A step-by-step guide through the college admissions process
Step 1: Narrow it down.
One of the hardest parts about applying to college is realizing how many schools are out there. We recommend starting out by making a list of the towns and cities where you’d enjoy living (for two to four-plus years), careers you’re interested in, your budget, your goals for securing financial aid and the extracurriculars that interest you.
For example: Let’s say you’re from a small town and have always wanted to live in a bigger city; you enjoy being outdoors on the weekends; you’re considering a career in engineering; and college athletics are important to you. Then, the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville or Arkansas State University in Jonesboro would be great schools to apply to.
On the flip side, if you’re more comfortable living close to home and trying to get through college as fast (and cheap) as possible, then one of Arkansas’ nearby two-year colleges might be perfect.
Step 2: Tour schools & attend college fairs.
Many high schools offer college tour days during your junior and senior years. These days allow you to tour the colleges of your choice without hurting your high school attendance. A recruitment officer or college student will then give you either a private tour or you’ll join a tour group.
Many high schools even host college fairs for students where you can meet recruiters. Go. Stop by each booth. Pick up all the brochures. Talk to the recruiters. Ask them a million questions (especially as it relates to scholarships and financial aid offered).
“Investigate all your options to keep your cost of attendance low, and make sure the universities you are working with are making all those options available,” said Bill Smith, chief communications officer at Arkansas State University. “Take time to consider if they offer flexible scheduling, including online courses, that work around your needs—especially if working and attending college at the same time.”
Step 3: Monitor your GPA & track test scores.
It’s important to make sure your GPA is up to par with the colleges and universities you’re applying to. Don’t assume GPA requirements are the same for all Arkansas schools. They’re not. In fact, neither are their ACT or SAT score requirements. You must look these up!
For example, Arkansas State University adopted a new admissions policy that places more emphasis on what a student has accomplished over their four years in high school, rather than what happens during a three-hour exam.
“ASU [offers] an ‘or’ admission standard where, if a student meets one of our three criteria, they can achieve unrestricted admission,” Smith said. “It’s a 3.0 high school GPA, a [score of] 19 on the ACT or [you must] graduate in the top 20 percent of your class.”
GPA and test score requirements for each school are available now—you can find them beginning on page 192. The earlier you know what’s required, the sooner you can practice, re-test or try to bring up your GPA. Requirements change annually, so continue checking and make sure your scores and grades are on track.
Step 4: Application deadlines—mark your calendar!
During the fall semester of your senior year, it’s time to apply to schools. As that semester approaches, go ahead and determine the application deadlines at your colleges of choice and mark your calendars.
Regular-decision deadlines are usually between November and February, but are most commonly in January. Applicants will often hear back by March or April.
If you're considering applying for early decision, early action or early evaluation, your dates will be, well, earlier. And even if you're applying for regular decision, submitting your application(s) early never hurts!
Step 5: Do the paperwork.
Every application is different but most require standard things like personal information, an essay, letters of recommendation, high school transcripts and test scores. Sometimes a resume is helpful to demonstrate student involvement and extracurriculars. Determine what paperwork you need to complete by visiting the admissions tab on the websites of the colleges you're considering—or speak with your guidance counselor or a college admissions counselor.
Next, get to filling it all out, organizing it and proofreading it. Then, ask a trusted adult to check behind you to make sure you didn’t miss anything and to look for errors.
Four Key Components of a College App
- Personal information
- High school transcripts
- ACT or SAT test scores
- Letters of recommendation
+ Important Add-Ons
- Financial aid and scholarship apps
Step 6: Don’t forget financial aid.
Usually, a portion of your college application paperwork includes financial aid and scholarship applications, and these are hugely important. Whether you think you’ll qualify or not, FILL IT OUT!
For example, every Hendrix College student receives some form of financial assistance, and last year, the average financial aid package from John Brown University for incoming students was more than $16,000. Not to mention, the Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship is open to ALL Arkansas students, and the FAFSA and YOUniversal Scholarship app are two crucial financial aid applications that anyone can complete (and should!).
Call each school's financial aid office for more information.
“The University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton Financial Aid office has an assistance lab where qualified staff members are eager to guide students through the process of applying for financial aid,” said Mary Clark, UACCM director of marketing and public relations. “[We] strive to be accessible to as many individuals as possible.”
Step 7: Pay the fees.
There is no standard college application fee, but the schools you are applying to will let you know what you owe for applying (visit their website or call the admissions office).
If you’re applying to multiple schools, the fees add up and it gets expensive, which is why we recommend narrowing down your list of colleges as much as possible.
According to US News & World Report’s annual survey of more than 800 colleges, the average application fee was about $45.
Step 8: Submit (and wait).
After you complete steps one-to-seven, it’s time to submit your application packets via snail mail or online (again, check your schools’ requirements). Then, sit back and wait. Better yet, stay busy keeping your grades up and enjoying your senior year. Good news is on the way!
Step 9: Celebrate your acceptance!
See? That really wasn’t so bad! Happy mail is pouring in from your colleges of choice and now you have to make a decision. When you’re ready, notify the school you pick of your decision to accept. Next up, it’s time to celebrate and plan for graduation. The hard part is over (that is, unless you still need to decide on a major, but we have great ideas for that on page 200).
YOUR ADMISSIONS ALLY
Every college or university has an admissions counselor. Contact them. Ask them about their school’s application process and deadlines, and ask for deadlines and details on scholarship and financial aid too. These counselors are there to help you; take advantage of this tool!
WAYS TO SAVE
Application fees are often waived when you commit to a college tour, apply early, if you're the child of alumni (legacy), or if you apply at a college with no application fee.
WORRIED ABOUT TESTING?
Do as much practice testing and tutoring as you can to prepare for the ACT or SAT. Plus, you can take these tests more than once to improve your score.
Seven terms used in the admissions process that no one ever explains—until now!
1. Regular admission: Applications are accepted during a window of time (usually in the winter); all applications are reviewed and compared before acceptance (or rejection)letters are sent out.
2. Rolling admission: Students can apply anytime before an admissions deadline, and applications are reviewed as they’re received. Think first come, first served. Late applicants are at a disadvantage.
3. Open admission: Any student who applies and meets the school’s requirements will get in.
4. Early decision: You can apply early and applications are considered before those received during the regular admissions window. HOWEVER, you MUST attend the school if accepted, and you can’t apply elsewhere until the school accepts or rejects you.
5. Early action: Like early decision, but you do not have to attend the school if accepted, and you do not have to wait to apply to other schools.
6. Early evaluation: This is cool! You can apply early and ask that your materials be reviewed by the college. The school then reports back with your chances of acceptance (fair, good or poor). This intel allows you to keep applying, or rest easy.
7. Deferred admission: Gap year, anyone? You go through the school’s admissions process but can defer for one year. For example, if you got accepted for the 2023-24 school year, you could defer to 2024-25 instead.