How Does the College Admissions Process Work?


You’re reading this post because it is likely that a year from now, you will be getting ready to attend a college to pursue a major you’re excited about.

At this point, you’re on an information highway that all seems confusing and blurry because of the number of things you have to think about in order to attend college next year.

PSATs, SATs, letters of recommendation, choosing a major, and visiting college campuses are most likely piling up on your agenda — or will be soon.

And hopefully, a year from now, you would have landed that coveted spot at the university of your choice.

But how exactly does the college admissions process work? How do you get from here to there?

While it works differently at different colleges, there are common themes that run through the college admissions process and the goal with this post is to show you what you can expect as you go through the process.

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Considering Your Choices

Choosing a college to attend and all that implies is no mean feat.

I mean, depending on who you are, deciding on what to eat for breakfast can be a challenging decision, let alone making a decision that could affect the rest of your life.

Thus, after successfully getting through the SAT or ACT, choosing the right college to attend is an important decision you should carefully consider.

Factors students (and parents) tend to consider include:

  • The cost
  • The program you’re choosing to pursue
  • Proximity (or lack thereof) to home
  • Prestige and what that could mean for the future
  • Friends and family who have attended the school
  • The reputation of the school based on the accounts of others
  • If you’re an international student studying in the US and what that means for you

Those are just a few of the things you would want to consider as you select a college to attend.

Let’s explore how a few of these could affect your decision.


With student loan debt at an all-time high, cost is a big concern on people’s minds when it comes to a college education.

There are even arguments out there as to whether a college education is worth it anymore.

Here are a few ideas to consider when it comes to the cost of college education:

  • An expensive university does not necessarily mean you will have to foot the bill out of pocket. There are colleges that are pricey but which also have huge endowments that provide need-based scholarships to students who are admitted and need that help to pay tuition. Instead of eliminating a university on cost alone, find out if such scholarships exist and what it takes to get them.
  • Attending a community college for the first two years and then following that up with the last two years at a four-year university is another tactic students and parents are taking these days to reduce cost. You can factor this into your decision-making as well.
  • In-state tuition has historically always been much lower than out-of-state tuition.
  • Apart from tuition, other big factors to consider are books, living expenses (like housing), food, and transportation.

It’s also really important to make sure you’re getting a return on investment (ROI) on your college education. Here’s how to determine if college is even worth it for what you want to do.


The program you pursue has everything to do with how your admissions experience will go.

Certain schools are well known for certain majors.

If you decide to go to a school like that and enter a program they are known for, chances are that you will be required to take an entrance exam. It is common for students who are entering nursing school for instance to take an extra entrance exam beyond the SAT or ACT.

If you plan on going into such a major, you would need to study extra material in order to take the exam.

Certain majors and/or schools require you to have letters of recommendation in order to be admitted.

If this is the case, you would typically have to get two or three people to write and submit these letters on your behalf.

From experience, getting letters of recommendation from the people you would like to do this for you can become a pain if you don’t plan well.

I’ve always found that it helps if you can let your recommenders know way ahead of time (two or three months) so you can meet the college application deadline. Remember, your recommenders are likely to be busy as well. If your recommenders know you very well, they might be able to write your letter without any guidance on what you’ve accomplished in the past.

However, if you’re going to use a recommender who is not very familiar with you but who you think is powerful and would impress the admissions committee, you should give them a resume or a list of your accomplishments so they can craft a good letter for you.

Some schools also require that you write a personal statement that showcases your extracurricular activities and how those make you an excellent fit for the school.


How prestigious a university is will also affect your college admissions experience.

Just like I mentioned above that your particular college major would require an entrance exam and a letter of recommendation or not, the more prestigious the university is, the more likely it is that they will require you to take an entrance exam or produce letters of recommendation.

And generally, the more prestigious a school is, the more expensive it is.

International Students

If you’re an international student, you will have to consider all these facts as well as immigration requirements.

International students also usually need to have taken an English test such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or the Test of Spoken English (TSE) in order to be admitted.

Once you have taken all the required tests (usually the SAT and an English language test), have met all the university requirements, and have gained admission, the university will have to offer you an I-20 document that will allow you to go to the U.S. embassy in your country to interview for a student visa.

The requirements for obtaining a student visa differ each year but one of the things you will be asked for sure is if you can afford to attend the college/university of your choice. You will need to be able to show evidence like bank statements or the fact that you’ve paid a portion of your fees upfront to be able to satisfy this requirement.

These are just a few things to consider if you’re an international student.

Now that we’ve discussed a number of things you should consider as you make a choice for a college to attend, let’s talk about how you can expect it to go.

How the College Admissions Process Works

As I mentioned before, every college has a different admissions process. However, here are some common themes to expect.

Once you’ve taken your SAT or ACT tests and have received the results, you will begin filling out application forms for each school you’ve decided to apply to.

When you’re registering for the SAT or ACT, there is an option for the examining body to send your results directly to a school. You can do this. Or you can choose to wait to receive the results and then decide where to apply to. Either way is fine.

Filling out college applications is mainly online now, although there are still some schools that accept paper applications that are mailed to them.

You can expect to pay anywhere between $15 and $75 for each college application.

Once your application is submitted, your application first goes to the admissions office of the school.

If you are applying for a special program at the school such as nursing, engineering, or premed, it is likely your application will go to the actual department you’re applying to for selection.

A combination of your SAT/ACT scores, entrance exam scores, letters of recommendation, personal statements, and information you provide on your application form will be used by the admissions committee to make decisions.

If your major requires an interview, a short list of applicants will be called before final decisions are made.

On a regular school calendar, this can go on for three to four months. And usually, by the spring of each year, you’ll hear back from colleges if you were admitted or not. 

Depending on your situation, this is the point where you will make a decision on where to attend college in the fall.

What Next?

Well, once you hear back and decide, you send back a letter of intent to enroll at the school you select. Then, you wrap up your senior year of high school, have some fun, and figure out how you’re going to pay for college, move to school, and basically change everything you’ve ever known for a new adventure! Have fun!

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