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Bottom Line Up Front

  • College applications require meticulous planning, from setting timelines to choosing the right schools that align with your goals and values.
  • Make sure you build a budget to cover the cost of applying and sending test scores to schools.
  • Build a strong resume, secure compelling recommendations and craft a thoughtful essay to make a lasting impression on your application.

Time to Read

12 minutes

October 12, 2023

The college application process is both exciting and scary. After all, it’s a journey that marks a significant milestone in your life.

With so many moving parts and high stakes involved, it’s essential to approach college applications with a well-thought-out plan. This guide covers every aspect of the typical college application process, from planning to budgeting to submitting.

College Application Requirements

Typically, universities follow the same application process, but some requirements can vary. Most schools ask for the following:

  • Application
  • Application fee
  • High school transcripts
  • Standardized test scores
  • Letters of recommendations
  • Personal essay or statement
  • Financial information

Getting into college is a competitive process so it’s important to research and understand what you need to do. Here’s what you need to know:

  1. Create a College Application Timeline 

    The college application journey requires meticulous planning and ample time for execution. You don’t want to push applications off! When you begin applying, create a timeline with clear deadlines. This way, you’ll know when you need to finish each step and won’t get overwhelmed by the number of tasks ahead.

    Begin by identifying key milestones related to your applications. Make note of the deadlines for each school you want to apply to. Some schools offer Early Decision or Early Action options, with deadlines that are different from the standard decision deadline.

    Next, set personal deadlines for gathering recommendations, crafting your essays and submitting your transcripts and materials. Leave room for hiccups—it’s not ideal to submit materials minutes before the application closes.

  2. Research and Choose Your Schools

    Not all colleges are a perfect fit. That’s why researching and choosing the right schools to apply to is important. It’s not all about prestige or rankings. It’s about finding schools that align with your academic, personal and career goals. Look beyond surface-level information and dive into what makes each institution unique. Explore their academic programs, extracurricular offerings, campus culture and location. Here are a few important things to consider while you do your research:

    • College admissions requirements. Pay close attention to each school’s admissions requirements. Different colleges have standardized test score expectations. They also vary in GPA thresholds and course prerequisites for certain programs. Ensure you meet these criteria before applying.
    • Fit and culture. Consider whether the college’s culture aligns with your values and interests. Are you looking for a small liberal arts college? Or is a bustling urban campus better for you? Perhaps a tight-knit community in a rural setting is more your speed? These factors have a big impact on your college experience.
    • Tuition and financial aid. Note the cost of tuition as well as things like room and board, books and program fees. Look into whether the school offers scholarships, grants, financial aid or work-study opportunities to offset those costs.

    As you research, create a balanced list of colleges that includes “reach,” “match” and “safety” schools

    • Reach schools are your dream schools—you’re “reaching for the stars.” They might include colleges where your academic profile is below the average admitted student’s. 
    • Match schools closely meet your academic qualifications. 
    • Safety schools are institutions where you exceed the typical admitted student’s credentials. These are the schools you’re most likely to get into. 


    You may want to apply to at least one school from each bucket to give yourself options.

  3. Build a College Application Budget

    In most cases, there are costs involved, including:

    • School application fees
    • Fees to send test scores
    • Fees to send high school transcripts

    You may want to apply to at least one school from each bucket to give yourself options. Students and parents should prepare for these costs ahead of time. Building a college application budget will ensure you have the funds you need to apply for college on time. Identify a savings goal and set money aside just for the application process.

    As you research schools, understand how much each application will cost. Choose the schools you apply to wisely. Be selective to maximize your application savings.

    It also pays to look into college application fee waivers. If you’re a low-income student, you may get waivers for both SAT/ACT testing and college applications. Military members and Veterans may also be eligible for application fee waivers. Ask your high school guidance counselor or college’s financial aid department if these waivers apply to you.

  4. Prepare Application Components That Help You Stand Out

    Colleges will look at your test scores and GPA, but they also want to know more about who you are as a student and professional. Extra application requirements, such as resumes and essays, showcase your skills and what makes you unique. Make sure you prepare for these important components of your college applications.

    Resume and Skills

    Your academic transcript tells part of your story. Your resume is a place to highlight your accomplishments, activities, awards and honors. A full resume is a great way to make your application stand out and give admissions committees a clear picture of your potential as a college student. Include the following things:

    • Extracurricular activities. During your high school years, take part in extracurricular activities that interest you. Whether it’s sports, clubs, the arts or a part-time job, every experience holds value.
    • Leadership roles. Seek leadership opportunities within your extracurricular activities. Holding positions of responsibility indicates your ability to lead, collaborate and take initiative.
    • Academic achievements. Don’t underestimate the importance of academic excellence. High grades in challenging courses can make a significant difference in your application.
    • Passion projects. If you have a particular passion or hobby, consider starting a project related to it. That might be writing a blog, creating art or conducting research. Projects showcase your creativity, dedication and personality.
    • Community involvement. Engage with your community through volunteering or internships. This demonstrates your commitment to making a positive impact and a willingness to serve others.
    • Awards and honors. Include any awards, honors or recognitions you’ve received. These achievements serve as tangible evidence of your abilities.

    Letters of Recommendation

    Letters of recommendation are essential components of your college application. They highlight your character, work ethic and potential for success. Ideally, they’ll also showcase your contributions to a college community.

    To gather letters of recommendation, talk to former teachers, mentors or supervisors who know you well. Pick people who’ve observed your growth and can provide examples of your achievements. Politely ask if they would be willing to write a positive recommendation on your behalf.

    It’s important to prepare your recommenders ahead of time. Ask early and give them plenty of time to write a letter for you. Provide any necessary information, including deadlines and submission details. Also give your recommenders context about your college goals and the schools you’re applying to. This information will help them tailor their recommendation to align with your aspirations.

    After your recommenders have submitted their letters, always follow up. Send a simple thank-you note to express your appreciation for their support. It’s a small gesture that goes a long way.

    Compelling College Essays

    Most colleges ask students to submit a personal essay with their application. This is a unique opportunity to convey your personality and passions to the admissions committee. Crafting thoughtful and compelling essays is essential to make a lasting impression. Here are some tips on how to approach this critical step:

    • Understand the prompt.  Read each essay prompt and make sure you understand what is being asked. Pay attention to any specific guidelines or word limits provided. Make sure your essay is specific to each school. Explain why you are a good fit for the college and how the institution aligns with your goals.
    • Show, don’t tell. Use your essay to tell a personal story that reflects your character, values and experiences. Be authentic and genuine in your writing. Instead of listing accomplishments, show how these experiences shaped you. Use specific examples to illustrate your points.
    • Revise and edit. Review your essays for clarity, grammar and brevity. Typos and grammatical errors can detract from the quality of your essay. Proofread it several times and consider using writing tools or apps to catch mistakes. Seek feedback from teachers, mentors or trusted peers, but remember your essay should reflect your voice and experiences. Make revisions based on constructive feedback.

    Remember that college application essays are your chance to stand out. Be authentic, thoughtful and reflective in your writing.

    Pre-Acceptance Interviews

    Some colleges require interviews as part of their application process. Even if interviews are optional, you should take advantage of the opportunity. It’s a great chance to meet with admissions representatives and show off your personality. It will also give you the chance to tour the school and ensure it’s a good fit.

    If your college of choice hosts interviews, prepare well in advance. Research common interview questions and practice your responses. Focus on articulating your strengths and experiences concisely. Make sure you do your research, too. Be well-informed about the college’s programs, culture and values. This will also help you ask insightful questions.

    On the day of the interview, dress professionally. First impressions matter, and dressing appropriately shows respect for the interview process. Remember to be yourself! Authenticity is key, so be genuine, enthusiastic and polite.

    After the interview, send a thank-you email. Express your appreciation for the opportunity to speak with the interviewer.

  5. Complete and Submit Your Applications

    A lot of things go into preparing college applications. As your submission deadline approaches, double-check your applications for accuracy and ensure you have all the materials you need.

    Use this checklist to guide you through the final stretch:

    • Proofread your application.  Review your entire application for errors, including typos or grammatical mistakes. Look for inaccuracies in your personal information—particularly the address and email schools will use to contact you.
    • Submit test scores. Ensure your ACT or SAT test scores reach the colleges you’re applying to. Many colleges accept self-reported scores, but some need official score reports.
    • Submit additional materials. Check that you’ve submitted all required documents, including transcripts, recommendation letters and essays.
    • Pay application fees. Pay any application fees or utilize fee waivers if you meet the eligibility criteria.
    • Keep records. Maintain copies of all your application materials, including confirmation emails and submission receipts.

    Once you’ve completed this checklist, you can submit your applications with confidence. Take pride in knowing you’ve put your best foot forward in this journey.

  6. Follow Through After College Acceptance

    • Weigh your options.  Consider the acceptance offers you’ve received. Think about how the school matches your academic and personal goals. Also look into any financial aid packages the schools have offered you and whether you can afford to attend.
    • Visit campuses. If possible, visit the campuses of the colleges you’re considering. Campus tours can provide valuable insights into the environment and culture of each school.
    • Consult with advisors. Seek guidance from counselors, teachers and mentors. They can provide valuable perspectives and help you make an informed decision.
    • Respond by the deadline. Adhere to the response deadlines for each college. Often, you’ll need to confirm your enrollment and submit a deposit by a specific date. Once you’ve made your decision, inform the colleges you won’t be attending. This allows them to offer admission to other students on their waitlist.
    • Prepare your finances. Determine how you’re going to pay for the college you chose. Calculate how much college will cost and create a savings plan. Add any financial aid, student loans and scholarships you’ve received into your budget.
    • Embrace your choice. Embrace your chosen college with enthusiasm and excitement. The next chapter of your educational journey is about to begin!

    All your planning and preparation will feel worthwhile once you start receiving acceptance letters. This is a time of celebration and reflection! However, there’s still more to do. Here’s how to navigate this final stage:

Start Your College Application Journey off on the Right Foot

The college application process is an adventure. There are many steps, but there’s one important thing to remember—the earlier you start, the better the outcome. With careful college planning, you’ll find the perfect school that fits with your goals for the future.

Navy Federal Credit Union is here to support students and their families during the college application journey and beyond. Use our education savings options and explore student loan opportunities to ensure you can pay for your dream school.

Get the Guidance You Need

Navy Federal has a dedicated team of student lending professionals who can provide guidance and answer all your questions. Plus, with a Navy Federal Student Loan, you’re automatically eligible for a Career Assistance Program—online tools and training that can help you level up your resume, hone your interviewing skills and find job search and other tips.

Get the Guidance You Need

Navy Federal has a dedicated team of student lending professionals who can provide guidance and answer all your questions. Plus, with a Navy Federal Student Loan, you’re automatically eligible for a Career Assistance Program—online tools and training that can help you level up your resume, hone your interviewing skills and find job search and other tips.

Next Steps Next Steps

  1. Make a list of colleges and universities you’re interested in applying to. If you don’t know of any, do some research for schools that offer programs in your field of interest. As you research, break the list into “reach,” “match” and “safety” schools.
  2. Start preparing your college finances as early as you can. Create a dedicated savings account for application fees. Once applications are submitted, you can use this account to save for other college-related expenses.
  3. Explore your financing options. If you need a private student loan to cover costs that federal loans, scholarships and grants don’t, Navy Federal private student loans have you covered.


This content is intended to provide general information and shouldn't be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to your situation and about your individual financial situation.