College Admissions 101: What You Don’t Know About the College Application Process

college application process

As a parent, I knew of the many milestones my children would face, from learning to walk and talk to navigating relationships and exams. One I was not prepared for was applying for college. The days when getting into college were a breeze are long gone; the applicant pool is far more competitive. Schools that admitted students with less than a B average years ago now often seek an average GPA above 4.0. Because of these higher stakes, many experts recommend applying to five to eight colleges. That makes for a lot of paperwork!

Unfortunately, many colleges utilize the Common App so that information can be entered only once. Research which colleges use this method and talk to admissions officers; some prefer students use the school’s application. The Common App opens on August 1, so your senior should be ready to apply at this time. If admitted early, they will have first dibs on housing, and scholarship offers will roll in to help you decide which school is the best value.

What can you do to help your child through this next milestone?

First, arm them with the knowledge of what to expect to see on a college application and how to make themselves stand out.


GPA: Colleges typically remove elective grades and add half a point to honors/full point to AP courses.
Honors/AP/IB Courses: Colleges love to see students who challenge themselves, even if grades are slightly lower.
Self-Reported Student Academic Record (SSAR): Most schools require this to enter courses and grades for recalculation; it can be completed once.

Test Scores

To Submit or Not to Submit? Many schools have dropped the testing requirement. If the score is high, submit. If not, consider leaving it out.
Which test? Take the SAT and ACT. Some excel in only one. The science covered in the ACT really tests reading comprehension, so strong readers may prefer it.
Test early! Test when geometry is completed, even if in middle school. These skills may be forgotten if you wait! Retest in junior year, so the reading score is at its best.
Register early! Sites fill quickly, and late fees are applied.
Study! Experts recommend starting 2-3 months before the test, 10-20 hours a week.
Test multiple times. Scores tend to improve after the first attempt, especially if students are studying. Complete testing by the end of junior year.
Superscore me! Best subject area scores are accepted by most schools.


Types: School clubs, internships, jobs, volunteering, babysitting, etc.
Number: Try for ten. It is wonderful to have an athlete or musician, but that one activity takes up one of the ten lines on the Common App.
It’s not too late! Even if it is junior year, encourage your student to get involved, especially with activities related to their intended major.
Volunteering: List multiple volunteer experiences. Go beyond the number of required hours!


Types: Local/national awards, honor societies, and other memberships
Number: Shoot for five.


Topic: Choose one of seven essay prompts on the Common App.
Optional Covid Question: Share the effects of the pandemic on grades, etc.
Supplementals: Additional writing is required by some schools. Personalize for each school; research and use observations from visits.
Time to Shine: Below average stats? Numbers do not give a full picture; personality, perseverance, and passion come through here.
Make it Personal: Lower GPA due to medical conditions or difficulties at home? Low scores because of anxiety? Schools know each student’s experience is unique; they will pay attention, so be sure to share.

The Cost of Applying

Test Registration: $55-60 for each attempt
Test Prep: Online $100-$2,800, in-person $800-$3,600, private tutors $1,600-$8,000.
Tips: Watch for free testing days at your child’s school. See if you qualify for a fee waiver. A book and index cards are not to be frowned upon! Search for free online resources (see below).
Application Costs: Average fee is $50, up to $100. Tips: Request fee waivers on the application or through the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). Watch for schools without fees and free registration weeks. Start filling out an application and wait; you may receive a fee waiver by email!

The Waiting Game

How long until we find out? Anywhere from days to months, the average wait time for rolling admissions is 4-6 weeks. Look for early action/decision deadlines to speed up the process (usually early Nov. or Dec.)

Don’t worry!

If your child doesn’t have top credentials, don’t be discouraged. There is a school for everyone, and a college’s average GPA is just that, an average. Utilize the school’s counselor for resources and advice. Speak with admissions officers in person if possible. Some will tell you activities aren’t as important to them as grades; some value the essay above all else. If your student isn’t aiming for a top-tier school, they don’t necessarily need to apply to several. Submit early, so there is time to apply to more if needed, but one may be enough if your child knows what they want and are aware of a college’s expectations.

Once your student has clicked that submit button, sit back, attempt to relax, and know you have done your job. Your not-so-little kiddo will reach that milestone and soon be ready to face the next one on their own.


Admissions Calculator/School Rankings:

GPA Calculator:

Free/Inexpensive Test Prep:

Charline Barger is a freelance writer who teaches high school English and Creative Writing. She also serves on the board of Emerald Coast Writers as Secretary and Youth Writers Contest Director. She lives in Pace, FL with her boyfriend, three children and a host of animals.


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