Ultimate Guide: Applying to Online Colleges for First-Time Students

Feb 27, 2019 | By Maryalene LaPonsie
Article Sources


  1. Admission Statistics, IvyWise, Accessed October 2016, https://www.ivywise.com/ivywise-knowledgebase/admission-statistics/
  2. Applying to College: FAQs, The College Board, Accessed October 2016, https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/get-in/applying-101/applying-to-college-faq
  3. Regional Accrediting Organizations, 2016-2017, Council for Higher Education Accreditation, Accessed October 2016, http://www.chea.org/Directories/regional.asp
  4. College Scoreboard, U.S. Department of Education, Accessed October 2016, https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/
  5. Colleges Where Freshman Usually Return, Delece Smith-Barrow, U.S. News & World Report, January 5, 2016, http://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/the-short-list-college/articles/2016-01-05/colleges-where-freshmen-usually-return
  6. Graduation Rates, National Center for Education Statistics, Accessed October 2016, https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=40
  7. Colleges that Charge Students the Most to Apply, Susannah Snider, U.S. News & World Report, December 1, 2015, http://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/the-short-list-college/articles/2015/12/01/colleges-that-charge-students-the-most-to-apply
  8. Applying to Schools, U.S. Department of Education, Accessed October 2016, https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/prepare-for-college/applying
  9. Colleges with Late Application Deadlines, Rebecca Safier, PrepScholar, January 9, 2016, http://blog.prepscholar.com/colleges-with-late-application-deadlines-complete-list


Congratulations! You are about to embark on an exciting adventure. It's one that will help you prepare personally and professionally for the next chapter of your life. If you're reading this, chances are you've wrapped up (or are about to wrap up) high school and are looking to go to college. And if you have your sights set on an online college, this guide is especially for you.

Applying to college is no small feat at some institutions. According to the education consulting firm IvyWise, some of the most selective schools in the country — think Stanford and Harvard — accepted only five percent of applicants in 2016.

Don't despair though. There are plenty of schools that admit most, if not all, their applicants. To maximize your options, you should apply to five to eight institutions, according to The College Board. Aim high, too, and include a couple of dream schools, even if they are more selective. Then, once you get your acceptance letters back, you will have a number of choices from which to make your final decision.

If the thought of applying to that many schools feels overwhelming, keep reading. We've broken down the process of how to pick a college and how to apply for college if you're a first-time student. Here's what you need to know to find an online school that might best meet your needs.

How to Pick a College

If you're still in high school, your guidance office may be able to help you work through the process of how to pick a college. However, if you decided to take a gap year (or two or more) before heading to college, you're likely on your own. In that case, here's what you should look at before applying to an online college.

1. Make sure it's accredited

Start here. An accredited school is one that meets specific standards set forth by a reviewing agency. If a school isn't properly accredited, you can't be assured you're getting a good quality education. Accrediting agencies are private educational associations recognized by the federal government. Traditionally, schools have pursued accreditation from a regional accrediting organization. Depending on its location, that means a college may be accredited by one of the following:

  • Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges
  • Higher Learning Commission
  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education
  • New England Association of Schools and Colleges
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission

Of course, fully online schools aren't located in a specific region, so they may utilize a national accreditation or be accredited for a specific type of learning program.

Be aware there are some less-than-credible accrediting organizations out there. If you don't recognize the name of an accrediting body, visit the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and make sure it's listed there.

2. Consider the location

You might wonder why location is important if you're studying online. That's a great question, and depending on your targeted degree program and needs, it might not be a consideration.

While picking a program type, consider whether you want to attend a college that is online only or one that has a campus location. While fully online colleges were among the pioneers of distance education, some students prefer to attend a school that is attached to a campus.

However, some online students prefer that a campus be nearby in case they want to meet with faculty, use school amenities or take part in the graduation ceremony. Some online programs may also have on-campus requirements that make the school location important. Check for such requirements before submitting your application.

3. Find out if there amenities for online students

Online students may not be on campus often, if at all, but that doesn't mean they are on their own when it comes to their education. Many online colleges offer tutoring, career counseling and other amenities to distance learners. Make sure the school you choose offers the services you need to be successful.

4. Look for student success rates

Look for measurable data on how well the school succeeds in its mission of preparing graduates to enter the workforce. You can accomplish this by looking at three factors:

  • Retention rate: This number refers to the percentage of freshman who return to the school the following year. Nationwide, 67 percent of full-time, first-time students enrolled at public institutions in 2014 returned to school for the 2015 school year, according to the Department of Education. That percentage was 72 percent at private universities. A significantly lower number than average could indicate there is an issue at the school that is resulting in students not returning.
  • Graduation rate: To determine the graduation rate, schools calculate the number of students who earn their degree within 150 percent of the expected time. In other words, for a bachelor's degree, the graduation rate is the percentage of students who graduate within six years. The average graduation rate for full-time, first-time undergraduate students who started a bachelor's degree in 2009 and completed it by 2015 is 51 percent, according to the Department of Education.
  • Graduate outcomes: Graduating from college is one thing; getting a career in the field of your choice is something else. Ask colleges how many of their graduates went on to full-time employment or pursued additional education after earning their degree to help determine whether the school is likely to help you achieve your goals.

Information about these three factors may be available on the school's website, but you can also check it here at College Scorecard: https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/

5. See how well a school is ranked

Not everyone will (or wants) go to an Ivy League school, but you do still want to make sure you're getting a quality education. And plenty of online schools can provide it.

School rankings are popular, but be careful about using only them to draw up your list of target schools; their one-size-fits-all approach may not focus on factors that are important to you. (And be sure to review the methodology to see how those rankings were determined.)

The OnlineColleges.com Top Colleges Tool combines rankings with filters to help customize the results to your interests. You'll be able to easily see the features of the top online schools in the nation based on your preferences, such as type of degree, tuition amount, and whether you're looking for faith-based schools or ones that give credit for military training.

6. Make sure you can afford it

This is important, right? After all, if you can't afford a college, you can't attend it.

When reviewing an online college's tuition costs, keep mind there is a sticker price and an actual price. The sticker price is the amount tuition would cost without any financial aid, while the actual price is the average of what students end up paying once their aid is factored in.

All colleges and universities should have their tuition costs listed on their website, but if you want to quickly compare multiple schools, you can go to the College Scorecard run by the U.S. Department of Education.

For additional insight, be sure to read about ways to pay for college, whether it's online or campus-based, and find specific help like:

Not only will these guides provide specific advice for each financial aid category, they can point you to state-specific resources as well. But probably the most important step you need to take is to fill out and submit your FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). And make sure you submit it in a timely way!

Don't forget to check each of your prospective schools' websites for their tuition calculator and any school-specific financial aid programs they may have available. They are also likely to have financial aid counselors on hand, so don't hesitate to reach out to them if you have any questions or concerns.

How to Choose Your Major or Program Type

In addition to picking a college, your other main task before filling out applications is to pick the right program. While all college students need to pick a major, online students have the added step of picking the right program type as well.

Choose your major

One of the most important components of your education is selecting the right major. Your decision will determine the classes you take and help to set the course for your career after college. While you can certainly choose or change your major after you start classes at many schools, you'll save time and money by settling on a major in advance.

To start, look for "Search by Program" at the top of any page on OnlineColleges.com. There you'll find a comprehensive set of resources to help you understand what each major covers as well as common careers for graduates. You'll also see a ranking of online schools for that particular major.

Decide on which program type 

Not all online degree programs are structured the same way. Colleges may have several different types of programs. Some of the types you should be aware of are as follows:

  • Hybrid: Combines both online and on-campus classes.
  • Accelerated: Provides classes that teach more material in a shorter amount of time, helping students to complete their degree faster than usual.
  • Competency-Based: Allows students to earn credits for material they can prove they have already mastered without needing to take a class.

In addition, you will find that online classes can be structured using one of the following learning methods: synchronous or asynchronous:

  • Synchronous learning requires students be logged in at a specific time of day. It is similar to on-campus programs in that you have a set class time, but you can participate virtually from wherever you are.
  • Asynchronous learning allows students to study whenever and wherever they want. While there are deadlines for assignments and assessments, there is no set time to log in and review course materials.

Most online colleges use asynchronous learning, particularly at the undergraduate level. But some may still have a few synchronous requirements. Check to make sure you fully understand the program you're considering and whether its requirements fit your schedule.

There is no right or wrong choice when it comes to which program you pick. Your decision will rest largely on your course of study, schedule and personal preferences. You may want to spend some time weighing these options so that you are less likely to waste time (and money) later by applying to a school that does not match your interests or plans.

What to Expect on a College Application

The process of working on your college applications can vary slightly depending on whether you're applying to a fully online college or to an online program at a traditional school.

This table provides a brief overview of how the two applications may differ.

Application ItemFully Online CollegeOnline Program at a Traditional School
Application FormColumn2YesColumn3Yes
Application FeesColumn2YesColumn3Yes
High School TranscriptColumn2YesColumn3Yes
College Specific Assessment TestColumn2YesColumn3No
Application EssayColumn2NoColumn3Yes
Interview with Admissions CounselorColumn2YesColumn3No
Letters of RecommendationColumn2NoColumn3Yes
ACT/SAT ScoresColumn2NoColumn3Yes

Requirements vary by school, but regardless of whether you're applying to a fully online college or an online program at a traditional school, be prepared to complete an application form, pay a fee and provide your high school transcript. Highly selective campus-based schools may also ask for a personal statement or resume of extracurricular activities. Some online schools have begun waiving the fee, but you should expect to pay an average of $41, according to a 2015 U.S. News & World Report analysis.

Fully online colleges cater to diverse students, so their application process may be designed to ensure the school is able to meet each applicant's needs. As part of this process, you may be required to take a specialized assessment test to determine your best placement within a program. In addition, fully online colleges typically like to speak directly with applicants to discuss career goals and other objectives. These admissions interviews can be done over the phone or via Skype in some cases.

You'll likely need to figure out whether to take the ACT or SAT, so be sure to read up on how to prepare for either with our Guide to the SAT/ACT. Here are some additional application tips:

  • Don't wait to get letters of recommendation: If you plan to ask a teacher for a letter of recommendation, talk to him or her early. Teachers can get dozens of requests from students, and they may not be able to help if you wait until the last minute to ask.
  • Confirm transcripts and test scores are sent to the right place: School names can be similar, so double-check that all documentation is being sent to the right institution.
  • Proofread everything: Better yet, ask a parent or teacher to review your application. Pay particular attention to your admissions essay, where sloppy mistakes can undermine your entire message.
  • Make a copy for yourself: Keep a record of all your application material. If a school says it didn't receive documentation, having your own copy will make it easy to check and find what's missing.

When to Apply to College

As with the application itself, the best time to apply to college can vary depending on whether you are interested in a fully online college or an online program at a traditional college.

Self-paced programs at fully online colleges are often designed so students have flexibility on when to begin classes. Rather than having to wait until the start of a new school year, online students at these institutions may have the option to begin working on their degree at any time. As a result, these schools may have rolling admissions, meaning you can apply whenever you want.

However, the situation can be different if you are applying for an online program at a traditional school. Colleges and universities may have very specific timelines for when they accept, review and respond to college applications. If you miss the window, you could be locked out and need to wait another year to apply.

But before we can talk about specific deadlines, you need to understand the two following terms:

  • Early Decision: By applying for early decision, you are affirming that a particular school is your number one choice. You are obligated to attend the school if accepted so applying via early decision is not something to be done lightly. The only way to opt out of an early decision after acceptance is if the school's financial aid package is too low to make tuition affordable.
  • Early Action: Early action is another way to indicate to a college that it is one of your top choices. The difference between this and early decision is that by applying through early action, you are not obligated to attend if accepted.

Applications for early decision and early action are typically due in November while those for regular decision may have January deadlines. Some schools accept late applications even into the spring months. Still, you should apply as soon as possible to maximize your chances of acceptance at your top school choices.

College Application Checklist and Timeline

It's never too early for high school students to start thinking about college plans. Even sophomores can be researching careers and majors, and by junior year, students should be ramping up their search to start narrowing college choices. And even if your high school years are far behind you, it's still can be worthwhile to pursue a college degree - something that might help with a career change or a promotion at your current job.

When it comes to the actual process of filling out an application, submitting it and waiting for a response, it can take several months at some traditional schools. Fully online colleges seem to have shorter turnaround times, and some institutions may return their decision in less than four weeks.

For planning purposes, here's how some students map out their time leading up to the application deadline. However, your timeline may look different depending on the schools and types of programs you pursue.

1-2 Years Before Application Deadline

  • Research majors and related career choices
  • Attend college fairs
  • Schedule campus visits or calls with admissions counselors at schools of interest
  • Meet with your high school guidance office to ensure your junior and senior class schedule will support your college application goals

1 Year Before Application Deadline

  • Register for the ACT or SAT, if needed
  • Begin search for private scholarship and grant sources

9 Months Before Application Deadline

  • Narrow list of schools to which you'll apply
  • Decide whether to pursue early decision, early action or regular decision at those schools
  • Confirm application deadlines and requirements

6 Months Before Application Deadline

  • Retake ACT or SAT if needed
  • Identify teachers, employers or others who could provide letters of recommendation

3 Months Before Application Deadline

  • Write admissions essays
  • Gather supplemental material
  • Request letters of recommendation

1 Month Before Application Deadline

  • Complete application forms, including supporting documents, and mail or email them to schools
  • Confirm ACT, SAT or AP scores have been sent to the schools
  • Apply for a major, if needed
  • Schedule interviews, if needed
  • Complete FAFSA and request it be sent to the schools

After Application Deadline

  • Review acceptance letters and financial aid packages
  • Notify schools of your decision
  • Enroll in classes

Article Sources