A Beginner’s Handbook in Applying to College

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By: Taylor Kane, Staff Writer

Applying to college is a daunting process. It’s a minefield of deadlines, due dates, and random acronyms you’ve never heard of, and it seems as if no one else knows what’s going on either. As someone with a platform that’s been through it all by now and survived, I have an obligation to lay out some of the best advice I wish I had been given about the college application process. The counselors in the Student Support Office have been wonderfully helpful to me, but sometimes what you need is a fellow student to explain it in a personal way. So please, sit back and enjoy a compilation of things I wish I had known two months ago. 

What can I do to prepare during my junior and senior years?

Scope out colleges. Your email and mailbox are about to be – if they aren’t already – flooded with letters from colleges telling you to apply. If you see one you like, be sure to jot that name down, because it’ll make your job much easier come senior year when it’s time to choose colleges. You can even visit colleges in your junior year. If you do, you’re more likely to be sent informational packets from the college and be considered for the priority application. Lastly, for junior year, start brainstorming and/or writing your personal application essay over the summer before senior year. You will be writing multiple drafts and it’s much easier if you already have some drafts or a plan.

 Senior year, try to visit college campuses and take advantage of the college visits in the Student Support Center during the fall. If you go, the college will know you’re interested (and you may even get a fee waiver!).

“(Applying to) more colleges isn’t necessarily better, I know people that applied to 15 schools and I only applied to 4. So long as you have a safety school that you would be happy going to, you’re good.”

Veda Keon, ’23

Where do I even apply? (Feat. Early Action vs. Early Decision)

  I have amazing news: almost all colleges accept the Common Application, which is the carotid artery of the entire application process. It’s on the Common Application website (shocker), where you’ll be adding and keeping track of all your prospective colleges. Every college has its own private application on its website, and if the college really likes you, it may even offer you its primary candidate application. For the few colleges that don’t accept the Common Application, their personal applications can be found through its Admissions link, which is usually displayed right on the top of the website’s home page.

Side point: When you fill out your application, it will ask you if you intend to apply for “Early Action” or “Early Decision”. The main difference is, “Early Decision” is binding and “Early Action” is not. Should you be accepted to a college through an early decision application, you are legally bound to attend that college the following academic year – that’s also an agreement to pay their tuition and fees even if you aren’t granted any scholarships or aid. Personally, I suggest applying early action to all of your schools, but if there’s a college in particular that you love and can afford, you can absolutely go for early decision. 

“Start writing the supplementals over the summer going into senior year… a lot of colleges have supplements that aren’t shown on Common App, so it’s helpful to get them done early in order to be ready for any unexpected occurrences.”

Benjamin Shannon, ’23

How do I keep track of deadlines?

More amazing news: there’s a website that does that for you! It’s called Naviance, and it can be found under the “for students” button on top of the high school’s homepage. It’ll show you each college’s early action, early decision, or regular decision deadline, whether or not they require letters of recommendation, and if they’ve received your transcripts. Once you get admission decisions from colleges, you can also update which ones you were accepted into. 

Bonus hint: Get your college applications in at least a week before the deadline. Colleges will have some follow-up questions unique to the college on the Common App website, and while they don’t take long, leaving time will help you feel less rushed. If you’re applying to STEM schools rather than liberal arts colleges, be sure to leave yourself more time (preferably 2 weeks) because they tend to have additional essays specific to the school that won’t be shown to you until you’ve submitted your application.

“Don’t procrastinate and save things until the last minute… it’s meant to take time, so take time doing it.”

Kylie Ayala, ’23

In what order should I do things?

Always prioritize the physical application. The application, whether it’s through Common Application or the college’s website, is the only thing that needs to be in by the deadline displayed on Naviance. The rest – meaning the letters of recommendation, FAFSA, and transcripts – can all trickle in the following weeks. That being said, you should request your letters of recommendation from your teachers at least a month before the application deadline, and transcripts should be requested at the same time you submit your application. Fortunately for us, transcripts are now digitized and will be received by the college’s admissions office as soon as your counselor sends them.

Letters of Recommendation

I’ve thrown around the term “letters of recommendation” a good amount by now, but I haven’t explained how to navigate them. In order to get one, you should first ask your teacher if they’d be willing to write one for you in person, and if they say yes, you then have to place a request for one through Naviance under the “Colleges” -> “Letters of Recommendation” buttons. Be sure to pick a teacher or other adult that you are confident knows you well as a person, it’s important the letter reflects your best quality since they’re brought under review by the colleges’ admissions officers. Give your teachers time to write them, as well; it’s imperative they are not rushed. Lastly, try to plan out which teacher’s letter is being sent to what college – if you’re asking 3 people for letters and 4 of your 6 colleges have a limit of 2 letters, you’re going to need to orchestrate whose goes where. Once you’ve submitted, Naviance will prompt you to fill out the FERPA, which signs over your rights to read the letter before it’s sent to the college. This step is required in order for you to submit your application.


I know college applications are nerve-racking; worrying if your grades are good enough for your dream college is right up the Not Fun alley. If you’re not one for academics or thrive in non-traditional educational settings, you can show that off in the extracurricular section of college applications. The Common Application allows ten activities, and I highly recommend you include as many as you can. They help bolster your application and make you seem more human to colleges, and I’ll even let you in on a secret: they can act as substitutes for 10th percentile grades since colleges love an engaged student that will make their campus a better place. Extra-curriculars aren’t only kept to school activities, either- hobbies and jobs count! Do you walk dogs or play the violin at home? Include it! My application included the stage crew, the newspaper, my poetry hobby, and my house-painting job.


The FAFSA is possibly one of the most intimidating parts of the application process. A government website full of “I swear” and threats of federal prison is scary, but I promise it is a painless ordeal if you’re prepared. The FAFSA opens on October 1st every year to be filled out for the next school year (this year was for 2023-2024), and you and/or your parent(s) can fill it out through the FAFSA website. You will both be given FSA IDs that should be safely stored somewhere they won’t be lost. Your parent(s) will then need to attach the previous year’s tax information from the IRS, so keep in mind that you’ll need to get them to sit down and help you at some point in the process. Once it’s finished, you’ll be prompted to add the names of a maximum of 15 colleges, and the FAFSA will then be sent to these schools for financial aid processing. You can add/remove colleges later! You just need your FSA ID.


There are many benefits to applying to college early action/decision. You’re more likely to be awarded grants and scholarships because they have more money to give away earlier in the year, and once it’s over, you’ll be able to sail the rest of the way through your senior year knowing where you’re going once it’s over. If you have any questions about the process, please do not resign to be confused. Ask your counselor, or any seniors or graduates you know, or even email me at tkane@newpaltz.k12.ny.us. I’m more than happy to help and would love to give you any other advice. Best of luck to all of you applying early or at the regular time, I promise you’ll survive!