College Application Checklist

Whether you’re a high school senior or the parent of a high school senior, fall is the time to work on college applications. Since the process is complex, knowing what to do, what you’ll need, and when to complete your applications is key to a less stressful experience. This college application checklist is designed to simplify the process and help your child not only complete their applications on time, but to make sure nothing is forgotten.

1. Record Dates and Deadlines

Before your student begins filling out applications and financial aid forms, they should make a list of all the important dates they need to know, starting with college application deadlines. While most schools follow similar time frames for early and regular applications, it’s essential to get the exact dates for each school you’re considering.

Regular Decision/Early Decision/Early Action

Many universities have multiple admissions deadlines to be aware of. For example, along with the regular decision application deadline, there may be earlier dates for Early Decision (ED) or Early Action (EA). If your child wants to apply ED or EA, schedule enough time for them to have their application completed before the deadline.

Rolling Admissions

Other schools use a rolling admissions process. Rather than having a date when all applications are due, these schools have a window of time when they accept applications. Your student can apply anytime when the window is open, but earlier is generally better. Most schools with rolling admissions make their acceptance decisions on a first-come, first-served basis.

Standardized Tests/Admissions Tests

Other important dates to think about are standardized testing days if your student needs to take or retake the SAT or ACT. Some colleges require prospective students to take an admissions test. If your student is applying to one of these schools, note the deadline for taking the test.

Financial Aid Dates

Another critical date you’ll want to remember is the opening of the FAFSA (or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid). The FAFSA opens every year on October 1st and it’s critical that you remember to apply for financial aid early. Financial aid is often distributed on a first-come, first-served basis and it’s usually better to apply earlier rather than later. Check out this guide to completing the FAFSA.

2. Make Important Decisions and Requests

When to Apply

Once your student has an organized list of all the important deadlines, the next step in the college application checklist is to start making decisions. One of the first things to consider is whether your child wants to apply Early Decision to any school. Remember that applying early decision may significantly improve the odds of admission, but this sort of application requires a commitment. If your student’s ED application is accepted, they must attend that school.

Early Action (EA) is a good alternative to early decision for some students. This can still allow your child to get an early admissions decision, but it’s not a commitment to attend. It’s important to have a very strong application when applying EA, so make sure your student has enough time to create a compelling packet.

Letters and Transcripts

Once your child has decided where to apply and what type of application to submit (early decision, early action, regular, or rolling), it’s time to request any necessary documentation, such as recommendation letters from teachers. Your student will need to ask their school to send transcripts to each college they’re applying to. For some rolling admissions windows, a midyear grade report may also need to be sent.

3. Gather Financial Information

If you plan to apply for financial aid, you’ll need to gather information to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. Some states and colleges use the FAFSA to award financial aid and have different deadlines than the federal deadline.

Filling out the FAFSA is easiest if you already have all the documentation ready. You won’t need to mail these records to the government, but you will need to provide the information in the online application. These are some of the documents you may need:

  • Social Security number
  • Driver’s license
  • Tax returns
  • Documentation for untaxed income, such as interest, child support, and veterans’ noneducation benefits
  • Financial asset information: cash, bank account balances, investments, and business assets

If your child is a dependent, you’ll need to include your Social Security number and financial details: assets, tax returns, and income. Students who aren’t U.S. citizens must provide their Alien Registration numbers.

Once you’ve completed the FAFSA, check with the financial aid office to see if any additional financial aid paperwork like the CSS Profile is required.

4. Submit Test Scores

The next step in your college applications checklist is sending test scores. If your student took the ACT or SAT during their junior year, they may already have the scores available for submission. However, many students decide to retake the tests during the fall of their senior year of high school. In this case, make sure to choose a testing day that’s early enough to get the scores before the application deadline.

If your student has taken the ACT or SAT, and the colleges they’re considering applying to are test optional, they might want to evaluate whether sending their scores to those schools will be to their best advantage.

5. Write Supplemental Essays

In addition to the personal common application essay, many schools require that you write what are known as supplemental essays. Some colleges also give you the option to submit them. Experts say that one of the most common application mistakes students make is not providing supplemental essays. Even if they’re optional, submitting essays is a good indication that your child is taking their application seriously.

Another common mistake many students make is writing a generic essay. A memorable college essay is one that is unique to the student with personal details and stories. By starting the writing process early, students have enough time to craft and perfect standout essays.

6. Complete College Applications & Double Check Work

With all the documentation ready and personal essays written, it’s time to fill out and submit college applications. If your student is applying to any schools that accept the Common App, they’ll be able to save time over submitting multiple (and different) applications. The Common Application should include a resume, supplemental essay, and a clear list of activities.

Before submitting any application, your student should go over it thoroughly to check for errors, typos, and misused words. Make sure they have supplied an email address that is straightforward–just their name or initials, etc. (nothing inappropriate or too childish), and that all contact information is correct. It’s also important to agree to the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) waiver. Not doing so can make an applicant stand out for the wrong reasons.


Ask your student to contact each school about a month after submitting applications or well before the application deadline to make sure their packet is complete, and that the school has received all test scores, transcripts, recommendation letters, and financial aid information.

Summary: The Essentials

Filling out applications can seem like an overwhelming process, but it’s fairly straightforward with a college application checklist to follow. As you and your child get ready to submit college applications, start by creating a list of essential dates to remember, such as deadlines for Early Decision, regular decision, and financial aid. Use these dates to know when to request recommendation letters and transcripts.

Gather all the necessary financial documents you’ll need before filling out the FAFSA form. It’s also a good idea for students to start writing their personal essays as soon as possible so there’s time to edit and improve them. Finally, before they submit each application, your student should take the time to verify all information and check for errors.


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