Every school has its own application requirements. These may differ for students applying straight out of high school, those hoping to transfer into a program, and individuals returning to school after taking time off. Depending on your prospective major or program, you may have to submit additional materials, interview, or audition. Most schools list their application requirements on their websites, so you can get a start gathering materials early. Remember, you will not be considered for admission if anything is missing from your application.


When reading over the school’s application requirements, pay close attention to the directions for submitting your materials. Some schools require applications to be submitted online while others prefer paper applications sent through the postal service. If you’re applying online, be sure that you have a secure internet connection and be ready to pay the application fee when it comes time to submit. If you’re applying by mail, you’ll have to print out an application and mail in your required materials and a check. (Fee waivers are available for eligible students.)

What materials are required to complete an application?

The following lists should give you an idea of general application requirements, and what is different for transfer and returning or adult applicants.

For first-time college applicants:

  • Application form consisting of your basic personal information
  • Scores from the SAT, ACT, and/or SAT Subject Tests
  • Personal essay
  • Recommendations from teachers and/or counselors
  • High school transcripts
  • Responses to short answer questions
  • Résumé or activities sheet
  • Interview
  • Additional writing samples as requested by the institution
  • Portfolio or creative sample (fine arts, design, film, audio, and creative writing programs)
  • Audition (performing arts programs)

For transfer applicants:

Generally, transfer applicants will need to submit the same materials as first-time college applicants. However, there are several (possible) differences in the application process and required materials.

  • Depending on how many college hours you’ve completed, you may have to apply either as a transfer student or as a freshman. If you’ve completed over a year of college, you will likely be a transfer student, and may have to complete a specific transfer application. If you’ve completed less than a year of college, you may have to apply as a first-time student. If this is the case, check your prospective school’s credit transfer policy. Some of the credits you’ve completed may transfer with you.
  • You may not need to submit your SAT, ACT, or SAT Subject Test scores depending on how much college-level coursework you’ve completed and the type of institution that you attended.
  • Submit transcripts from the postsecondary institution(s) that you’ve attended and your high school, if requested.
  • Letters of recommendation should come from your college professors, dean, or advisor. Who should submit a recommendation may be specified by your prospective institution. Submitting recommendations from college professors instead of reaching out to your former high school teachers or guidance counselor is more favorable as a transfer student.

For returning or adult students:

You will generally have to submit the same materials as first-time college applicants, with a few exceptions.

  • Submit your high school transcripts or high school equivalency certificate and transcripts from any postsecondary institution(s) you’ve attended.
  • Depending on your age, the amount of time you’ve been away from school, and your institution, you may not have to submit any standardized test scores as a part of your application. For more information about taking standardized tests as an adult, click here.
  • Letters of recommendations should come from individuals who know your academic aspirations and your academic potential. This may be a former employer, a former teacher (depending on how long you’ve been out of school), or other individual.

What should I look out for when reviewing application requirements?

  • Deadlines: Take note of early and regular admissions deadlines as well as those for institutional scholarships for which you may be eligible.
  • Application platform participation: Over 600 institutions use the Common Application, while others prefer the Coalition Application or the Universal College Application. Still others may request that applicants use the school’s website or a printed application to apply for admission. Regardless of the application type, take note of any supplementary materials that each school requires as part of their application.
  • Transcripts: As a high school student, getting your transcript from your high school is too easy. Talk to your guidance counselor and have them send an official version to your prospective institution on your behalf. As a transfer applicant or a returning or adult student, getting your high school transcripts may be a little trickier. First, check your high school’s website to see if there is information for alumni. If that doesn’t work, call the school and ask about transcript services. If your school no longer exists, you will have to contact your state’s Department of Education. Transfer and returning or adult students who have had some postsecondary education will also need to send official transcripts from all of the colleges they attended. Be aware that some institutions may charge a fee for finding and distributing your transcript.
  • Letter of recommendation instructions: Some schools will specify that they want recommendations from certain people, for example a core subject teacher, a counselor, or an advisor. Before you ask anyone to write you a letter, make sure you understand the requirements and how the letter should be sent to the school. Can writers submit their recommendations online? If they’re sent through the postal service, does the writer need to sign their name across the envelope seal? Are there specific recommendation forms to fill out?
  • Format for supplemental materials: If you need to submit your résumé, activities sheet, portfolio, creative piece, or writing sample, is there a specific format you should follow? Were you given a prompt? Should these materials be submitted online or through the mail?
  • Interview or audition scheduling: If an interview or audition is required, how is it scheduled? Do you have to go to campus or does the school host interviews and auditions elsewhere or via Skype? Are there specific days for interviews and auditions? What should you prepare for your audition? Does the school provide a list of interview questions for which you should familiarize yourself?
  • Test score practices:
    • Test code: Find out each school’s test code. You will need it to send an SAT or ACT score report to an institution.
    • Superscore: Does the college allow you to submit ACT or SAT superscores? If you have taken a test more than once, your superscore is calculated by pulling your top scores for each section of the test. For the SAT, you would add up your highest math score and highest evidence-based reading and writing score to get your superscore. For the ACT, you would average your highest science, math, English, and reading scores to get your superscore.
    • All score reports: Does the school require you to send in scores from every time that you took the SAT or the ACT? If so, you should be careful not to take it “as practice” or for a second time without studying because those scores will also be taken into account when making an admissions decision.
    • SAT Score Choice: Does the school allow you to select a specific SAT or SAT Subject Test score report to send in? If so, you can take the test as many times as you like. Keep in mind, however, that you may decide to apply to another school down the line and that school may require a report of all your scores.
    • Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests: If your school participates in either the AP or IB program, you may have had the opportunity to take AP or IB classes and tests throughout high school. If you have high enough scores (generally between a 3 and 5 on an AP test and 6 or 7 on an IB test), you may receive college credit or placement out of introductory-level classes. Check with your institution to learn more about its credit policies.
    • CLEP tests: Not as popular with high school students, CLEP tests are short exams over a variety of topics that may translate into college credit at some institutions. Check with your prospective schools to learn about their policies and what scores are required for credit.

There is a lot to keep track of when applying for colleges. If your schools use the Common Application, there is a handy worksheet that you can print out for each school to keep track of your progress. For non-Common Application schools, consider printing out a Student Caffé college application checklist to document important deadlines and application requirements for each of your schools.

Page last updated: 04/2017