How the College Admission Process Works

A student on a laptop researching college admissions.

Congratulations on your decision to go to college! A college degree can give you a leg up in the job market and lead to higher-paying jobs.

Now that you’ve made the decision, you’re probably thinking, “Where do I start?” The college admissions process can seem intimidating at first, but we’re here to help. The first step is researching which colleges are right for you.

College Search

To choose which schools will fit your education needs, you’ll need to consider what you want to study. Popular majors include education, business, psychology, and engineering. You don’t need to pick a popular major (or even a career right now!), but it helps to figure out which subjects you’d like to study. Junior year is a great time to research schools and schedule campus visits.

You should also decide whether you want to attend a big university or a smaller school. Do you want to go in-state or out-of-state and can you afford the colleges you’re exploring? These are important factors that students and parents should discuss before sending in any applications.

There are many resources available online to help you narrow down your college search. has tools to help you search for colleges, compare tuition rates, keep track of deadlines, and submit applications to all North Carolina colleges and universities.

Application Requirements

Once you know which schools you’re interested in attending, start making a list of application requirements. College admissions officers will want to know about your high school career, including:


Schools are interested in your grade point average over your high school career and the challenging coursework you’ve tackled, including dual enrollment courses, honors and Advanced Placement classes.

Standardized Test Scores

If you haven’t taken the ACT or SAT yet, you can register for those tests online. There are also many free online resources to help you prepare for the test. Don’t forget that in North Carolina, high school juniors take the ACT for free at school in the spring.

Sports and Activities

How do you spend your time outside of the classroom? Do you have a part-time job, play on a sports team, volunteer, or participate in a school club? Make a list of everything you’ve done in high school that demonstrates the kind of student you will be in college. Remember to include any special honors or leadership roles.

Personal Essay

You may also need to write a college essay. This will take some thought and time, but the good news is that most colleges have their essay prompts out early, so you can spend time pondering a well-formed response. Often, the hardest part of writing a quality personal essay is digging deep and telling a story that will stay with the reader.

Consider having your English teacher read a draft for feedback, and remember that the essay is often in place of a face-to-face interview. Some schools may have you write additional essays, so stay ahead of deadlines by starting early.

Letters of Recommendation

If you decide to apply to a selective college or university, you’ll likely need a letter of recommendation from a teacher or school counselor. Choose someone who knows you well and can give colleges a better idea of who you are as a prospective student.

Remember to give them plenty of time to write the letter because they’re probably getting requests from other students. Don’t forget to send a thank you note!

Tackle Applications

Completing these important steps will make tackling your college application much less intimidating. In the fall of your senior year of high school, colleges will make their applications available for the following academic year.

Start early. There’s no need to wait until the last minute to send in your applications. You can go to each school’s website and start filling out applications online. If you’re using the CFNC Application Hub to apply to North Carolina schools, all your applications will stay organized in one place. This website also allows North Carolina students to submit electronic high school transcripts to in-state schools for free.

Make sure you keep track of important application deadlines for each school. Many schools have early action or early decision deadlines that come up in October or November of your senior year. Most regular decision deadlines take place in January. Do your research and stay organized.

Many factors go into the college admissions process. Understanding those factors can help give your application a leg up and get you into the school that’s right for you.

While You’re Waiting

After submitting all your applications, the college admissions process is not over. While you wait to hear back from schools, this is the perfect time to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). If you need help, there are many free online resources to walk you through the process. The FAFSA allows you to apply for federal and state financial aid to pay for school, including grants. Be sure to apply after October 1st of your senior year. Don’t delay, the earlier the better!