There are thousands of colleges in the U.S. Which one will you attend?
There are thousands of colleges in the U.S. Which one will you attend?

The Class of 2021’s Guide to Applying to College

Applying to college is overwhelming. However, your Class of 2021 has been there!

May 4, 2021

Take it from us seniors: The college admission process is overwhelming. Searching for schools, writing your essays, hitting “submit”… it seems so simple, but yet it’s so much. Here’s some advice from seniors on the other side of the process.

First, you need to know where you might fit in. If you want a big-school experience with college sports, it doesn’t make too much sense to attend a smaller, liberal-arts school. This brings us to our first point…

Big School, Small School, or Somewhere in Between?

First, take this quiz to get an idea of where you might fit in.

Next, take a look at some general info about each school type. You’ll get vastly different experiences at each one, so it’s important to know where you might fit in!

Small colleges usually have less than 5,000 students. They usually have strong advising systems, more personalized learning opportunities, and an intimate college experience. If you want to be in a tightly-knit community and know many people in your class, consider a smaller setting! Stevens, Lafayette, Brandeis, and Colgate are some smaller schools.

Larger schools might give you more variety, though. You might see yourself attending a larger school with lots of research, vibrant sports games, and hundreds of clubs. In this case, a school with tens of thousands of students might be best for you! Rutgers, Penn State, Michigan, Maryland, and NYU are some examples.

However, there’s an “in-between.” You might want the resources of a larger school, but you also may not want to be in a huge crowd of students. Consider a medium-sized school (with 5,000 to 15,000 students) if this feels like you! Ramapo College, TCNJ, Boston College, and Tufts are some medium-sized schools.

Side note: It’s important that you have a balanced list–make sure you’ll be happy at ALL the schools you apply to. They should be good academic, personal, and financial fits for you.

Applying: The Process

A screenshot of Common App–you can access it by going to

Here we go–once you’ve got a list of schools, you’re ready to apply! There are two main applications: Common App and Coalition App. Common App is more popular, although some colleges use one or the other. Other colleges have their own forms. As an example, Rutgers uses Coalition App and their own application.

First, check your deadlines–some might be as early as October or November. If you’re ready, applying Early Action or Early Decision might be a way for you to avoid the stress of applying later. If you’re admitted, you don’t have to wonder if you got into college. If you feel your application would be stronger with more time, though, you should apply in later rounds.

Early Action is non-binding, so you can commit to other colleges if you choose to. However, you’ll have to withdraw all applications if you get into a school through Early Decision. You also can’t compare financial aid offers, and you can only decline admission if you can’t afford to go. For that reason, you should think carefully before applying this way!

For the FAFSA (the federal student aid application), you should submit as soon as possible since some aid is first-come, first-serve. Check this Bear Hub article from 2019 for instructions on how to fill it out. For many private colleges, you’ll also be asked to fill out a CSS Profile. It goes in much more depth than the FAFSA and allows you to explain any special circumstances related to your financial situation.

Good luck! Later sections will have more info on some of the application sections, like extracurriculars and essays.

Essays and Recommendations


Here’s one page of the Teacher Brag Sheet. Be specific–it’ll only help you!

Your essays and recommendations showcase who you are as a person and what you can bring to the table. Your essays show how you view things through your perspective, while your recommendations show how you work in the classroom.

In the later part of your junior year (around May), you should start to ask teachers for letters of recommendation. Ask as soon as possible because some teachers get a lot of requests! Check with the schools you’re applying to, but you should ideally ask two teachers from your junior year who have taught you in English, History, World Language, Math, or Science. Again, some colleges or programs might ask you for specific recommendation letters, so make sure to look at your requirements.

When your teachers agree to write letters for you, it helps to provide them with a Teacher Brag Sheet so they can write a more personal letter. You can find one on the Counseling Canvas page. Some teachers have their own requirements, though, so please ask them!

You’ll have to write a personal statement that gets sent to all your colleges. For Common App, here are the prompts, and here are the prompts for Coalition App (Rutgers usually uses Coalition prompts). Many colleges will also ask you to write a supplemental prompt, often about your interest in the school. It’s tough to write about yourself, so here are some tips!

  • Your essays aren’t a brag sheet. You have an activities section to show off all you’ve done! For your personal statement, tell a vivid, detailed story about you. You’re the only person who has experienced life through your eyes–what’s something unique to you, or a unique perspective you have?
  • For your supplemental essays, take this time to figure out what you want to get out of college. Research classes, clubs, and opportunities for your school that you won’t get anywhere else.
  • Spend a lot of time working on your essays; don’t rush them! You need as much time as possible to craft your narrative. From experience: You need time to look at your essays. Don’t fret if you find yourself writing multiple versions.
  • Try looking at your school’s websites and seeing what they’re looking for in their essays. Here are some samples from Johns Hopkins and Tufts. Make sure your essays show YOUR voice, though!

Before we go, here’s one final word of advice: Don’t compare yourself or your decisions to others. Once May of your senior year comes around, it’ll be easy to fall into this trap. However, you’ll be about to leave high school and all the people you might be comparing yourself to. Don’t stress!

Hopefully, this SparkNotes version of the admissions process helped clear up any misconceptions. Best of luck!

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