit standardized test scores as part of their application packages. Learn more about taking required tests.

Develop a Timeline or To-Do List

Careful planning will help make the college application process less stressful. To help you out, we’ve developed several college preparation checklists. The checklists are for students (of all ages) who are considering college or career school. We also have information for parents. Even if you are getting a late start, we have a checklist for you.



Picture of hands texting in front of notebook

Remember: The financial aid application process is separate from the admissions application process. The financial aid process includes the essential step of completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) to apply for federal student aid. You also should consider applying for scholarships and other types of aid.

Consider Applying Early

If you are confident that you are academically prepared and want to get into a particular school, you might want to consider early application programs for undergraduate admissions. When you apply early to a school, you’re speeding up the entire application process. Instead of submitting your application in November or later in your senior year, you usually need to begin the application process in September.

Applying early can sometimes give you an advantage. At some schools, a higher percentage of early applicants are accepted. And if you do get early acceptance, you can skip a couple of months of stress and uncertainty. You also can get a head start preparing for your freshman year.

While procedures at individual colleges may vary, the two most common procedures are early decision and early action. Some schools have both procedures. Another option is called dual enrollment.

Early Decision

If you have a particular school in mind that is your “first choice,” early decision might work well. If you are accepted under early decision, you must attend that school, unless its financial aid package is too low for you to attend. (If you’re not sure whether the school’s financial aid offer will be enough, make sure to submit applications to other schools.) Usually, you can apply to only one school for early decision. You can still apply to other schools at their regular application deadlines.

Early Action

Early action is similar to early decision, but you aren’t “locked in” to attending a school that accepts you. Some schools allow you to apply for early action at other schools at the same time, but some don’t. Know the rules. In addition, under early action, you can still apply to other schools at their regular application deadlines. Keep in mind that there is less incentive for an early action college to accept you because you aren’t committing to attend the school.

Dual Enrollment

A third option, dual enrollment, is typically for high school juniors who have most of the credits needed for graduation. If this applies to you, then you may want to consider taking college-level courses during your senior year. Then you could continue your college education at that college after you graduate from high school, or you could transfer the credits to another college. Work with your high school guidance counselor to see if this would be a good option for you.

Considerations When Applying Early

If you are thinking about using the early application process, consider the following tips:

  • Sit down with your guidance counselor, who can explain the pros and cons of applying early to certain schools.
  • If you’re really interested in a particular school, contact that school well ahead of September to discuss its early application procedures and to see if applying early is the best option for you.
  • Ask yourself: Am I ready to make up my mind about where I want to go to college by October or November of my senior year? Will I be able to complete my applications, along with essays and recommendations, by late October or November?
  • Make sure you have thought about your career goals and whether the schools you are considering will help you reach those goals. For example, School A has an excellent journalism department, but School B has an outstanding mix of cultural and academic offerings. Our college search tool will help you find schools that may meet your needs.



Row of students in class with laptops

Remember: Early applications are not always first-come, first-admitted. And there are no “sure things,” so take the time to do your best on your applications. 

Application Tips

Here are some tips for completing college or career school applications:

  • Keep it real. Don’t exaggerate accomplishments or claim things that aren’t true.
  • Give letter-writers time. If you are asking teachers, coaches, or counselors for letters of recommendation, ask several weeks before the letters are due.
  • Beat the deadline. Reduce the chance your application will get lost in the shuffle: Submit it well before the deadline.
  • Apply online. It’s easier and faster.
  • Emphasize your uniqueness. Colleges like to have students with different viewpoints, backgrounds, and experiences. If you can add to that mix, let them know.
  • Keep it clean online. Don’t have anything on your social media pages that you wouldn’t want a college admissions officer to see.
  • Submit one application for many schools. Some colleges and universities share common online applications. Once you complete the application for one school, you can submit copies of it to other schools. It saves a lot of time. Learn more about The Common Application.
  • Protect your hard work by keeping complete copies of everything you send to each school.


Special Considerations

If You Are Homeschooled

Different colleges have different requirements for homeschooled students, so it’s important to talk to the admissions offices at the colleges or career schools you are considering to see if they have special application requirements for homeschooled students.

Most admissions offices will be interested in the level and intensity of the course work you have completed, and some may require a transcript of completed courses. Many colleges also find it useful to have a portfolio of your work. In addition to information such as grades and test scores, the portfolio might include

  • writing samples,
  • computer programming projects,
  • awards,
  • lists of books read, and
  • records of or information about volunteer work.

Service Member Readmission Requirements

Was your college enrollment interrupted when you were called to active duty? For information on returning to the college you previously attended, see the service member readmission FAQ for additional information on approaching your school when you’re ready to reenroll.