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Your College Journey

Applying to college has always combined elements of adventure and worry, triumph and frustration, anxiety and discovery. In today’s fast-moving admissions marketplace, some parts of the process are changing. Today there are many options and many steps to complete the application process.

Admissions Insider Publication Cover

Admissions Insider

The Comprehensive Guide to Applying for College

Application Guide

Before You Apply

Take a Balanced Approach

How should you choose which colleges to apply to?
  • Think about creating a college list with balance, including 2-3 schools from each admission difficulty level for you:
    • Probable: Schools you are most likely to get in – schools where your GPA/test scores exceed those of the average admitted student
    • Target : Schools where you meet the profile for the average admitted candidate
    • Reach: Those schools where maybe your GPA or test scores are lower than the average admitted students
  • Use websites like CollegeBoard, Naviance, SCOIR to explore colleges and learn more about their admission difficulty level
  • Remember that all schools on your list should be schools you would actually attend!
  • Include a mix of public, private, and at least one in state school to ensure financial balance
  • Consider availability of need-based and merit-based aid at each school
  • Most students apply to at least 8-12 colleges

Know When & How to Apply

Which admission type is right for you?
Admission Type Details Deadline Commitment
Rolling Admission
  • First-come, first-served
  • Applications are reviewed as they are received, so applying later may mean you miss out (even if you are a qualified candidate)
Within specified time frame
until class is filled
Regular Admission
  • All applications are reviewed prior to decisions being sent
November - January Non-binding
Early Action (REA)
  • Receive a decision well in advance of the institution’s regular response date
October – December Non-binding
Restrictive Early Action (EA)
  • Restricted from applying ED or EA or REA to other institutions
  • Demonstrates strong interest in college
October – December Non-binding
Early Decision (ED)
  • Cannot apply to more than one school ED
  • If admitted, student agrees to enroll and withdraw all other applications
October - December Binding

Key Words:
  • Binding: if a student is accepted Early Decision, the student is OBLIGATED TO ATTEND that institution. Students will have to rescind applications to other colleges if they are admitted Early Decision.
  • Non-Binding: students do not have to commit to the college until National College Decision Day on May 1st
*Tip: Meeting deadlines is critical. Keep an organized and accurate list of due dates for each component of your application for each school (admissions app, financial aid app, etc.). It may be helpful to keep a college only calendar or spreadsheet.

Who should apply Early Action or Early Decision? 
Early application status is generally intended for students who are a strong fit for a particular college or university. Early Decision (ED) applicants in particular should be extremely confident that this school is far and away their top choice, because if they are accepted ED, they are obligated to attend. Most early applicants have grades and standardized test scores at or above the average of the college. To apply early, students will have to adjust all their timelines so that the pieces of their application are ready to send in November. Your school counselors or college admissions officers may be able to advise you which path is appropriate.

Create Your College Application Budget

Applications, standardized tests, campus visits, and more can add up -- know how much you'll need and when it's possible to save on costs.
Applying to college can be costly, but having a good understanding of what money you will need and when in the process you will need it. Below is a list of different expenses associated with the college application process and when you may experience them. There are fee waivers available for many of these expenses for qualifying students. Talk to your school counselor and/or admissions counselor to learn more.
  • Standardized Tests
    • For many families, standardized tests (SAT and ACT) are the first expense toward college admission.
    • All NH students will take SAT during junior year of high school
    • Most students take the SAT more than once, and many take the ACT in addition. Each of these tests will have fees.
  • College Visits & Tours
    • Consider college visit and tour costs when budgeting for college expenses.
    • Although touring a campus is free, if you need to travel any significant distance to visit the school you may need to budget expenses to make the trip.
    • Look for ways to combine visits to schools that are near each other, make visits with friends to share expenses, or ask the college for a lunch voucher to try out their cafeteria.
    • Most schools now offer amazing virtual tours! This is a great way to explore a school without committing the expense to visit. However, if you are seriously considering a school, we strongly recommend seeing it person before accepting admission.
  • College Application Fees
    • Fees can range from $25 – $100 dollars per school, with the national average is $42 per school
  • Financial Aid Application Fees
    • FAFSA is always FREE! Every college requires the FAFSA as part of your financial aid application.
    • Some college require an additional financial aid form called the CSS Profile©. There is a fee charged for each school the student needs to send the form.
  • Financial Aid
    • Applying for financial aid is an essential component of applying to college! Visit our Financial Aid Process page to learn more.
  • Admissions Deposit
    • Colleges require a deposit to secure your enrollment.
    • Admission deposit can range ($100-$500+), each fee is set by the institution
    • Due by May 1st ( National College Decision Deadline)
    • If you are eligible federal Pell Grant, you may be able to apply these funds to your deposit. Check with your college to learn more
  • Housing Deposit
    • If you plan to live on campus, you will need to pay a deposit to save your space with the housing department (in addition to your admissions deposit).
    • The amount is set by the school, and deposits can vary ($100-$400+)
Application Components

Letters of Recommendation

  • Most colleges will require one to three letters of recommendation as part of the application.
  • These recommendations are highly respected by college admissions counselors.
Who should I ask to write them?
  • Consider teachers, coaches, school counselors, club advisors, or work supervisors who know you well and can speak articulately about the special qualities you possess.
  • Pay attention to the process, as it can vary depending on the school.
  • Give at least a month notice for your letter of recommendation. This will allow them adequate time to prepare and write a strong letter for you.
Can I read what my reference wrote?
  • Sometimes your references will be delighted to share the letter with you while, at other times, it may be uncomfortable or not allowed.
  • Some schools may require a specific online format or that the letter be sealed in an envelope that they provide.
  • Consider waiving your right to view the recommendation letters if given the option. This may give your references increased credibility as it shows your faith in their assessment.
How will they know what to write about me?
  • Ask your references to focus on specific qualities or skills that you consider strengths.
  • Give your references your college resume, activity list, or a “brag sheet” to help them write a stronger letter of recommendation.
  • Be sure to provide your references with the appropriate forms that are provided by the college.

Portfolios & Auditions

The process for applying to an art, drama, music, or dance program is often more extensive than for other academic programs. Beyond your high school transcript, you are being evaluated on your talent and skill in a particular creative field.
For all fields, present yourself as a serious artist with a serious commitment. Many applicants have talent; let your energy, persistence, and work ethic distinguish you. Keep an open mind about feedback you receive during your audition. Constructive criticism provides an opportunity for improvement, and an openness to that feedback is vital to success.
Remember, your potential for growth is more important to colleges than your present state of technical expertise.
Below is additional advice for the potential art, drama, music, or dance student. Be sure to ask your high school teachers, counselors, or professional instructors for further guidance.

  1. Try to choose two pieces in contrasting styles with your primary instrument or voice. Make sure at least one piece is in English.
  2. Eight to ten minutes is typically appropriate for your presentation. The colleges may provide more specific direction.
  3. It is usually recommended that singers bring their own accompanist.
  4. Be careful about improvising. You’ll only impress if you provide what they require. Understand the specific expectations of each audition.
  5. For instrumentalists, provide a portfolio of no more than five compositions. If you have recordings, include those as well.
  6. Provide a list of all songs and compositions.
Drama and dance
  1. Be prepared to demonstrate multiple styles and improvise.
  2. Keep an open mind about performing with others; sometimes auditions will involve multiple applicants performing together. Remain flexible.
  3. Try to present good basic technique.

Portfolio Presentations

  1. Include only your best and most recent work.
  2. Include as many different styles and mediums as possible.
  3. Any cumbersome pieces (such as three dimensional works) should be placed in digital or slide format. Ask the school which format they prefer.
  4. Make sure to label every slide with your name, date, and type of work.
  5. It is important to indicate the top of your work on any slide or photograph in order to make sure the person evaluating your work is viewing it correctly.
  6. Include an inventory of your work with the portfolio.
  7. Make two copies of everything – just in case.
  8. Schools will evaluate your work in the following areas, so try to be as broad as possible in preparing your portfolio:
    • Perceptual Skills: Ability to draw from direct observation
    • Concept: Use of formal art elements to convey your unique ideas
    • Composition: Interesting use of space
    • Craft: Technical skill and knowledge of media combined with presentation

National Portfolio Days

  • These educational events are free for artists looking for advice. Experienced art college representatives will review your portfolio and offer presentation critique. Visit for a list of campuses hosting the event. For a college fair specific to performing and visual arts, click here.

Standardized Testing

Many colleges have changed their requirements around standardized tests.
Test optional: Submitting standardized test scores is optional, not required for admission.
Test blind: Test scores will not be considered as part of your application, even if you submit them.
Visit to find a full list of colleges and universities that are test optional or test blind.

The SAT is a national college admissions examination that is accepted by all 4 year colleges and universities in the US. The test is scored from 400-1600 and tests two subject areas: math and evidenced based reading and writing. There is an optional Essay as well. The SAT ascribes to focus on the skills and knowledge at the heart of education: what you learn in high school and what you need to succeed in college.
How to Register
Timeline for SAT testing
  • PSAT fall of sophomore and/or fall of junior year
  • SAT spring of junior year AND fall of senior year
PSAT 10 and PSAT/NMSQT are practice versions of the SAT’s that are offered by the College Board to help students prepare for the SAT. By taking these practice versions of the SAT, students are able to get comfortable with the SAT test format and subject matter before taking the actual test. To learn more about how these tests are scored, their content and dates they are offered, click 

SAT Subject Tests (SAT II’s)
Some colleges require two or three SAT Subject Tests for admission, while other schools will accept your scores without requiring them.
The subject tests fall into five general areas: English, history, mathematics, science, and languages. They help colleges compare academic achievements of students from different schools where course preparation and academic backgrounds may widely vary. You must check with each individual college to see if they require the SAT Subject tests and if so, which subjects they require you take. For more information you can go to the 
SAT Subject Test page at

The ACT is a national college admissions exam that is accepted by all 4 year colleges and universities in the US. The test is scored from 1-36 and tests four subject areas: math, English, reading and science. There is an optional Essay as well. The ACT aims to be a curriculum-based achievement test, measuring what a student has learned in school.
How to Register
Timeline for ACT testing
  • ACT is typically taken once EITHER in Spring of junior year or Fall of senior year
Free Test Prep
  • Khan Academy
  • offers a FREE test prep booklet called Preparing for the ACT Test. This booklet includes descriptions of the each test section and sample questions.
  • SAT Daily Practice App 
How to choose?
Not sure standardized tests are right for you? Not sure if you should take the SAT or the ACT or both?
Every college that accepts the SAT will also accept the ACT. So there is nothing that says you have to take one over the other. You can take whichever you feel most comfortable taking or take both and send your best test scores.
Colleges will know how to compare the two test scores by using a conversion tool like the one on
Remember, many schools are now test optional or test blind. Visit to find a full list of colleges and universities that do not require test scores for admission.

The Test of Essential Academic Skills (TEAS) test measures the entry-level skills and abilities of nursing school applicants or first year nursing school students.
For more information, including how to register to take the TEAS test, visit:

The College Essay

NHHEAF’s CCP offers a summer course on the college essay for rising high school seniors. Check HERE for more information and to register in the spring.

How important is the college essay?
As with most of the college application process, there is no absolute answer. Colleges may weigh aspects of the application package differently, but in very few cases will a student be accepted or rejected based solely on the essay. Typically, the essay becomes most important for marginal candidates. While a fantastic essay cannot make up for poor high school grades, it can be a factor when an admission decision could go either way.

Choosing the Topic
Often colleges give students options for writing the essay. We've seen questions ranging from “Who is your hero?” to “Where do you see yourself in five years?” The trick is to find the one topic that you can write about most passionately and effectively. If you can identify a theme in the question or prompt, look to essays you may have written in English class for ideas. You may have written about poverty or family when you read The Grapes of Wrath or racism when you read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Referring back to your own ideas from prior work may provide inspiration. Often you'll have an option to write on a topic of your choice. In many cases, you can save time by submitting the same essay to various schools.

Writing a Successful College Essay:
  1. Tackling the Questions
    • Answer the question that is being asked
    • Intrigue the reader and keep their interest throughout -- this is not a research paper; look at it more as telling a story
    • Brainstorm: think about the details you will use to support the greater message
  2. Writing Style
    • You don't need long, complicated sentences -- make it sound like you!
    • Answer the questions throughout your essay -- keep the reader intrigued
    • End your essay on a positive note
  3. Editing and Revising
    • Take your time -- this process can take several attempts before you have your finished product
    • Have your parents, friends, and even your English teacher read and critique your essay

The College Interview

Why should I interview?
  • Not every college will offer you the opportunity to interview, many colleges do recommend that you schedule an interview with the admissions office.
  • It’s an excellent opportunity for the college to learn more about you and for you to learn more about them.
  • It’s a chance to personalize the admissions process.
Evaluative Interviews
  • These interviews have an impact on the acceptance decision and admission criteria.
  • Conducted by an Admissions Officer – These are most common; you typically can call or go online to schedule an appointment with an admissions counselor.
  • Conducted by Alumni – These are set up by the college and usually held off-campus with a college alumnus. An evaluation is completed and added to your file.
  • Auditions – Arts, music, or dance performances arranged on specified dates.
  • Special-Interest – These could be meetings with athletic coaches, department heads, or club supervisors.
Informational Interviews
  • These interviews are designed to answer questions and offer an overview of the college.
  • Informational Sessions – These are formally organized group sessions conducted by an admissions representative for families.
  • High School Visits – College reps visit high schools to distribute materials and to answer questions. These are good opportunities to develop a contact with schools of interest.
  • Student Interviews – These offer the prospective student the opportunity to have an informal, but informative conversation with a current college student.
Tips for Success
  • Come prepared. Do your research about the school ahead of time and have a strong knowledge base about it and programs you’re interested in.
  • Be ready to answer common questions like, “Tell me about yourself,” and “Why do you want to attend this school?”
  • Be attentive, ask questions, and show enthusiasm. All interviewers want to feel your excitement about their school!
  • Dress to present your best self- even if it’s a virtual interview! Consider your overall appearance and hygiene.
  • Remember, contact with any college representative should be taken seriously.
Make the Most of Your Campus Interview and Tour...Ask Questions!

The Common Application

  • The Common App is one form that allows students to apply to multiple colleges, saving time and energy.
  • The Common Application is used by over 800 college and universities — public and private, large and small, highly selective and modestly selective, and East Coast, West Coast, and every region in between. Even some international schools now use the Common App.
  • Components
    • Personal, Demographic, and Family Information
    • Education history
    • High school transcript
      • Official transcripts must be sent by your school counselor
    • Standardized test scores (if available)
    • Activities
    • Personal Essay
    • Letters of Recommendation
  • Some colleges will include additional, supplemental questions or essay(s)
  • Fee waivers are available for those who qualify.

The Common Application Essay
Full set of essay prompts for 2022-2023:
  • Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  • The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  • Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  • Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
  • Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  • Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  • Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Helpful Guides

Campus Interview & Tour

Make the most of your campus interview and tour by asking some of these questions!

Sample College Résumé

Provide Admission Counselors with a one-page personal profile of yourself.

The Common Application

Have questions about The Common Application? Check out their list of FAQs.

Home Schooled Students

Whether you are enrolled in an online accredited high school, fall under an umbrella homeschooling organization, or receive academic instruction from your parents, these are some of the things that homeschooled students should consider when applying to colleges:

  • Admission Criteria: Check the college’s website for their admission criteria. Record-keeping is key to demonstrate what you have learned: transcript written by the parent, textbooks completed, paper/project samples, etc.
  • Transcript: Criteria may differ from high school graduation criteria, so it is important to determine what colleges are looking for in math, science, language arts and foreign language
  • Community Involvement: It is important for all students to be involved in extracurricular activities and there are many opportunities for homeschooled students: high school sports, school-related activities, community organizations, religious organizations, volunteer opportunities, etc.
  • Letters of Recommendation: Letters of Recommendation may come from community members, coaches, supervisors, etc. that can speak to your character and ability to succeed in college
  • Essay: For homeschooled students, the essay can be an excellent opportunity to discuss how you have grown and the experiences you had had through your homeschooling experience.

International Students

For non-United State citizens, there are several additional steps to apply to college.

  1. Apply to accredited institutions that can issue the Form I-17 (required for a student visa). For a full list, check out MAP of Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP)-Certified Schools, which is searchable by state and territory and provides location information.
  2. Reach out to the admissions department to ask about support for international applications.
  3. Pay special attention to standardized test requirements. Many schools and visa applications require the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL®). Visit to get more information about the TOEFL exam.

Need Help Applying?

NHHEAF’s Center for College Planning is dedicated to serving all students throughout their education and career planning journeys, for free!

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Graduate Admissions

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Applying As a Transfer Student