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The Ultimate Guide to Applying to College After High School

Written by Lauren Ambrosio on Thursday, 05 October 2023. Posted in College Bound

Graduation cap, diploma with ribbon, computer mouse, and keyboard.

The decision to attend college once you graduate from high school can be a tough one–should you start working right away and delay school or dive right into higher education? Is a two- or four-year degree better for the job you want? Or should you pursue a skilled trade license and skip college altogether?

We start asking students as early as eighth grade what they ‘want to be’ when they ‘grow up.’ That’s a lot of pressure to put on a 14-year-old! However, it’s good to know that there are different paths you can take if you have a passion or hobby you’d like to pursue or turn into a career after high school.

The following is a breakdown of the types of secondary programs you can take, what to consider when looking at colleges, how to apply for college as a high school student or an adult, and the steps to take once you’ve been accepted. Get ready to take notes because there are a lot of nuggets you’re going to need when you apply to college!

The different types of college degrees and programs

There is no such thing as “unskilled labor.” Every person working at a job has skills that they use every day to perform their jobs. Some jobs do not require higher education or a certification, but it is often a good way to get your foot in the door if you don’t have prior real-world experience.

  • Associate's degrees often take two years to complete and are a great way to begin your college journey. They provide a solid foundation for further studies or can pave the way for entry-level jobs in various industries. You can transfer credits earned at a two-year college in order to put them towards a bachelor’s degree.
  • Skilled trades programs and certifications provide hands-on training for specific vocations such as electricians, plumbers, or automotive technicians. They can be an excellent option if you prefer a more practical approach to learning.
  • Career diplomas are shorter programs that focus on specialized skills in a particular field. They're perfect if you want to enhance your career or switch to a new one quickly. A lot of healthcare careers require a specialized certification.
  • Bachelor's degrees usually take four years to complete if you attend school full time (12-15 hours per semester). They provide a comprehensive understanding of a particular subject and are essential for many professional careers. It’s also a prerequisite if you want to go to law or medical school.

Choosing a degree or technical program depends on your career aspirations. For example, if you’re passionate about plumbing, you can skip the BS (bachelor’s of science, that is) and work towards a career certification instead.

Read more: Which Trades Career Is Right for Me

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Questions to ask yourself if you’re deciding on whether or not to go to college

Having a good idea of your future goals helps, but if you're unsure about what career to pursue, here are some questions to get you thinking about your options:

  • Which subjects, activities, or previous work experiences have I enjoyed, and what strengths of mine were highlighted during these times?
  • What values matter to me in a job, and in what type of setting (office, outdoors, remote) do I see myself thriving?
  • What work-life balance do I want, and am I open to relocating for career opportunities, looking to remain local, or aiming for remote-only work?
  • Taking into account factors like self-discipline, interest in going to school, etc., what length and type of education or training (4-year colleges, 2-year colleges, trade schools, online courses) fit with my personality and ambitions?
  • Which fields are currently in demand, and how does the projected future job market affect my choices?
  • Do I see myself working with a team, or do I prefer working independently?
  • Can I justify the costs–both time and money–for the sake of my education, future job, and potential future earnings?

Read more: What Is The Difference Between JMHS’s General, College Prep, and Career Pathway Diplomas?

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When should I start applying for college?

If you know that you’re interested in going to college, you can start applying even while you're still in high school. Many colleges also offer rolling admissions, meaning you can apply at any time throughout the year. Pay attention to your school’s application deadlines for the upcoming academic year so you don’t miss one and have to wait until the following semester.

What colleges accept a JMHS diploma?

As a James Madison High School graduate, your JMHS diploma has been accepted by many colleges in the past. However, it’s important to note that every college has different admissions requirements and different things they look for in applicants. Before enrolling, it’s a good idea to check with colleges you’re interested in to ensure that a JMHS diploma will meet their requirements.

For further details, you can check this list of colleges that accept JMHS diplomas.

College application requirements checklist

College applications typically require:

  • Completed application form (or online application)
  • Official sealed high school transcript (from all high schools attended)
  • Test scores (SAT, ACT)
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Personal essay
  • Application fee

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Applying to college as an adult learner

If you're an adult learner thinking about returning to school, rest assured that it's never too late. Many colleges offer programs designed specifically for adult learners. The application process remains similar, with some colleges even waiving certain requirements, like test scores, for adults.

Read more: Ultimate Guide To Earning Your Diploma Online

Applying to colleges: A recommended timeline

This timeline is a guide, not a requirement, but it’s good to remember that there are many deadlines and tasks to check off in order to apply for college. Making sure you know when things are due is going to be crucial and good practice in case you have a professor who won’t accept late work.

Sophomore Year (10th Grade)

  • Spring: Start considering potential career fields of interest and explore the types of education those fields require.
  • Summer: Begin exploring colleges online to get a sense of what's out there.

Junior Year (11th Grade)

  • Fall: Begin researching colleges more intensively, looking at factors like location, size, academic programs, cost, and campus culture. Also, start preparing for standardized tests like the SAT/ACT.
  • Winter: Take the PSAT if you haven't already. Some colleges use PSAT scores for scholarship consideration.
  • Spring: Register and prepare for the SAT/ACT tests. Also, try to visit some colleges if possible. Start identifying potential teachers, mentors, or employers who could write you letters of recommendation.
  • Summer: Visit more colleges if possible. Start working on your college essay.

Senior Year (12th Grade)

  • Summer Before: Finalize your list of colleges. Prepare for any final SAT/ACT testing if necessary. Begin drafting application essays.
  • August-September: Reach out to the individuals you've identified for recommendation letters. Complete your applications for Early Action or Early Decision if you're applying that way.
  • October: Finalize and submit your college essays and applications if you're applying Early Action/Early Decision. File your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as soon after October 1 as possible.
  • November: Finish your regular decision applications. Continue submitting college applications before deadlines.
  • December: Make sure all your Early Decision or Early Action materials are submitted. Finish up regular decision applications.
  • January: Submit all regular decision applications if not already done.
  • February: Review your college acceptance letters and financial aid offers as they arrive. Visit or revisit campuses if needed to help make your decision.
  • May 1: This is the traditional deadline to submit your intent to enroll at a college (with a deposit).
  • June: Request that your final high school transcript be sent to the college you'll be attending.

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How to decide and apply for the colleges of your choice

1. Research colleges

Identify colleges that offer academic programs and campus environments that fit your goals and interests. Consider factors like size, location, cost, available extracurriculars, and graduation rates.

2. Visit college campuses (if possible)

Virtual or physical visits to college campuses can help you understand the environment and community. You can often tour the facilities, meet current students, sit in on classes, and get a sense of whether it feels like a good fit for you.

3. Prepare for and take standardized tests

Most colleges require the SAT or ACT. Prepare well for these tests and aim to complete them in your junior year or early senior year. Some colleges may also require or recommend SAT Subject Tests. Note that an increasing number of colleges are moving toward "test-optional" policies, particularly in light of disruptions due to COVID-19.

4. Obtain letters of recommendation

Most colleges require one or more letters of recommendation, typically from teachers, school counselors, or other adults who can speak to your abilities and potential. Identify individuals who can write strong, personalized letters for you, and ask them well in advance of the deadline.

5. Write your college essays

The college essay is your chance to show colleges who you are beyond your grades and test scores. Most colleges require at least one essay as part of the application.

6. Fill out college applications

You will typically submit applications through platforms like the Common Application, the Coalition Application, or the college's own application system. You'll need to fill out personal information, list your extracurricular activities, and potentially answer additional essay or short-answer questions.

6. Submit your applications

Ensure you submit all parts of your application, including supplemental materials like transcripts, test scores, and letters of recommendation, by each college's deadline. Deadlines can range from as early as October or November of your senior year for early decision or early action to as late as March or April for regular decision.

7. Apply for financial aid

Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to apply for federal student aid and complete any other financial aid applications required by your state or the colleges to which you're applying. Some colleges also require the CSS Profile for non-federal financial aid.

8. Review your acceptance letters and financial aid offers

Once you've received responses from the colleges to which you applied, review your options. Consider the financial aid package, the academic program, the campus environment, and any other factors that are important to you.

9. Make a decision

Most colleges require you to decide and send in a deposit by May 1st. Be sure to notify the other colleges that accepted you that you will not be attending.

Read more: 3 Reasons to Enroll in Online College

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Common mistakes to avoid when applying for college

  1. Procrastination: Leaving your application until the last minute can lead to mistakes or missed deadlines. Start early to give yourself enough time to write your essays, fill out the application, gather all necessary documents, and review everything before submitting.
  2. Neglecting your essays: Your essays are a chance to show your unique personality and story. Don't write generic essays, fail to proofread for errors, or ignore the essay prompts.
  3. Applying to too many or too few colleges: Applying to too many colleges can spread you thin and prevent you from personalizing each application. On the other hand, applying to too few can limit your options. It's generally recommended to apply to a range of "safety," "match," and "reach" schools.
  4. Only considering "brand-name" schools: Just because a school is well-known or prestigious doesn't mean it's the best fit for you. There are many excellent colleges and universities that might not be household names but could offer a great education and campus environment for you.
  5. Failing to showcase your individuality: Admissions officers read thousands of applications - make sure yours stands out by highlighting your unique experiences, perspectives, and passions.
  6. Ignoring application instructions: Each college may have slightly different requirements for their application. Make sure you thoroughly read and follow all instructions to avoid having your application discarded.
  7. Neglecting financial aid applications: Filling out financial aid forms like the FAFSA and CSS Profile is just as important as your college application. Don't miss out on potential aid by missing these forms or deadlines.
  8. Over-relying on parents or others to complete your application: It's okay to seek help or advice, but the application should be your own work. This is your opportunity to showcase who you are and what you can bring to the college.
  9. Not asking for recommendations early: Recommendation letters can take time to write, so make sure to ask your teachers, counselors, or other mentors well in advance of the deadline.
  10. Not proofreading: A small typo or error can give the impression that you're not taking the process seriously. Always proofread your application and essays, and consider asking a teacher, parent, or mentor to review them as well.

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What should you do once you're enrolled in an online college program?

Once you're enrolled, start by taking the pre-assessments for subjects like English and Math. Make use of online resources and study at your own pace. For instance, Hannah Rodgers, an online veterinary technician student, shares, “I got access to my study materials right away. I didn’t have to wait for anything. This is a plus for online college."

Your education, your time, your choice

If you’re ready to get started on preparing for college–just like Hannah–we’re here to help you every step of the way. Whether you’re ready to apply for colleges or you’re looking for a high school program that will meet your future education needs, call the helpful admissions team at JMHS at 1-888-427-6500 today!

About the Author

Lauren Ambrosio

Lauren Ambrosio

Lauren Ambrosio is a lifelong writer with a B.A. in English from the University of Texas at Arlington. She joined Penn Foster in 2023 and is excited to be part of a team with such a rich history. She hopes to help our learners by providing helpful information they need on their education and career journeys. When Lauren isn’t writing about our veterinary programs—her favorite topic—she is hiking the foothills of Pikes Peak with her black lab, Remy.