Guide to College Applications and Financial Aid

High school seniors and their families have a busy school year ahead of them, and it goes quickly. Prepared students will have an easier transition into the next phase of their lives. Completing college and financial aid applications can be a tedious process, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming if they know what to expect. Read our guide to college applications and financial aid to understand the process.


What are High School students looking for in a college?

Questions to consider:

  • Is a 2-year or 4-year program necessary to achieve career goals?
  • Are SATs and/or ACT’s required? SAT IIs? What kinds of scores are recommended?
  • Is an interview required?
  • Does the student want a large school or a small school?
  • How far away is the student willing to go? How far away will their family permit them to go?
  • Does the student want a technical or liberal arts education?
  • What majors are offered?
  • Does the student want a single-gender or coeducation institution? What is the male/female ratio?
  • Does the student want an urban or rural setting?
  • Which sports does the school offer? Which extracurricular activities?
  • What percentage of students return for their sophomore year?
  • What percentage of students graduate in four years?
  • Are study abroad programs, double majors, and/or internships available?
  • What is the average financial aid package?
  • What support services are available for students with disabilities?

Talk to friends, family, teachers, and the high school counselor about colleges – Ask them if they know of any colleges that meet the needs desired.

Visit the high school Guidance office and local library – There are many resources available to research colleges.

Use the Internet – Sites like and have search engines. Students can customize their college search and research specific schools on their own or with their counselor.

Attend College Fairs and Career Days – Bring a shopping bag to collect brochures.

Visit the Colleges - Most colleges offer campus tours and/or open houses. Go!

Click here for more information on college tours.

What are colleges looking for in an applicant?

A strong TRANSCRIPT – High school courses and grades are a good indication of a student’s academic performance. The RANK lets a college know how a student compares to his peers.

ENTRANCE EXAM SCORES – Colleges may require a student to score within a range on the SAT or ACT exams for admission.

An ABILITY TO COMMUNICATE – A short autobiographical essay shows the student’s ability to express himself and to state his personal goals and future plans.

LETTERS OF RECCOMENDATION – Assessments from teachers and counselors play a major part in evaluation.

EXTRACURRICULAR ACTIVITES and/or EMPLOYMENT – Colleges want to see involvement in school and community activities

DIVERSITY OF STUDENT BODY -Institutions look for students from a range of geographical locations, special talents, and backgrounds.

What’s Needed When Applying to College

Resume / Activity Sheet

An activity sheet is a list of clubs, sports, and other organizations that students have participated in throughout their high school careers. A resume is a more professional presentation of an activity sheet that is useful for a high school student. It can assist them in getting a job, it can be given to teachers or other adults that will write a letter of recommendation, and it can be enclosed with an application as well. Click here for tips on writing a resume.

Letters of Recommendation

Many, but not all, colleges require letters of recommendation. Colleges will generally ask for recommendations from teachers and counselors. Students should provide each teacher/counselor with a resume or activity sheet. Include any leadership positions held, community service, and employment. DON’T BE SHY!

Make sure to provide plenty of time for people to write the recommendations (Hint: avoid the week before December vacation). Generally all recommendations should be handed into the high school guidance office, but students should check with their schools for the appropriate procedure.

Test Scores

The SATs and ACTs are standardized tests typically required for college admissions. These tests are usually taken at least twice: once during the spring of 11th grade and fall of 12th grade. Click here for more information on SATs, ACTs, and other college entrance exams.

Where to Find College Applications

There are several thousand colleges in the United States. The high school guidance office will have a selection of applications, but of course cannot store them all. Students can contact the colleges they want to attend and ask for hard copies of applications to be sent to them. Students may also be able to download an application from the school’s website. Many schools prefer or require that students apply online, either through their site or through The Common Application. The “Common App” can be found at Students must remember to speak to their guidance counselor afterwards; the high school will typically provide the student’s official transcript and recommendations to the college.

Anatomy of an Application

Whether students are filling out an application online or writing on a paper copy, colleges all want to know some basic information: full name, address, birthday, social security number, racial/ethnic group, and the academic program to which they are applying. They may ask for information on students’ parents and siblings. The school counselor will likely have to fill out a portion of the application. Answer ALL the required questions. Remember to write and include an essay and activity sheet/resume if they are required. Speak with the high school guidance counselor if questions are confusing.

Most colleges ask applicants to pay application fees. The amount varies by school. Pay attention to the types of payments the colleges will accept. Do not send cash. Include an application fee with the application. Students that receive free or reduced-price lunch may be eligible for four application fee waivers.

The Essay

Some schools ask for an essay as part of the application. They do this to assess the student’s writing skills, to determine the seriousness of the student’s application, and to learn about aspects of the student’s experience, personality, and interests that their transcript might not reveal.

Essay topics vary. They may ask about feelings on a personal, local, or national issue. They may want to know about someone that the student finds influential and why. Perhaps they’ll ask why attending their college is important to the student.

Use correct grammar. Students should use language they are comfortable with but should avoid slang. Students will want to sound like themselves, not their thesaurus. Make sure the essay is neat, typed, and proofread BEFORE it’s sent to colleges.

Now what?

  • Fill out the application completely
  • Make sure recommendations were given to the guidance office so that they can be forwarded to colleges
  • Include an essay and resume/activity sheet, if required
  • Attach the application Fee/Fee Waiver
  • Have SAT and/or ACT scores sent to the colleges via or

Once this has been completed, make an appointment with the guidance counselor. They will review the application, attach the recommendations, and add the official transcript and other relevant information. Hand in completed applications early to ensure their arrival before the deadline. Remember to give the guidance office ample time to process the application.

Application Deadlines

A deadline is the last day that the application can be submitted; however it is in the student’s best interest to complete it much earlier. Many counselors will suggest completing applications and submitting them before December vacation.

Deadlines may vary by college and program type. Here’s a summary of key phrases:

REGULAR ADMISSION: Schools with Regular Admissions have a set application deadline. They notify all students at the same time, typically in the early spring.

ROLLING ADMISSION: Schools with Rolling Admissions consider each application as soon as it is complete and notify applicants when a decision is made. They will continue to accept qualified students until the freshman class is filled. Application deadlines may be later in the spring, but it is still important to apply early.

EARLY DECISION: Students with strong academic records and a strong interest in a specific college may apply as an Early Decision candidate. Their application deadline is significantly earlier (typically on or around November 1) and students are notified of the college’s decision sometime in December. EARLY DECISION IS BINDING. Students apply with the understanding that if they are accepted, they will withdraw applications to all other schools. Keep in mind that financial aid packages are not distributed until spring.

EARLY ACTION: Students that wish to apply Early Action must do so usually on or around November 1. Applicants are sent responses before Regular Admission candidates. However, those that apply for Early Action are not committed to attend that particular school.

Colleges may offer more than one admissions system. For example, an institution may offer Early Decision and Regular Admission. Pay attention to application deadlines; applications submitted after a deadline will not be considered.

Students with IEPs

Students with IEPs and/or a physical disability have additional factors to consider in the college admissions process:

How willing is the school to make accommodations for students with IEPs? Schools will offer varying levels of support for students with special needs. Accommodations are always free, but other services like tutoring may have a price tag attached. Contact the individual college’s Office for Students with Disabilities to determine what kinds of services are available. This office cannot reveal the student’s information to Admissions without the student’s consent.

Is it possible to receive testing modifications in college? Students will need to apply for eligibility several months before school starts; it can take weeks or potentially months to process the paperwork and obtain the required proof of eligibility. Make sure that all accommodations that are provided are listed on the final IEP. An IEP from high school can be useful for establishing the kind of accommodations that were necessary, and presumably will still be needed in college. One of the things to ask when exploring available services is what they require to prove eligibility to receive services.

What about students with physical disabilities? Students with physical disabilities must contact their college upon acceptance. It is the student’s responsibility to find out what kind of documentation the college requires in order to provide appropriate accommodations. Making accommodations for students with physical disabilities can be an involved process; it requires considerable advance notice.

What kinds of accommodations may a college provide? Accommodations for students with physical disabilities may include (but are not limited to) coordinating classroom locations, securing sign language interpreters, or obtaining class materials in Braille or large-print.

Paying for College

What is financial aid?

Financial aid is the process of securing funds to cover the costs of college. The money needed to pay for school comes can come from a student, their family, grants, scholarships, loans, and employment.

Most government-based financial aid is based upon a family’s financial situation: income, number of persons living in the household, number of persons in the household attending college, and other relevant factors. To qualify for federal and state financial aid, students and their families must complete the FAFSA.

Financial Aid Forms

FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid): This form is the basis for all federal aid. It is also a factor in determining eligibility to New York State aid and college aid programs. The form is available online at and is almost always completed online. The first day to submit the FAFSA is January 1 of the student’s senior year. It is recommended the student submit the form on or as close to January 1st as possible. There is no charge to fill out and submit the FAFSA. Students will need:

  • The parent and child’s social security numbers, alien registration card, or permanent resident card number
  • The driver’s license /learner permit
  • The parent(s) and child’s most recent W-2 Forms and other records of money earned
  • Current bank statements

CSS/Financial Aid Profile: CSS profiles are required by a small number of colleges. These schools should notify students; if unsure, call the schools to which the student is applying to or ask a counselor for assistance.

If one or more colleges to which the student has applied require the CSS Profile, then students must complete and submit the form. Do NOT file the CSS profile unless it is required. There is a fee charged for submitting the CSS profile.

In addition, individual colleges may have financial aid forms of their own. These forms are generally short and easy to complete. Colleges that require applicants to file their financial aid forms should notify the student. However, if unsure, do not hesitate to contact the college’s financial aid office.

Kinds of Financial Aid


TAP (Tuition Assistance Plan): Students must complete the FAFSA in order to be considered for TAP. Students must attend college in New York State to receive a TAP Grant. TAP provides grants to eligible students to assist them in paying tuition.

Federal Pell Grant: These grants can provide several thousand dollars for the academic year for eligible students. Students must complete the FAFSA in order to be considered for a Pell Grant.


FWS (Federal Work Study): The Federal Work-Study program provides an opportunity to be placed during the school year in a part-time job that accommodates the student’s class schedule. Jobs are available on and off campus. Colleges have staff members who assist students in finding part-time jobs.

Keep in mind that work-study is usually not the only means of getting a job to help pay for college. There are jobs available on and around college campuses for students.


Federal Perkins Loan: The Federal Perkins Loan program is a low-interest loan made by a college from government funding. Students must complete the FAFSA in order to be considered for a Perkins loan.

Federal Direct Stafford Loans: These loans become available if there is a gap between the financial aid received and the expected contribution from the total cost of attendance.  These loans can be subsidized. The government pays the interest on a subsidized Direct Loan while the student is enrolled in school and for six months after graduation.

PLUS (Parent Loan for Undergraduate Students): Parents can apply for a PLUS loan to help pay for college expenses. Parents are subject to a credit check. Financial need is not a consideration in determining eligibility. The FAFSA must be completed in order apply for a PLUS loan. Parents may have to apply for the loan through the college financial aid office.


Scholarships are another source of financial aid. Unlike student loans, scholarships do not have to be repaid. Individual colleges may offer their own scholarships. Private organizations also offer scholarships. Schools are notified if a specific scholarship becomes available to their students. Check out and to search for additional private scholarships.




Complete college applications. Collect any and all required documentation to prepare to fill out the FAFSA in early January.


Complete the FAFSA on or promptly after January 1st

Be sure to check the box requesting that the information be sent to the colleges and Pell Grant. Keep a copy of the form for personal records.

Call colleges’ offices of financial aid; make sure all required forms completed and submitted.


An acknowledgment should be received 4-6 weeks after submitting a FAFSA. The Student Aid Report should be sent to the student during this time.

Colleges may ask for a copy of the parent/guardian’s tax form and/or a college’s own financial aid form

Students should receive a total financial aid package for the college(s) to which they have applied. These packages may arrive with the acceptance letter or shortly afterwards.

Financial Aid packages can be negotiable! Call the college(s) financial aid office for questions.

Compare financial aid packages; decide which college best matches educational goals and financial needs


May 1 is traditionally the deadline for deciding where to attend college. Students should send in the required deposit to secure their place.


A student’s commitment to their college has been made. All required deposits have been sent. Families should notify the college if a financial situation changes

For a list of colleges in Long Island, click here.


By Rachel Minkowsky

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