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The Truth Behind How Colleges Receive Your Application

High school student sitting at school desk filling out a college application.

By Matt Musico

There are a lot of moving parts when it comes to completing and submitting college applications. Here’s what you should be keeping track of as you complete your applications, and how admissions offices receive your documents before reviewing them.

The college admissions experience involves several variables. What makes applying to college difficult for many students is that outside of a couple of things, not much is completely in your control, and that can be scary.

One of the myths I bust every year with students and families is how documents are received prior to college application deadlines—the truth is, not every piece of your application needs to be submitted by the deadline. It’s important to understand what’s needed for an admissions office to consider your application complete and ready for review and this knowledge will help you plan, organize, and finish your apps with less stress.

Priority 1: Your Application Form

Of all the things we’ll be talking about here, this is the one part of your admissions file you have complete control over. From filling out your basic personal and educational information, to completing an activity list and writing your essay, it’s entirely up to you – the student – to complete and submit your application form. And your application form must be submitted by the application deadline.

Colleges may accept multiple types of applications. Some types include the Common Application, the Coalition Application, the ApplyTexas application, the UC application, applySUNY, and school-specific applications.

Official Test Scores

For those who have taken the SAT or ACT and plan on submitting scores, many colleges want the information directly from the ACT or College Board, which you can order to be done by logging on and requesting as such through the website.

My general suggestion to students is to request official scores to be sent (which includes paying a small fee per school) three to four weeks before application deadlines. While it’s done electronically, scores don’t automatically land in the inbox of an admissions office — it can take longer than one would expect to process and add scores to your file. 

Official High School Transcript

For a college to decide whether you’re academically qualified, they’ll need to take an in-depth look at the grades you’ve earned and the classes you’ve taken. However, your grades must be sent to colleges in a specific way.  

Your school counselor will likely be the one sending your transcript, or you’ll be making an online order if you use a service called Parchment for transcript requests. Your transcript must be “official,” which means it is sent directly to the colleges on your list, without you seeing them. The process of sending official transcripts varies by high school, and in some cases, you may need to meet with your school counselor and request transcripts to be sent as early as two to four weeks prior to an application deadline. Make sure you understand your school’s policies and process.

Counselor Recommendation and School Profile

In addition to sending college admission offices your official transcript, it’s common for school counselors to write and send a letter to speak on your behalf. This is not the same as a teacher letter of recommendation, which I’ll talk more about below.

In addition to their letter of recommendation, your counselor will also send a school profile, which shares pertinent information about your high school, such as the size of your graduating class, the grading scale, what’s available in the curriculum, the percentage of students who graduate and attend two- and four-year colleges, and more.

Many admissions counselors read applications from specific geographic areas, so it’s easier for them to become familiar with a school and what’s available there. However, for new counselors or part-time application readers, the school report gives them a general picture of what the curriculum is like at any high school.

Teacher Letters of Recommendation

Colleges can get a sense of your academic achievement by dissecting your transcript, but hearing from one or two teachers may also provide them the story behind the grades you’ve earned. We’ve talked about what goes into the process for letters of recommendation, but there are a couple of different ways you can do this.

For those using Naviance, you can send a request electronically to your teachers asking that they write and submit a letter of recommendation on your behalf. You can also send requests to potential recommenders through application platforms, such as the Common App or Coalition Application. Not all schools require the same number of letters of recommendation. There will be some that require one or two, some that will require none, and others that won’t even allow students to send them at all.

How Colleges Collect Application Materials

With all these moving parts, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with the idea that everything must be submitted simultaneously. I’ve had several conversations with students and parents in recent years that involve some variation of the following statements: 

  • I’m not ready to submit my application yet because my teachers aren’t done with their letters of recommendation.
  • I submitted my application two weeks ago, but I just got an email saying it’s still incomplete. Why?

Both scenarios happen because it’s incredibly rare for a college to both receive and process all parts of your application in one sitting. Usually, a college will get pieces of a student’s application over the span of a week or two because several people are responsible for getting things submitted to the colleges on your list.

If you’re thinking about holding off on submitting your application because other pieces haven’t been submitted yet, don’t wait – just submit it. The most important part of your entire file is your application form, because unlike the other pieces of the application discussed above, it’s the only thing you have complete control over.

Many schools also give students a one- or two-week grace period for submitting the supplemental pieces of their application – but there is no such grace period for your actual application. Although this process is now mostly digital, humans still must add your transcript, letters of recommendation, test scores, and other materials to your file manually, and that takes time.

Also, if you get notified from a college that there are pieces of your application still missing, don’t freak out. It takes time for colleges to process all the documents they receive, and in the middle of the application process, it’s normal for them to be a few days — or even a week or two — behind in processing application documents because they get so overloaded. If you get an email, phone call, or text message notifying you about an incomplete application, confirm with your teachers and counselor that things have been submitted, and then let the admissions office know everything is either already there or on its way. It’s common for a college to have all the necessary documents in their possession, but to still consider items “missing” because they haven’t been processed yet.

Getting everything complete and submitted prior to college application deadlines is stressful enough without trying to submit all materials at once. There should hopefully be comfort in the fact that there are some areas of the process you can control. This includes requesting letters of recommendation, transcripts, and test scores to be sent with plenty of time before college applications are due, as well as completing and submitting the actual application form itself. Don’t be concerned with trying to time everything to be submitted all at once – it rarely happens, and admissions offices don’t expect you to submit everything in that manner, as long as it’s submitted prior to the deadline.


Matt Musico is a freelance writer for CollegeData. He has worked in higher education for the better part of a decade. Half of that time was spent working in an undergraduate admissions office, while the other half involved working with high school families as a private college counselor.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to CollegeData, 1st Financial Bank USA or any other person or entity. All liability with respect to actions taken or not taken based on the contents of this article are hereby expressly disclaimed. 


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