What should you know before applying to college?

As you start your college application journey, you may begin to notice that the admissions process is a whirlwind of information. You and your family are expected to understand an everchanging admissions process, understand new terminology, and must understand the intricacies of school-specific requirements. However, it’s important to take a step back and remember why you’re applying to the schools you’re interested in. It’s also important to know that we are here to demystify this entire process for you!

What should you know before applying to college?

There is a lot of information to digest before you begin applying to college. Before you begin reading this article, I suggest taking a look at our previous article on “How to Search for the Right College.” This can help you understand what factors you should consider when developing your own college list. In this article, I’m going to cover major factors that can act as anchors in the college admissions process. These are factors that are important to know before you begin applying to colleges and can even help you plan your own timeline!


As you begin applying to colleges, you’re going to be met with a variety of admission rounds. Some schools will offer Early Decision, while others may only offer Early Action. Some schools have Regular Decision, and some schools may offer a second round of Early Decision. Some schools only have one deadline, like the UC system.

When deciding when to apply to a specific college, you want to take into consideration the benefits and drawbacks of each admission round. Applying early can offer benefits such as finishing applications earlier and receiving admission decisions earlier. One thing to also keep in mind is that schools have traditionally accepted more students during their early rounds.

However, applying later, such as through Regular Decision or Early Decision 2, can offer more time to develop stronger essays and have an additional chance to increase your SAT or ACT score. It also allows you to have more time for new activities or competitions.

To aid you as you decide when to apply to college, I recommend reading this blog post that Solomon produced last year on the different admission rounds and their benefits.

Financial Aid

College is becoming more expensive every single year. In fact, according to the Education Data Initiative, college tuition has increased roughly 750% since 1963. As tuition is constantly rising, it’s important to understand what financial aid some schools may offer and whether it’s applicable to you and your family. Financial aid award letters can include grants, loans, or scholarships.


Grants are a specific amount of money that schools may offer in their financial aid package that do not need to be paid back. Schools that offer grants are often offered as alternatives to loans. Generally, grants are awarded based on financial need. Factors that are used when deciding whether to award a grant include family income, cost of school, and any life situation (disabilities, family status, and more). Typically, grants do not cover the entire cost of school; they’ll cover a small portion to help alleviate the cost of tuition or books.


Loans can also be included in a school’s financial aid package. However, loans must be paid back. Loans are often given at a higher amount than grants to cover larger portions of tuition.

There are two types of loans that colleges offer – unsubsidized and subsidized. Subsidized loans are solely based on financial need and do not accrue interest while you’re attending school. Unsubsidized loans do not require demonstrated financial need, but they do accrue interest while you’re attending school.


Scholarships are the white whale of financial aid packages. Scholarships are often merit-based, meaning they are awarded to students who meet certain criteria – whether it be academic, major-based, athletics, or more. Scholarships do not need to be paid back, and scholarships can potentially be larger than grants. However, scholarships can include their own application process such as additional information or even additional essays. Scholarships are also competitive, and the process can be subjective, meaning not everyone who qualifies for a specific scholarship will receive it.

For more information on different financial aid options, read this helpful article about how financial aid works!

Post-Graduation Preparation

When you’re applying to college, you may wonder how it’ll set you up for your dreams. Or maybe you’re hoping you’ll discover your professional calling during an intellectually stimulating class. Rather than wonder what you could do after college, you can always research how colleges prepare their students for success post-graduation.

Career Advancement Offices:

Every college will have an office dedicated to helping their students navigate the job process. These offices tend to host job fairs, internship fairs, resume writing workshops, and more. Their role is to provide the student body with as much guidance as possible to help them be successful post-graduation. The staff are prepared to answer as many questions as possible, such as what to expect during an interview and how to format your resume. This office may host many events, but you must take the initiative to attend these events. There are also many resources that you can find to help you be as successful as possible after graduation.

Career Outcomes:

One great way to see how schools have prepared their students for their future is to review the career outcomes of their graduating class. Schools will publish their data on what their students have planned once they graduate. For example, schools will list the companies where their students accepted job offers, how many students will be working after graduation, how many are attending graduate school, and so much more. For example, you can find the career outcomes for the University of Chicago. You can also find Cornell University’s career outcomes here. If there is a school that you’re interested in, you can always research “[College] Career Outcomes” on Google. Make sure that the website you’re entering is also directly from the interested college.

Every College is Unique. Don’t Hesitate to Ask for Help!

This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but these are factors to take into consideration when you begin applying to colleges. Every college is unique in its own way – whether in its residential housing system, essays, admission rounds, career outcomes, or financial aid offerings. There’s a lot to decide as you develop your college application timeline. As questions begin to arise, remember that we are here to help!

Former Assistant Director of Admissions at the University of Chicago

2 years in University of Chicago Admissions
3,500+ Applications Read and Evaluated

After graduating with a B.A. in Sociology from the University of Chicago, Frank Sierra joined the University's Office of College Admissions. As an Assistant Director, he recruited students across the Midwest, evaluated over 3,500 applications, facilitated essay writing workshops, and conducted sessions on applying to highly selective universities.

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