College Admissions FAQs

Learn how to find a college that is strong for a particular major or interest, the average cost of a college application, when to start filling in the Common App, and how long the college essay should be.
Student using computer

It's time for high school juniors to start looking ahead to the fall's college admissions season. As we've been talking to families about the process, we've received several great questions about searching for colleges, the application, and the different components of applying. We've included some of our popular questions below, with answers.

How can we find a college that is strong for a particular major or interest?

There are college search engines that allow you to search by major or subject of interest to find a school that includes that particular concentration. MEFA Pathway allows you to pick an area of study and then provides a list of schools that offer it. And the College Navigator allows you to narrow your college search by schools that include a specific program or major. You can also sort by schools that offer the area of study solely via distance education.

What is the average cost of a college application?

Per U.S. News & World Report, the average application fee is $45, based on almost 900 schools surveyed. Of the 64 schools with the highest fees, the average cost was $78, and the top fee was $100. Some schools don't charge an application fee at all, and others will waive the fee based on your family income or if you meet certain criteria, such as taking a campus tour or having a parent that attended that school.

When can I start filling in the Common App?

The Common App becomes available every year starting on August 1st for the upcoming admissions cycle. However, students can actually create an account and start filling in information before that date. Once the calendar hits August 1st, they'll be able to transfer their information into the application for the upcoming year. Even if you haven't finalized your college list, you can start completing the application by adding in your background information and the details requested in the general section of the application.

How long should the college essay be?

Your college application will provide guidelines regarding the acceptable length of your essay. If you're completing the Common App, used by over 900 colleges and universities, your main essay should fall in the range of 250–650 words. Some schools might ask for an essay shorter in length. You'll hear different advice on the best length of your essay, but most admissions offices will stress that you stay within the required range and then convey your message as best you can without concentrating on the number of words you've used.

When will we know our financial aid if my child applies Early Decision?

Most schools will send your financial aid offer with your offer of admission. However, remember that an Early Decision acceptance is binding, so make sure you can afford the school, no matter the financial aid you may end up receiving, before you apply.

Does the activity list include only high school activities?

Your list should include only those activities that you participated in while in high school (so leave off anything from middle school) but the activities could be ones unaffiliated with your high school, such as participation in a regional sports team or neighborhood soup kitchen. You should also include any part-time work. A general rule of thumb is to include any activity in which you participate regularly and that serves others or feeds your personal development.

If a student takes an AP course, do colleges grant the student college credit?

You can only earn college credit for an AP® course if you take the AP exam at the end of the year and earn the minimum score required by that school. Different schools require different minimum scores, and they vary by subject matter. The College Board® posts the AP credit policy of each college on their website here.

If a school doesn't require an interview, is it worth it to ask for one if you really want to attend that school?

If a school doesn't conduct interviews at all, you won't be able to participate in one, even if you ask. But you could still call the admissions office and likely speak with your assigned admissions counselor if you have any particular questions. If the school does offer optional interviews, it's a very good idea to sign up for one, especially if it's your first-choice school. Even if you're nervous, you'll make a good impression by being willing to overcome your nerves and participate in an interview, and you'll show the admissions office your strong interest in the school by doing so.

How do colleges compare student GPAs if some are weighted and some are unweighted?

A college will review a student's weighted GPA to learn about the rigor of the student's high school courses and how the student compares to others from the same high school. When the college is comparing an applicant to others in the applicant pool, they will use the unweighted GPA to put everyone on the same scale.

Have more questions about college admissions? We recommend you watch our College Admissions webinar. We review every component of the college application, including essays, letters of recommendation, and interviews, and speak to admissions trends and how to build a balanced college list.

Watch the College Admissions webinar