Demystifying the College Application Process

Often described as a pinnacle of one’s high school career, the college application is no doubt a stressful, intimidating, and confusing process. As the days fly by, the college application process gets closer, and before you know it, you’re filling out Common App, Coalition, or QuestBridge.

If you are confused just as much as I was before I began the college application process, read along as I demystify this stressful moment that takes place in all students’ high school careers.

Standardized Testing

Everybody knows what the SAT and ACT are. These are standardized tests that are scored out of 1600 and 36, respectively. These tests are split into sections, with SAT being math and English, and ACT being reading, grammar, math, and science. After the pandemic, many (but not all) universities adopted a Test-Optional policy for standardized testing. This means that these schools do not require standardized testing scores but will consider them if you decide to send them. A few select schools have even adopted a Test-Blind policy, meaning that they do not consider test scores at all in their application. A few examples of these are the University of California schools, and the School of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University. It is often recommended to take standardized tests at least once to see how you perform. Top schools, such as the Ivies, Stanford, MIT, Northwestern, Duke, and more have an SAT range of ~1500-1570 and ACT range of 33-35 for their students.


Next, is the use of Naviance. At Wheatley, we are usually introduced to Naviance in our sophomore year. Some of its main components are its resume builder, career cluster finder, and college research resource. In the resume builder, you can add your activities and awards throughout high school to keep track of things you would like to include in your college application. Career cluster finder and college research is for finding the jobs and colleges that are the best fit for you. Arguably the most important part of Naviance, however, is the teacher recommendations. After asking a few teachers to provide you with letters of recommendation, you have to invite these teachers through Naviance to submit a letter of recommendation on your behalf.

Personal Statement

Next, let’s talk about the Personal Essay/Statement! The personal essay is limited to 650 words and is required for almost every university. This essay is a chance for you to tell your story. Oftentimes, applicants include events in their lives that have contributed to their development of ideas, personality, and career aspirations. This is one of the most important parts of an application, as it humanizes your application and gives a college the opportunity to understand who you are and why you’ve done what you’ve done. This is an opportunity for personality to shine and make you stand out from other applicants.

Common App and Admission Plans

Now, I’ll go over the use of CommonApp. This is one of the portals used for submitting applications to your colleges. A majority of schools use the Common App, but some schools use their own portal, such as the UCs and MIT. In the Common App, you’ll spend the most time in the Dashboard and Common App tabs. The first thing you’ll do in the Common App is add the colleges you are interested in applying to. Once you do that, you can decide your Admission plan for each school. Admission plans include Early Action, Restricted Early Action, Early Decision, and Regular decision.

Here’s a quick rundown of each:

  1. Early Action (EA):
    1. Submit your application at an earlier deadline. Common deadlines for Early Action are November 1st, and November 15th, but vary between schools. You receive an admissions decision at an earlier time as well, usually near beginning to mid January. This is not binding, meaning, if you get in, you aren’t required to attend this school. Universities that offer Early Action include University of Michigan, University of Virginia, Stonybrook, Binghamton, and more.
  2. Restricted Early Action (REA):
    1. Similar to EA, you submit an application at an earlier deadline, typically November 1st. Restricted early action is not binding. However, under an REA plan, you are not allowed to EA to other private universities. You may still EA to public universities under REA. 
  3. Early Decision (ED):
    1. ED is also submitted at an earlier deadline, typically November 1st. You may only Early Decision to one school. Early Decision is binding, meaning you must attend this university if you are accepted. ED is reserved for universities you are sure you want to attend if admitted. ED decisions typically come out around Mid-December.
  4. Regular Decision (RD):
    1. Regular decision is the typical admission plan. Almost all schools offer regular decisions, and there aren’t restrictions like the other admission plans. Most RD applications are due mid November to early January, and typically come out towards the springtime. You may apply to as many schools as you would like through regular decisions.

Deciding admissions plans don’t have to be completed until these applications are due. However, deciding early may help you prioritize which supplemental essays you should be writing first. For example, EA, ED, and REA take priority for most students as they have the earliest deadlines.

Supplemental Essays

Speaking of supplemental essays, what are they?

Supplemental essays are usually shorter essays that are unique to each university. These essays can vary from 3 words, such as Brown’s famous “Describe yourself in 3 words” essay, to 650 words, such as Cornell’s essay about Ezra Cornell teaching every person, every subject. Each supplemental essay has a prompt given by the university that provides admissions with a better idea of who you are as a person.


Finally, I’ll go over the activities section. In the CommonApp, you may include up to 10 unique activities that you’ve participated in throughout your high school career. You may include whatever things are meaningful to you, along with a short, 150-character explanation. Activities can range from leadership positions, club participation, volunteering, research, and athletics, to taking care of your siblings or ill family members. These activities tell the story of what you’ve cared about throughout your high school years and the ways you’ve made an impact on your community.

My Advice

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! You now have a general idea of how the college application process will unfold. Of course, there are many more things that go into college applications, such as financial aid, personal information, interviews, and college visits. However, it may be a bit much to include in one single article.

I have one single piece of advice that I have stuck by throughout this whole experience, which has led me to be generally stress-free while applying to a total of 21 universities.

If you’ve procrastinated a lot in high school, let college applications be the one thing you don’t procrastinate for. After all, you’ve procrastinated to lead up to college applications, so put your best foot forward. Start early. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail! Best of luck!

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