How the College Admissions Process Works

What, When and Then What?

Mixed race student using laptop on campus
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Despite the hysteria surrounding college admissions and the beastly amount of paperwork, the process itself is fairly straightforward. So before you get swept up in that panic, or fall prey to the marketing campaigns that fuel the multi-billion dollar college prep industry, here’s a broad overview of how the process works, what you should be doing and when:

High School - Freshman Year

When people say the college application process starts a freshman or sophomore year of high school – or worse, with pre-PSATs in seventh grade or pre-pre-PSATs in kindergarten - don’t fret.

What they mean are high school grades and coursework count. And some requirements – math and English, for example - can only be fulfilled by starting the freshman or sophomore year. As long as your child takes four or, preferably, five serious academic courses each year, he’ll be fine. He needs to end up with four years of English, three or four of math, two science, three history, two years of a foreign language and, depending on the college, a year of visual or performing arts. The rest of his schedule can be filled with things he enjoys, whether it’s wood shop, music or more of any of the above courses. If he's aiming for a very competitive college, advanced placement courses should be on his list.

The College List

In order to apply to college, your child will need a list of 8 to 10 universities that are good fits for him: places he really likes, and where he stands a good chance of getting in.

Some families hire college consultants to help them compile the list, but with a laptop and a few hours of free time, your child can do the same thing for himself for free. So the junior year is an excellent time to start researching possibilities, hit a college fair and make a few college visits – all while keeping a tight rein on reality.

This “DIY College Admissions Advice” guide will help your family compile that list and provide your own reality check.

The Exams 

Although hundreds of college have gotten off the SAT train, most still require the SAT or ACT exam for entry. Your child should take one of these exams a junior year, so there's still time to retake it in the fall, if necessary. If he opts to take a test prep course, take it in the weeks immediately prior to the exam date, not the summer before. Some schools also require the SAT II.

The Essays

The summer between junior and senior year is a good time for your child to start mulling college essay topics and writing drafts. Take a sneak peek at the Common Application, a basic application used by hundreds of colleges, and which includes some of the most common essay topics.

The Application

Fall of senior year is college application season – and yes, it quickly degenerates into a stressful haze of paperwork, spreadsheets, and parental nagging. He will need to keep close tabs on which schools require what – essays, supplemental materials, test scores, transcripts and recommendations - and when.

It helps to remember that this is your child’s process and his decision. He needs to own the process. Your role as a parent is equal parts cheerleader, cookie-supplier and sounding board. Also, number one nag, as deadlines loom. But the application, essays, and ultimate decision are his.

The Wait 

Most college applications are due between mid-November and January 10. Early decision and early action apps are due in early Fall - and decisions come back around the winter holidays - and rolling admissions rewards early birds with early replies. But for most students, once the paperwork is in, you’re in for a long wait. Most college acceptances arrive in March and early April. Your child should use the time to make sure every last piece of paperwork, including teacher recommendations, was submitted, fill out financial aid paperwork (in January) and keep his grades up. Colleges can and do rescind the acceptances of senioritis-struck students.

The Decision

Good news arrives via fat packages and thin envelopes, e-mail and even text messages these days. And it often comes with an invitation to Admit Day, an open house for newly accepted freshmen. Now comes decision time. Your child must notify the school of his choice by the deadline, typically May 1, in writing and with a deposit check. He also needs to notify any other schools that accepted him that he will not be attending – if he thinks that’s an unnecessary step, remind him that it’s not just a courtesy to admissions officers at those schools, it’s a kindness to the kids languishing on waiting lists. And after you’re done celebrating, it will be time to move on to Paperwork Round #2: final transcripts, housing applications, health forms and on and on.