College Application Process: Important Things to Look For

Last updated: Feb 17, 2021

The college application process can be daunting, confusing, and even frustrating, but it doesn’t have to be! As the saying goes, “knowledge is power” and the more research and organization you do, the more prepared you will be to conquer the applications and meet the deadlines.

As an Admissions Recruiter Advisor, I am often asked to share what I feel are the most important college application questions and topics to research during the process. Below are some of the important college application process questions and resources I encourage families to utilize:

Attend a College Night and College Information Session

Some high schools offer a “college night” event for juniors and seniors that is led by the high school counselors. It can be a great opportunity to begin hearing about the college application process and the lingo associated with applying.

USF Admissions recruiters often participate in these college preview events and highlight our application process and deadlines. College information sessions are offered mainly in the fall term by the post-secondary (college/university) admissions recruiters. These information sessions are a prime opportunity to ask colleges and universities specific questions and hear about that institution’s specific application process and deadlines.

Student looking up important things to look for in the college application process on his laptop.

Listen for the Lingo

As Admissions Recruiters, we tend to use lingo and terms that aren’t as commonly known by families and students during the application process. Here are a few terms to note:

Common Application: The Common Application is an online college application platform utilized by about 900 colleges and universities globally. If there are post-secondary institutions you are interested in applying to on this application, you can utilize the Common Application. The benefit to this application is that you don’t have to type your background information, such as high school information and extracurriculars, repeatedly. Once you complete this information, it remains on the application.

The only additional items you may have to complete would be specific to the university. For example, residency information for tuition purposes (if you are an in-state student) is something you would complete for USF. The other benefit to the Common Application is that it offers essay prompts that you can complete and send to colleges and universities that require or recommend it. Currently, the Common Application platform has been utilized by a million students!

Coalition Application: The Coalition Application is a similar online college application platform to the Common Application, and there are currently about 150 colleges and universities that use it. However, the Coalition Application extends invitations of membership to specific colleges and universities that meet specific criteria for who they serve and support.

Per the Coalition membership criteria, “Coalition member colleges and universities must provide substantial support to lower-income, under-resourced and/or first-generation students; offer responsible student financial aid; and demonstrate a commitment to student graduation.” If you are a first-generation student or come from an under-represented community, you may want to consider checking out the Coalition Application and its resources.

University Application: Some colleges and universities utilize their own application. It is crucial that you do your research to see which institutions use their own applications and which are on application platforms. For example, USF has its own university application for first-time-in-college students (freshman) and transfer students. However, USF is also on the Coalition and Common Application platforms, though it’s worth noting that our institution does not have a preference on which application is utilized during the application process.

FAFSA: The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is used by students and families to apply for financial aid. The federal government then uses the FAFSA information to determine if federal aid can be provided for the student’s education. This aid could be in the form of federal grants or federal loans.

FAFSA is also utilized by colleges and universities to determine if institutional aid can be provided for the student’s education. Some colleges and universities require FAFSA for admission, while some strongly encourage it. Even if a family is doubtful of their FAFSA eligibility, it is always encouraged that they complete it anyway. FAFSA generally allows a student to send their information to up to 10 colleges/universities.

SAT/ ACT: It is important to know if the colleges and universities you are applying to require the SAT, ACT, or both. USF does require the SAT or ACT, but we do not have a preference which test is submitted. USF also superscores SAT or ACT scores. You should note if the institutions you are applying to superscore, as that may help you determine how many times you plan to test. It is also important to know when each of the tests are being offered, the registration deadline for each of the exams, and whether your high school is a testing center that will be offering an SAT or ACT exam.

Additionally, you should check on your SAT or ACT account to see if you qualify for a testing fee waiver, which is based on economic status. If you qualify for a testing fee waiver, you may be eligible for college application fee waivers as well. USF accepts college application fee waivers, but it is important to know whether other colleges/universities accept this fee waiver before applying.

Recalculated GPA: It is important to note if the colleges and universities you are applying to recalculate your GPA and how they may do that. USF does recalculate GPAs, but institutions can perform their recalculations differently, so it’s a good idea to understand how each school does theirs.

Create a Timeline and Organize!

If you haven’t already gathered, there can be a lot of moving parts to the college application process. Organization is key to making sure you don’t miss requirements or deadlines, which is why I encourage my students and families to create a timeline on the important dates and deadlines. For example, a timeline should include several important milestones:

  • Registration deadlines for the SAT/ACT exams you plan to take
  • Dates of each SAT/ACT exam
  • Dates that the college/university applications become available
  • Dates you plan to complete your Common Application and/or Coalition Application
  • Deadline to submit FAFSA to the colleges/universities you are applying to join
 

I also strongly encourage creating a list of each institution you are applying to attend, what they require, and the deadline for each. Once you have applied, you can take your list a step further by adding the university student portal you would use to check the status of your application.

For example, your USF application list may look like this:

  • University Application (opens July 1) but is also available on Common Application and Coalition Application around August.
  • Application Fee of $30 or Fee Waiver
    • I need to check if I am eligible for a fee waiver. If I qualify for an SAT/ACT fee waiver, I am likely eligible for a college fee waiver.
  • Requirements to Apply:
    • Official SAT or ACT scores
    • Official High School Transcript
    • FAFSA (strongly encouraged)
  • OASIS Student Portal (to check application status)
 

Student writing down important things to look for in the college application process.

Research, Have Options, and Pay Attention to Details

Most colleges and universities have detailed websites, though it may take some strong sleuth skills to find everything you need to know. For example, if you are looking for something specific, such as Greek life organizations, try to search it for yourself online by typing “Greek Organizations” into your search engine.

When you are just beginning the college search process, create a list with your “must-have” criteria, and then ask yourself questions to determine if an institution will offer what you need:

  • Would you thrive at a small, medium, or large university setting?
  • Do you know what you want to study, or do you need a post-secondary institution that offers a little of everything?
  • Do you need to be nearby a city, or do you prefer a rural setting?
  • Do you know your family’s ability to pay for college?
  • Do you have a budget for your college education?
  • Are there specific clubs and organizations you want?
  • Will you be staying local, or is going a couple hours away or out of state an option for you?
 

Even after answering these questions, there will still most likely be many colleges and universities for you to choose from, so it can be an overwhelming decision. During my college search, Fiske College Guide provided a brief description of many of the colleges and universities that helped me narrow down my search.

Lastly, pay attention to details, particularly application requirements, deadlines, and how you complete your application. While the college application process may seem like it requires a lot more effort than it should, choosing your college or university is one of the biggest decisions you will make in your adult life, so it’s important to ensure you make the best choice.

I encourage you to use all resources at your disposal: ask your high school counselor for guidance, use your local library or bookstore for college guides, attend college information sessions, attend college nights (if they are offered), and reach out to admissions recruiters for more details. Remember, you’re never alone when you’re working through the college application process. No matter how confusing or daunting it may seem, help is usually just a click or call away!