Guide to completing your college application!

Guide to College Application

You have most likely begun the exciting journey towards university. We hope this short guide helps you by providing you with  some guidance in the college application process.


Universities of California (UC's)

Basic Information:

There are 9 universities (+ UCSF which doesn’t have an undergraduate college).

They are: Berkeley (Cal), Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, Merced, Riverside, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz

•  UC’s are less expensive than private schools. Their tuition/fees is about $14,000 for CA residents and $38,024 for nonresidents. This is not counting room and board and other fees, which is about an additional $20,000However, this price does not take into account financial aid/scholarships/etc. For example, at Berkeley about 50% of applicants receive some financial aid.

•  Universities vary in location, admission rates, average GPAs, strengths, campus cultures, rivalries (for example, DON’T wear a Stanford shirt at Cal) etc.

•  But! There is one application for all the UC’s! Yay!

•  However, you do have to pay the admission fee for every UC to which you apply, which is $70 per application (unless you have a fee waiver). So don’t apply to all the UC’s just because.


•  Completed “a-g” requirements (with a C or better) by end of 12th grade. Note: These are often similar (but not identical) to high school graduation requirements.


•  Minimum (weighted) GPA of 3.0 (for CA residents) or 3.4 (for out of state) in 10th and 11th grade in a-g requirements. Must have no grade lower than a C.

•  Fees: $70 per campus you’re applying to. You can request a fee waiver for up to 4 campuses. If you think you are eligible for a fee waiver, apply for one. There’s no harm in trying.

•  Standardized Testing:

-  ACT plus Writing or SAT Reasoning Test. Take these no later than Dec. of senior year, and better if you take them earlier. Just taking the exams are not enough. Make sure you actually send your results to the UC’s!

- SAT Subject Tests (or SAT II’s) are not required, but some majors may recommend them.


If you are a California resident make sure you apply for Cal Grant – you will need to talk to your high school counselor, principal, or registrar about your school filing your GPA Verification Form by March 1 or 2 of your senior year.


Don’t dismiss a university because you think it’s too expensive. Many many private universities offer significant financial aid. Some universities offer merit-based scholarships as well.

•  Be careful about applying to the right school. Columbia College and Columbia University are not the same school. Often the engineering college and general liberal arts college within a university have separate admissions.

•  Generally you don’t need to send in a resume, but some colleges give you that option or provide space to list activities, jobs, awards, etc.

•  Don't go overboard. Don’t send in 10 extra letters of recommendation or additional essays, or a ten foot sculpture. Some colleges allow you to send art supplements or an additional letter of rec or two.

•  Don't forget to check your Mail and Email. I got a couple of fee waivers in letters. You can always ritually recycle/burn your college mail later. Colleges will email you if they’re missing something.

Helpful Links:

Private Universities and Colleges

Basic Information:

Most private universities and colleges in the US use the Common Application process, and then some also ask you to complete supplemental essays. 

Common Application:

This is the king, the queen, the president of college admissions! Most private universities use this website, except for the few like MIT which are too cool for a communal website. The UC’s do not use Common App.

To apply, go to:

When completing the common app:

1.  You can use it to apply to over 500 colleges. Common app allows you to fill out lists of your activities, grades, demographic information, etc once and only once.

2. You don’t need to go to the websites of individual colleges to apply, although you might get useful info from their websites. Nor should you fill out additional paper applications.

3.  You do have to pay a fee for every university to which you apply. However, you can sometimes get fee waivers!

4. You can also use Common App to send recommendation letters. Many colleges require one or two teacher letters of rec, as well as a letter from a counselor, and sometimes an additional letter. *Make sure to ask your recommenders well in advance. You’ll need to send your letter writers a link, so they can create an account on common app and write a letter.


There is also a Common App essay that goes to all the universities that use this application:

  •  The universities don’t expect or want you to personalize this essay for their specific university.  So absolutely do not say anything specific about a particular school in the main essay! Save that for the supplements!
  • Because universities like to make innocent high schoolers suffer (sorry, build character?), many colleges have supplements. These are additional, often shorter essays, specific to each college. Make sure you complete these too! These can be quite important in admissions. The good news is that many supplements are similar, and not all colleges have supplements. A common question is “Why College X?”
  • Make sure to submit both the common app (essay and questions) and the university’s supplements. Also don’t forget to send SAT’s/ACT’s to common app universities! The common app won’t do that for you.


As with the UC prompts, it is a good idea to complete supplements and Common App essay on a word document and then copy and paste it onto the application:

  • Universities have different app deadlines, usually in January. The Common App can and does have issues and malfunctions, so try not to wait until the last minute to submit applications.
  • Notification Dates vary by university. Usually you’ll hear by end of March/early April.
  •  The Ivy League schools generally all notify students on the same day!



General Advice:

Essay Writing:

 It is ok, indeed it is expected, to ask family, friends, counselors, teachers, neighbors, random people to read or proofread or give advice on your essays and personal statements. It is not ok to ask someone to write your essays for you. Also be careful that your essay doesn’t start to sound like your English teacher, instead of like a high school senior.

•  Certain topics should be avoided: drug use, anything to do with dating, criminal activity, etc. Some topics are really cliché; a person who inspired you (ends up being about the other person, and not about you), travelogues, sports victories. You can still write about these cliché topics (I did) but try to make them not just “I scored the winning goal!”

•  Reduce, reuse, recycle. Within reason. If you just apply to UC’s, you will just have to write two essays and be done. But if you apply to ten different schools, that’s at least ten different supplements to write. I think I wrote 20 different essays for college. So if two schools ask you about your community, you can reuse that essay. If you love a sentence you wrote in one essay, maybe it can find its way into another essay. However, make sure you are still answering the prompt, still writing for the right school, and not submitting collages of quotes instead of essays. Don’t write how much you love the East Coast for an essay explaining “Why Stanford” or write UCLA when you meant USC.

•  Be creative. Also within reason. The admissions officers read a lot of essays. What makes you unique?

•  Brag. It’s ok. Everyone else does. As long as you don’t seem too arrogant, some bragging is acceptable.





Helpful Links:

Common App Prompts:

Common Application Website:

Common Application Member Colleges:

MIT Application (doesn’t use Common App):

Stanford Supplements:

US News (good for stats like tuition cost, number of students, etc.):

Want to learn more about colleges and how to apply, here's some advice from Dr. Bonnie Halpern-Felsher:

College 101

Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, PhD

Professor, Stanford University Director of Fellowship Research and Associate Fellowship

Director, Division of Adolescent Medicine

Program Investigator, STEP-UP Program