Welcome to the first post in our new Student Voices series! In this series, we give our students a chance to share their experiences, thoughts, and advice about everything from navigating the college admissions process to succeeding academically.  

Charlie is a recent high school graduate who is heading off to his first year of college at UC Berkeley this fall. We invited Charlie to share his experience applying to college to give a first-hand account of what the process is like. Charlie worked with a college counselor, though he was not one of Academic Impact’s clients. 

Hello! My name is Charlie, and I’m a recent graduate of Mira Loma High School who will be attending UC Berkeley this fall. Now that I’ve completed the long and stressful journey of applying to college, I thought I would share how I personally navigated this process, in hopes of providing insight to anyone curious about what it’s really like to apply to college, from the perspective of a student.

I applied to seven public schools (five UCs and two CSUs) and seven private schools, and I found that every application had eight parts:

1) Creating an account

2) Providing basic information about myself

3) Listing my activities

4) Sending in my test scores

5) Sending in my high school transcript

6) Attaching letters of recommendation

7) Writing the required short essays

8) Submitting the application and paying the fee

Step 1: Creating an account

College applications are done entirely online now, and I found it useful to write down every username and password I created during this process. For schools that use the Common Application, you only have to create one Common App account to apply to all their schools (most private schools and some out-of-state public schools use the Common App). The same is true for applying to the University of California—you create one application that is sent to all the UC campuses you select.

Step 2: Providing basic information about myself

I didn’t find this part of the application terribly difficult to do, but due to the large amount of information each college asked of me, it always took me a while to fill out. First, I provided identifying information, like my legal name, address, high school, birthday, etc. Then, they asked for information about my family, including what institutions of higher education my parents attended and when they graduated. Finally, they’d have me indicate which specific school at the university I was applying to (for me, it was usually the College of Letters and Sciences) and what major I planned on pursuing there. The first one is always a binding decision, but the second one isn’t for most schools. [Note: This only applies for colleges that require you to indicate the specific school at the university to which you are applying. Not every college will require this.]

Step 3: Listing my activities

Each application gave me space to list any extracurricular activities, leadership positions, community service projects, and job experiences I did during high school, along with any honors/awards I earned. I found that on every application, space was always limited for this section, meaning I couldn’t include everything. Instead, I had to prioritize which things were most important to share with each college. To address this issue, I made a list ahead of time in which I ranked each of my activities and accomplishments by importance, which came in handy because the number of items I could list (and number of characters I could use to describe each item) varied for each institution.

Luckily, for UC schools and schools that use the Common Application, I only had to fill out all this information once, meaning I didn’t have to re-enter this information for every one of these schools I applied to.

SIDENOTE: If you’re a very accomplished musician, dancer, artist, etc., many private schools allow you to attach an optional “artistic supplement” to your application if you want to show them your talent. I play the saxophone, so I sent in a few recordings of me playing my instrument to the colleges that gave this option.

Step 4: Sending in my test scores and high school transcript

Every college required me to self-report my standardized test scores on the application, including how I did on the SAT, ACT, SAT subject tests, AP tests, and IB tests. But on top of that, each college required me to actually send them my official score reports. This meant that I had to log into my Collegeboard account and choose which schools to send my scores to, which cost $12 per school. Since I had so many colleges to send score reports to, it came in handy to keep a running list of which ones I had and hadn’t sent them to already.

SIDE NOTE: It supposedly takes two weeks for colleges to receive them, so it’s best to send your score reports at least two weeks before each application deadline (they want to have received them by the due date of the application). Otherwise, you’ll end up having to pay $35 for rush shipping if you didn’t send them early enough.

Step 5: Sending in my high school transcript

In addition to standardized test score reports, colleges also required me to submit my official high school transcript along with my application. In reality, it was actually my high school’s college counselor who did this for me (as is the case for most high schools), after I told her which colleges I was applying to. If I wasn’t sure whether or not she had sent a college my transcript yet, I could always just ask her OR check on the college’s online application portal to see if they had received it yet.

SIDENOTE: The UC and CSU schools also required me to type in every grade I received in every class I took in high school, which took a lot of time and focus to do properly. Private schools did not require me to do this.

Step 6: Attaching letters of recommendation

Public schools didn’t ask for these, but every private school I applied to required two letters of recommendation from two of my high school teachers. Teachers write letters of recommendation on behalf of their students all the time, so I found that as long as I a) asked them nicely and b) asked them far in advance of the application due date, it wasn’t difficult to get those two teachers to agree to submit letters of recommendation on my behalf. The two teachers I chose were those with whom I had the closest relationships and those whose classes I performed the best in, because they would therefore be able to write the best letters of recommendation for me. Once I found my two teachers, the rest of this part of the application was easy—I simply gave each school the teachers’ email addresses and they then contacted each teacher with instructions on how to fill out my letter of recommendation online. Obviously, I was never able to see what they wrote about me.

Step 7: Writing the required short essays

With the exception of CSUs, every school I applied to required me to submit multiple short essays. For UC schools, I responded to four out of eight possible prompts (max. 350 words each). For schools that use the Common Application, I had to respond to each individual school’s essay prompts, in addition to sending all of them my Common App essay (max. 650 words).

I found that there were four different kinds of prompts college applications would require me to write:

  • why the school is a fit for you (no longer than 250 words)
  • reflect on a meaningful activity/experience (ranging from 150-650 words) (this is what the UC and Common App essay prompts were like)
  • short personality questions (no longer than 50 words) (USC and Stanford ask a lot of these)
  • analysis of a topic (such as a quote)

The good thing was, with the exception of the first kind of prompt (which requires a totally unique response for each school that asks it), I was able to use each essay I wrote for multiple colleges. For example, I used an essay I wrote about playing the saxophone for five different schools. This meant that for every new college application, the number of new essays I actually had to write diminished. This made the process of submitting essays easier as it progressed.

This was definitely the hardest part of every application, in that it required the most time and effort, but it was also the most fun for me. Since this is article is about what to expect on college applications rather than how to answer each question, I will not delve into how you should answer each prompt (everyone has a different approach). However, I had a college counselor advise, edit, and approve every essay I submitted, and I recommend that every student find someone to do the same for them.

Step 8: Submitting the application and paying the fee

Once I was sure that every section of the application was fully completed, I proofread each section at least twice, especially the essays. When I decided I was finished, I chose to submit my application, which led to the final part of every application: paying the application fee (ranging from $50-$100, but some students can qualify to have these fees waived). After this was done, I was always able to breathe a sigh of relief that I didn’t have to worry about it anymore and that it all rested in the hands of the school’s admissions officers from then on.

Hopefully you now know what to expect to see when you begin filling out college applications in the fall of your senior year! Like I said, with each application it becomes easier and easier. Every college wants just about the same information for you as the next one, so as long as you give yourself plenty of time to do your best on every application, it will all be over before you know it!


Additional Resources for College Admissions:

Ivy League College Admissions

For College Admissions, You’re More Than Just Your Grades

Academic Impact College Admissions Services