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Support for filling out college applications

This article and linked resources can be reviewed by PCs and mentors to give mentees who are starting 12th grade a heads up about what to expect when filling out college applications.

Since mentees have likely never seen a college application before, it’s helpful to review the process step-by-step so that mentees know what information they will need and PCs and mentors know exactly how they can help in this time-consuming and often anxiety-ridden process. 

Click the link to jump to the specific section.


By far the most important first step is to make a list or calendar of important dates and deadlines related to the application process. Use the following as an example to create a timeline for students: Senior Year Timeline - Example. While each school might have slightly different deadlines, there are generally 3 types of application plans:

Early plans

There are 3 types of early application plans. Visit this link for a fuller description and pros and cons of the different types.

  • Early decision – This is a binding commitment in which the student applies early (usually in early November) and finds out early (usually by December) if he/she is accepted. If accepted, he/she must attend that college.
  • Early action – This plan also allows the student to apply early but is nonbinding, so students can still apply to other colleges, whether EA or during regular admission deadlines. Students receive a decision earlier than usual (January or February).
  • Single-choice early action – Some schools restrict those who apply early action: students are not bound to attend if admitted early, but cannot apply early decision or early action to any other colleges.

Make sure to understand the details of each college’s early program so as not to be bound to a commitment you cannot or do not want to make! Visit this link for an early decision/early action calendar.

Regular decision

Regular decision is the most straightforward application plan. There are no restrictions on what other colleges students may apply to. Deadlines are often in January or February, but some can be as early as November or December, so make sure to check each school’s website or admissions office for specifics. Decisions about acceptance are typically sent out in the spring, and students usually must decide by May 1st.

Rolling admissions

If a college has a rolling deadline, it means that students can send in an application at any point within the admissions cycle and acceptance decisions are made on a continual basis. Typically, it can take 4-6 weeks for a school to make a decision. Though this might sound like the most flexible option, there are often deadlines for financial aid after which a student will not be eligible to receive aid, so make sure to investigate the details of this option before waiting too late to apply!

Types of applications

Most schools will require students to fill out and submit their college applications online. It is always a good idea for those supporting a student’s application process to browse the online application or at least the requirements of the applications that the student plans to submit. PCs and mentors can also create an online application of their own to view all the questions and information required!

The "Common App"

The Common App is used by colleges that conduct holistic admission, meaning that they consider more than just GPA and test scores. Using the Common App allows students to submit the same application to multiple schools. While over 500 colleges use the Common Application, they usually also require a “Common App Supplement” that asks additional questions and/or for requirements unique to their institution. Students and those supporting them should read the application carefully for information about deadlines, which differ across schools, and for all requirements particular to each school.

The Common App becomes available on August 1 of each year. Students should visit www.commonapp.org to create an account.

The Common App is divided into 4 sections:

  • Dashboard – gives an overview of the colleges you’ve selected to apply to
  • My Colleges – gives a list of the colleges you’ve selected to apply to; also where you complete individual college supplements and assign teachers to write recommendations
  • Common App – main section where you provide info such as name, school, activities, classes, resume items, and personal statement
  • College Search – where you add a college to your application

There are many online resources around the Common App, which tends to change slightly every year, so Google is your friend in helping you to find more information and tips for filling it out!

Other applications

Some colleges/universities have their own individual applications, and some public university systems might have one application for a network of several different colleges, such as the CUNY system in NYC. 

What goes into a college application

This section of the College Board’s Big Future website provides a great synthesis of what goes into a college application and checklists for what you’ll need to start filling out applications. This site is great to explore on your own or in-person with students.

Typically, college applications, especially liberal arts colleges, will ask for the following, in addition to grades and test scores:

Before completing applications, students will need to gather information such as:

  • Full legal name
  • Social security number (if applying for federal financial aid)*
  • Home/mailing address
  • Parents’ full legal names, contact information, education history (college name and graduation year), employment information, income information*
  • School counselor’s contact information (sometimes students in large high schools don’t know who their counselor is!)
  • Potential major(s) 
    • Note that students should understand that most colleges do not hold students to this, but it can be important if they are applying to specialized schools such as nursing, engineering, etc.
  • Interest in opportunity programs

*Much of this information can be difficult and sensitive for students to collect from their parents/guardians, especially if they are undocumented students. Be aware that some students might ask for your help with this while others might not be as forthcoming or open to help in this area. Your biggest role here is to help coach students to have conversations with their parents about why this information is important to collect and provide (for financial aid eligibility, opportunity programs, etc.)

Opportunity programs

Opportunity programs were created to increase college access and success for students who come from educationally and economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Opportunity programs allow students to be admitted to a college that they would normally not be admitted to because of low grades or test scores. Students admitted to a college through an opportunity program receive both academic and financial support throughout their undergraduate years.

Students who apply to a college or university through an opportunity program will have to meet specific academic and financial requirements. Opportunity programs are available at participating colleges and universities across the country. However, opportunity program names and requirements will vary across states. For example, it is called Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) in NY and Educational Opportunity Program in CA. Help students inquire about opportunity programs and research requirements at the colleges they plan to apply to.