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Higher Education in Maryland

Questions about College --  Tips for Applying

art class

How many colleges should a student apply to?

  • Check with the school counselor.  The recommendation will vary by student and the colleges selected, but 4 to 8 applications is a common range.
  • The student should try to include a "stretch" school (one that might be difficult to be admitted to) and a "safety" school (one that might be easier to be admitted to).
  • Each application usually requires a fee (about $25 to $100+)
  • If a student qualified for an ACT or SAT fee waiver, application fees may be waived.
  • If your family has some means to pay for college, then it might be advisable to apply to a few more colleges to compare financial aid packages--consult the school counselor.

How is the application submitted?

Most colleges have an online application process but also allow mail applications.  Always proofread!  Typos can be hard to see on a computer screen, so students should try printing and proofreading a hard copy before submitting the application online.  It's a good idea to cut and paste the application essays from a word processing program.  Follow all directions carefully.  Type the application if you can.  Students should make and keep a copy of every application they submit.

When are admissions applications due?

  • Applications often have more than one part, with the first due around November 1.  Early options (see "Tips for Applying") may require earlier submission.  Dates vary by college.
  • Applying early may improve chances for admission or financial assistance.
  • Waiting until the last minute with online applications can be a problem because if too many people submit applications at once, the web server may be jammed.
  • Even if a two- or four-year college has "rolling admissions" (no specific deadlines), students should not wait to apply because slots for the first-year classes or for particular academic programs can fill up.

What's the Common Application?

Over 200 private (or "independent") colleges accept the same application, the Common Application (see  Colleges, however, often require a supplement of their own.  Historically Black Institutions (HBI or HBCU for "historically Black colleges and universities") also share an application, which is available at

What about the starting at a community college and transferring to a four-year college or university later?

  • Many community college students transfer to four-year colleges.  For some students, a community college is a cost-effective way of starting college.
  • Prospective transfer students must often complete certain courses before they can transfer into a particular college.  Community college transfer counselors can assist students in selecting courses that are transferable to the colleges they want to attend.
  • There are usually limits on how many credits will transfer into a college.  Courses for a major may not transfer at all or the number of credits in the major may be very limited.
smiling studentStandardized Tests (ACT, SAT)

  • Some colleges prefer on test or the other; check admission requirements.
  • Both the ACT and SAT are offered several times a year.
  • SAT Subject Tests evaluate subject-specific knowledge.  Some colleges require these.
  • Register early for standardized tests to avoid late fees.
  • Students from low-income families may qualify for a fee waiver for standardized tests.  Check with a school counselor and the ACT and SAT websites for details.
  • Standardized test results will be sent to up to four colleges for no additional fee.
  • ACT tests are administered by ACT, Inc., a nonprofit organization.  Information about its tests and about career and college planning can be found at
  • The College Board, also a nonprofit organization, administers the SAT tests and provides information about its tests and college planning at

Writing the Application Essay(s)

Many four-year colleges and universities have applications that require one or more essays.  The essay makes an important impression about the student's thinking, personality and work ethic.  Here are a few pointers for students:

  • Don't panic about these--but don't leave them to the last minute.
  • Follow the directions, and try to discuss something you care and understand.
  • Students must write and edit their own essays, but they can discuss them with people who have read them.
  • The best essays are the product of careful thinking and careful revising.  They are honest.
  • Be specific.  Avoid generalities.  Essays should demonstrate students' values and character through examples, explanation, and tone.
  • If comfortable, students can be creative or be funny--but not sarcastic.
  • Read the essay aloud to make sure it sounds clear.
  • Check spelling and grammar.  (Watch out:  grammar-checking software is not foolproof, and spell-checkers won't catch errors like "their" or "there.")

What if a student is absolutely certain about where to attend college?

There are some "early" options for students who are certain of their first-choice college:  early decision, early action, and single-choice early action.  Not all colleges offer these options, and colleges handle early options differently, so students should ask college admissions officers and a school counselor about these options before any applications are submitted.  If a student is not accepted for an early option, it's unlikely the student will be accepted under regular admission unless something in the application changes.

  • Early decision allows students to apply early and find out their admissions decision early in exchange for a promise to attend that college if accepted and offered enough financial aid.  Although students can usually apply to only one college early decision, they can still apply to other colleges for regular admission.  Early decision is binding, so it is not a good option for a student with any doubts about the first-choice college.
  • Early action is similar to early decision but may allow students more time to reply.
  • Single-choice early action forbids application to other colleges.

Visiting Colleges


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