The college application process

Applying to college takes planning and effort, but if you start thinking ahead now and take the process step-by-step, you can avoid last-minute headaches and ensure you have several strong college options to choose from. You’ll want to start working on the application process in your junior year, so you have time to get everything together. Here are some of the steps you’ll need to take.

1. Narrow down your schools

Do some research to figure out which colleges might be strong options for you. Consider factors such as majors offered, academic requirements, scholarship opportunities, and distance from home. Most counselors recommend applying to between three and five colleges, but you may want to apply to fewer, or more. One common approach is to apply to one college where you are almost sure to be accepted, and several others that will be much more competitive.

2. Look at applications before you apply

Browse applications and admissions requirements for schools you’re interested in well before you start applying. This will give you an idea of what schools are looking for and let you see if you’re deficient in any areas that you might be able to improve on—like extracurricular activities, or test scores. Many applications also have essay questions they want you to respond to, and starting early will give you time to hone your responses. offers practice applications that you can access when you have a CFNC User Profile. Create your profile now, it’s free!

3. Line up recommendations

You may need to ask teachers, mentors or employers for recommendations to submit with your applications, so start thinking about people to ask early on. People who know your abilities and character well are good candidates, and of course, someone who works in your intended field of study would be an excellent choice. Make sure to request your recommendations several weeks before they’re due.

4. Decide if you want to apply for early admission

If you really want to attend a certain school and it’s difficult to get in, you may want to consider applying early decision. Early decision can give you an edge, but it is binding—you agree to attend if they accept you and you get enough financial aid. Alternately, you can apply to several colleges as early action, which is non-binding but gives you a decision sooner. The deadlines for both of these are usually in October or November of senior year, so decide on a plan in advance.

5. Take the tests

Many colleges require either the SAT or ACT. North Carolina community colleges require placement tests; they don’t require the SAT or ACT but check to see if they’ll accept an SAT or ACT instead of a placement test. Be sure you take the tests well before the application deadlines for your chosen schools. Don’t forget that early admissions deadlines are much sooner than regular admissions cutoffs, and give yourself plenty of time to retest if you don’t get a great score the first time. Early junior year is a good time to take the SAT or ACT test for the first time. If you are taking a community college placement test, it’s best to wait until your senior year in high school.

6. Start applying

Once you’ve done all your research it’s time to start actually applying. Most colleges allow you to apply on their website and submit everything electronically. Go to the admissions page of the college, and it will guide you to their chosen application(s). All 110 North Carolina colleges allow you to send your public North Carolina high school transcript electronically through, and most allow you to apply through It’s a good idea to finish your college research early so you can apply early in your senior year.

Good luck!