How To Apply to College

Colleges in almost every country now ask students to submit their applications electronically. Some colleges have their own institutional applications; others are part of the Common Application or a larger state system. Students should refer to each college’s website to check its application requirements and timelines.

The Common Application

The Common App

Nearly 700 colleges in the US now use The Common Application (“Common App”), a standardized form that can be submitted to multiple institutions. The main Common App consists of a series of simple questions and one personal essay. Many colleges also have a supplemental section that ask questions not included on the main Common App; these supplemental sections may include additional essay requirements.

If a college accepts the Common App, SAS students must use it, even if the college accepts other types of applications. In other words, if a college is a member of the Common App group but also has their own application on their website or the Coalition Application, you need to use the Common App. This is the only way that SAS can send your supporting materials – transcripts, recommendations, and the SAS Profile—electronically to those schools.

Currently The Common App essay prompts are:

  1. 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
  2. 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?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  4. Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma - anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  6. 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?
  7. 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.

State Specific Applications

State Specific Applications

Some US states and one Canadian province have applications that allow students to apply to all of the schools that are linked under one system. The University of California and Cal State use their own common applications. The UC system has a specific set of required high school courses. Remember, these are minimum requirements and often students must have higher numbers than indicated on this chart. UC StatFinder website provides public access to detailed data on undergraduate admissions and enrollment at the University of California.

Texas public universities and public schools in Ontario, Canada also have their own application sites.

What Students Send

What Students Send

Student applications always begin with the application form itself, any required essays, and the application fee. Colleges vary in what supporting items they require/recommend, so it is important to check each school’s website to make sure you have sent in all necessary materials.

Essays: Many colleges ask that you write one or more essays as part of their application process. These essays are a place for you to share your voice with colleges, to show them what you really care about, and to give them a sense of who you are as a person. Colleges use essays to determine who you are, what you have been doing, what is important to you, and what sets you apart from other applicants.

There is no one perfect topic—the best work comes from what you care about and what makes you an individual. Always choose a topic that feels right to you—trust your instincts. With your essay, you want to demonstrate two things: that you are a capable writer and that you are an interesting, mature person. Try to think “what would I like to write about?” rather than “what would someone like to hear?” Then make sure that your topic area has a clear and limited focus.

The best essays tell a story: they have a narrative arc, they show rather than tell, and they grab the reader’s interest. As with any good story, keep your essay narrow in scope and include detail, anecdotes, and specific examples. And make sure that at least one person edits all of your essays before you send them!

The college counselors at SAS have read thousands of college essays and have a deep understanding of what will and will not appeal to college admissions representatives. The SAS college counselors offer multiple essay writing workshops in the spring of junior year, during both the College Admission Seminar (CAS) and juniors’ free blocks, to discuss do’s and don’ts and to offer essay writing models to students. The SAS college counselors also help with essays throughout the first half of senior year. They assist in brainstorming sessions, read rough drafts to see if essays are heading in a good direction, and edit subsequent drafts for content and quality.

Official Test Scores: Unless you are applying to test-optional schools, you must send your SAT and/or ACT scores to colleges directly through the College Board or the ACT.

Certification of Finances: If you are not a US citizen, most US colleges will require that you provide proof of your ability to pay for college before you can be granted a US visa. Some schools may require that you submit a certification of finances as part of the application process. Please check each school’s website for more information about this and to complete the relevant forms.

Supplemental Arts Materials: If you are applying as an arts major, many US colleges will ask that you submit supplementals work such as film clips, music recordings, or art portfolios. Some colleges will allow students to submit these materials even if they do not intend to pursue an art major. Please check each individual college’s website to see whether and how they want these materials submitted.

What SAS Sends

What SAS Sends

Your SAS college counselor will send in materials to support your application. These will generally include your transcript, a counselor letter of recommendation, and the SAS High School Profile. SAS will send your mid-year transcript once first semester grades are available in late December or early January. For schools that require them, SAS will also submit your teacher letters of recommendation.

School Transcripts

Teacher Recommendations: SAS has developed a system to help teachers write their recommendations. The first step is to ask one or two teachers—check with your SAS college counselor about the number—to write your recommendation letters. Your college counselor can help you select teachers who know you, respect you, and will write positive comments about you. Your teacher will write one letter of recommendation that will be used for each of your applications.

After your teacher has agreed to write for you, go to Cialfo, click the "Questionnaire" tab, and then click the “Teacher Recommendation” form relating to the subject area taught by the teacher. Thoughtfully and completely fill out the questionnaire to give the teacher the information necessary to write a thorough recommendation. Students who will be completing National Service or taking a gap year should be sure to request their teacher recommendation(s) and complete this questionnaire before they graduate.

Finally, please say thanks to any teacher who has written you a recommendation letter! Writing a good letter is hard work—send a thank you note or do something to let them know how much you appreciated their efforts.

Counselor Recommendations: Most colleges will also require a letter from your college counselor. At SAS, college counselors get to know you in a variety of ways: they meet with you multiple times; they attend sports and arts events; they read your teacher comments; they ask for parent questionnaires; and they review the resume and Counselor Recommendation questionnaire you have filled out in CIalfo. The more information you provide, the easier it is for your counselor to write a thoughtful and thorough recommendation.

To complete your counselor recommendation questionnaire, you must login to Cialfo and complete the "Counselor Rec" survey. This form is only available in the middle of the junior year and is due by August 31 of your senior year.


In order to let the SAS College Counseling Office know that you will be applying to a school, you must complete a Document Request Form (DRF) for each school to which you intend to apply. DRFs must be submitted well in advance of school’s application deadlines. Your college counselors will keep you updated about DRF deadlines.