ic S/general/checkmark circled Thanks for subscribing! Be on the lookout for our next newsletter.
ic S/general/checkmark circled
Saved to My Favorites. View My Favorites

College Admissions FAQs


College Admissions FAQs

Find answers to these common questions about applying to college and join our live college search Community to ask your own questions!

Top 10 Questions You'll Encounter When Applying to College

1. How do I start making my college list?

Creating a college list is an important step in the college application process. A well thought-out college list helps you organize your options, clarify priorities, and develop a successful strategy for applying. The first step is to take some time to brainstorm what you’re looking for in a school. If you’re not sure, take out a piece of paper or open a blank document on your computer and start to freewrite. What do you want to study? What kind of campus vibe are you looking for? How far are you willing to go from home?

Once you have a clearer idea of what you're looking for, create a thread and ask the CC Community for ideas for schools that offer what you’re looking for and admit students with academic profiles similar to yours. Once you have a list of possible schools, research acceptance rate, requirements, cost, and more in the CC College Search tool. Click the heart button on each school’s profile to save your favorite schools to come back to later. Choose around 10-20 schools to start (you can narrow it down later!) and be sure to include a mix of reach, target and likely (or safety) schools. Make your list public and share the link with your family, friends, or high school counselor to get more feedback and ideas.

For more tips on building your list, visit our College List Builder Hub.

2. What's a safety school and how many do I need?

A “safety school” is a college or university that you are basically guaranteed to get into and can afford to attend. The number of college applications being submitted is on the rise, so choosing a few solid safeties, or “likely schools,” is more important than ever. Consider including at least one school that has guaranteed or open admissions policies, and another 1-2 schools where your grades, test scores, and other qualifications are significantly higher than the average students. Highly-selective schools should never be considered safeties, no matter how strong your application is. Even for top students, a truly likely school will accept at least 65 percent of its total applicants.

Not sure if you have the right safety schools on your list? Use our popular “Chance Me” feature to your college list and credentials with the CC community to get personalized feedback on your odds of getting in.

For more tips on how to choose likely schools, visit our College Admissions Hub.

3. Will applying early really help my chances of getting in?

The short answer to this question is–yes! Applying early can help your chances of getting admitted to a school, but only if you are a qualified applicant.

In recent years, students have started applying to more colleges and, as a result, schools have started admitting more and more applicants during early admissions rounds so that they can better plan for how many students will attending. Applying early signals to a school that you're really serious about attending, so if you have a clear first-choice school, you should definitely consider submitting an early application. But remember, early decision is binding, meaning you must attend if you are admitted. Early action, on the other hand, allows you to apply early without committing to attend.

Applying early? Visit our Early Admissions Hub to connect with other applicants and get answers to more common questions about Early Decision and Early Action.

4. Should I take the SAT or ACT even though so many schools are test-optional?

As more and more schools allow applicants to decide whether or not to submit their ACT or SAT scores, students are left with a dilemma. Does it make sense to study for and take the test, or should you just skip it? And if you do take the test, how do you decide whether or not to submit your scores with your application?

The answer to the first question is almost definitely, yes! Take one or both of the exams no later than the spring of your junior year. There’s no real harm in taking the exams, and taking them gives you the option of applying to schools that do require test scores (and there are many schools that still do!).

Whether or not you submit your scores to test-optional schools depends on a few factors, including:

  1. How well you did on the exam compared to other applicants to the same schools
  2. How well you did compared to other students at your high school
  3. How strong your GPA is
  4. If you’re hoping to be considered for merit aid

If your test scores are above average scores for the schools that you’re applying to, submitting your scores will probably only increase your chances, especially if your GPA and other credentials are at or below a school’s average. Ask your high school counselor how your scores compare to other students at your school. If you did better, you may want to submit scores because colleges will be able to see that you did better than other students who presumably had similar test prep resources. Last but not least, research whether the schools you’re applying to look at test scores when considering merit aid. If they do, you most likely will want to submit your scores.

Learn more about preparing for and taking admissions tests in our Admissions Prep Hub, or ask your questions in the Test Prep section of the CC Community.

5. Will attending a summer program at a college increase my chances of getting in?

Doing well in a highly-regarded summer program may enhance your college application, but it’s not a surefire way to increase your odds of getting into a specific college. It is a great way to get a feel for what life is like on a college campus, and gain insight into the kind of campus vibe, size, and location you’re looking for though.

If you do attend a summer program at a school that you end up applying to, be sure to mention it in your “Why This College” essay. Go into detail about exactly what you loved about their college while you were there and how the program made you want to spend four years at that school. Having attended a summer program might not be enough of a reason for the admissions committee to let you in, but if you’re a strong applicant, a strong “Why This College” essay can be the difference between being accepted or denied.

Learn more about summer programs in the CC Community or apply to a program through our friends at SummerApply.

6. What if I don’t have 10 different activities to put on the Common App?

The Common App has ten spaces for applications to fill out their activities, but that doesn’t mean that you have to use all of them! Most schools strongly prefer that students include only the clubs, sports, jobs and volunteer work that they were heavily involved in rather than listing off every single thing they ever did. Some schools have even lowered the number of activities that students can include. Lafayette College recently announced that they will only allow students to list six activities on their application.

It’s worth noting that if you don’t have a lot of activities to include on your application because you were caring for siblings or other family members after school or helping out in a family business, be sure to mention this! Colleges aren’t just looking for an impressive list of teams and clubs. They want to get a sense of who you are and how you spend your time outside of school, so highlight anything you did in your free time that may have prevented you from taking on as many school-related activities as other applicants.

Find out more about application strategy in our College Admissions Hub or in the Applying to College section of the Community.

7. How do I write a good college essay?

The college essay is your chance to give the admissions committee a glimpse into who you are and how you approach the world. Many people think that the point of the essay is to show off how well you can write, and strong writing definitely can help make an essay great! But the quality of the writing is NOT the most important part of the essay. Your college essay is your shot to give colleges a glimpse into who you are and how you approach the world. A great college essay responds to the essay prompt with a specific story, anecdote, or example that illustrates your values, strengths, and goals. So before you worry about what you want to write about in your essay, take some time to think about what you want your essay to convey about you. Once you know what you want colleges to take away, you can start to think about specific stories or anecdotes that bring to life whatever it is you want them to know about you.

Need help writing your essay? For more tips and to see real college essays that got students in, check out our College Essay Hub. Once you have a solid first draft, submit it to get FREE personalized feedback from one of the CC Community’s experienced essay reviewers.

8. How do I prepare for a college visit?

College visits can go fast, and taking some time to prepare for them can help you and your family make the most out of your short time on campus. Before you go, research the college and its surrounding area. Make a note of anything that you definitely want to see during your visit. If possible, block out some free time after your tour so that if your tour guide doesn’t show you all of your must-sees, you can visit them yourself. You may also want to reach out to admissions before your visit to schedule an alumni interview, arrange to meet or even stay overnight with a current student, or find out how to attend specific club meetings or team practices. Be careful not to overbook yourself while you’re on campus though. Be sure to take some time to just sit back, observe, and try to picture yourself as a student there.

Getting ready to visit colleges? Visit our Campus Visit Hub for more insights on prepping for your college visits and to see the CC Community’s recommendation for what to see and where to eat, sleep and unwind during your visit. If you don’t see a thread for the colleges on your list, start one to get personalized recommendations from people who have been there before!

9. What is a Net Price Calculator and how do I use one?

Since 2011, colleges have been required to provide a net price calculator on their official website to help prospective students and their families get a better idea of the actual cost of attendance. Net cost is calculated by looking at a family’s basic financial situation and then subtracting a student's estimated scholarships, grants and any other aid that won’t need to be paid back from the “sticker price” of tuition, fees, room and board. Loans are not subtracted from the sticker price because they will need to be paid back.

At University of Chicago, for instance, the total cost for tuition, fees, room and board for an on-campus student is around $85,000. That number may seem daunting until you discover that the average financial aid package awarded to first-year students with demonstrated need was around $63,000. So for some students, the actual cost of attending UChicago might be closer to $23,000, or even less. That probably sounds a lot better than $85,000! It is important to note that net price calculators give families an estimate of what the total cost could be. You won’t know the actual cost until you fill out the FAFSA, get accepted, and receive your financial aid award package.

When researching schools in the CC College Search, you can see information about a schools sticker price, average financial aid packages and more on the Tuition & Aid tab of school profiles. Follow the links on the bottom of that Tuition & Aid page to go directly to a school’s financial aid website to calculate the net cost for you to attend.

Learn more in our Paying for College Hub or ask the CC Community to weigh in on your most pressing college-financing questions.

10. How can I use the Common Data Set to research schools?

Each year, almost every college and university in the United States releases their data from the year before into something called the Common Data Set (CDS). The CDS is a great tool for prospective students to research and compare colleges because it includes key statistics like acceptance rate and deadlines, as well as insights on programs offered, housing options and retention, (i.e. how many students return year after year).

The Common Data set can even be used to find out more about what is most important to the admissions committees at specific schools. For instance, if you take a look at the admissions tab on NYU’s College Confidential profile you can scroll down to see how heavily they consider various admissions factors like GPA, extracurriculars, demonstrated interest and more.

College Confidential uses CDS data in all of our 3000+ school profiles. Search schools by state, GPA or other factors, and save your favorites all in one easy-to-share place. Then, share your list with friends, family, and the CC Community for feedback and more suggestions for schools that would be a good fit for you.