Typically, students pursuing education at an online college start in the same place — by applying to the institution they want to attend.

While most colleges require students to submit an application for admission, the procedures and specifics can vary greatly depending on the institution and program. Some schools have very rigorous admissions processes, while others have minimal requirements.

This article covers the general application requirements for online colleges, a step-by-step guide on how to apply to an online college, and answers to frequently asked questions about college applications.

Application Requirements for Online Colleges

Each online college sets its own requirements for applications and admissions. Even within the same school, requirements for specific programs can vary. For example, an applicant to a STEM program may need prerequisite coursework or related work experience to be considered for that major.

Students preparing to apply to an online college should always confirm procedures before submitting their application. Most schools publish this information on their websites through their admissions page, but if you need anything clarified, contact an admissions counselor directly.

Students should also be wary of any online colleges with minimal or no application requirements or only require that students pay a fee to enroll, as this can be a sign that the school is not a legitimate accredited online college.

General application requirements

Application and fees

Most schools host their application on their website through an admissions portal. Creating an account for this portal is usually the first step when a student applies to a school. The portal is an admissions command center where students can submit materials for their application, receive status updates, and communicate with admissions counselors if necessary.

The application is an electronic form that collects all relevant information about a prospective student, including their name, address and contact information, race/ethnicity, intended program, educational background, and more. For undergraduate students, many schools accept the Common Application, which facilitates applications to multiple colleges. Students should ask schools if they accept the Common App before applying.

Most colleges charge application fees. The costs can vary and add up quickly for students applying to multiple schools. Students can inquire with their school about receiving a fee waiver or explore fee waiver options through the Common App, College Board, or the National Association of College Admissions Counseling (NACAC).

Official transcripts

Assessing students’ academic records is a key part of the admissions process for post-secondary schools. Accredited schools must confirm that students have completed the required levels of prior education before enrolling.

Therefore, official transcripts are a standard part of online college applications. Undergraduate applicants will submit their high school transcripts or GED and college transcripts from any post-secondary schools they’ve attended, if applicable. At the graduate level, applicants will submit transcripts from their prior colleges. For applicants completing high school or a college program at the time of application, schools often request a final transcript showing successful program completion.

To be considered official, transcripts must be sent directly from one institution to another. Many schools now send official transcripts electronically, although some may want hard copies mailed in a sealed envelope.

Standardized test scores

Required test scores include SAT or ACT scores for undergraduate students and GRE or GMAT scores for graduate students. Students should confirm with their school’s admissions office which tests are accepted and if there are any minimum score requirements.

Like transcripts, standardized test scores must be sent directly from the testing agency to the school to be considered official. When scheduling their test, students can indicate schools to which they want their scores sent.

Standardized test scores are still a common application component, although schools have recently begun implementing test-optional or test-blind policies, especially at the undergraduate level.

Letters of recommendation

Schools use letters of recommendation in their admissions processes to help get a more holistic picture of students and their skills, aptitudes, and potential. The number of letters of recommendation a school or program requires varies, but students should expect to provide 1-3 recommendations.

Letters of recommendation can come from current or former teachers, employers, colleagues, coaches, volunteer or internship supervisors, or community leaders. While the relationship between the student and reference is important, selecting connections who will take the time to write a thorough, thoughtful letter detailing the student’s abilities and character is crucial.

Some schools want recommendations sent electronically or in hard copy from the reference. Others have forms for references to complete. If you must submit your recommenders’ names to the school, confirm that they will provide you with a letter first. Some individuals may be uncomfortable offering a recommendation or unable to provide a letter before the deadline.

Personal essay or statement of purpose

A personal essay or statement of purpose t is where students can help schools get to know them better, demonstrate their interest in a program, and share the qualities that make them a good fit for online college.

Parameters vary for college essays. Some schools have specific prompts or questions that students must answer, while others are more flexible. Applicants will typically include their essays with their applications, although some schools may allow students to send them separately.

When writing a college admissions essay, it’s a good idea to have a trusted teacher, counselor, friend, or family member review it for content, clarity, and grammar before submitting it.


A resume or curriculum vitae (CV) is where students can demonstrate their accomplishments and experience. For undergraduate applicants, a resume typically includes educational background and accolades, extracurriculars, volunteer or job experience, and any other awards or unique experiences that will make them stand out to admissions counselors.

At the graduate level, programs usually review resumes to ensure applicants have the necessary educational and professional experience. Applicants should include all relevant work experience, professional credentials and certifications, educational background, and relevant skills.

Other requirements

Specific programs may have additional application requirements. Some programs may require students to participate in an interview with faculty or an admissions representative. For online applicants, this will likely be conducted virtually.

Other programs may request materials demonstrating proficiency in their intended area of study. For example, applicants to a visual arts program may have to submit an art portfolio demonstrating their artistic skills and style.

Students should check with their intended program to confirm any additional application requirements.

Transfer students

A student who previously attended college but did not complete a degree is considered a transfer applicant when applying to a new institution. Undergraduate and graduate students can transfer schools, although the process may be more challenging for master’s and doctoral students.

Transfer students typically seek to apply their previously earned credits towards a degree at the new college. To do this, students must submit official transcripts from their previously attended schools. Faculty or transfer counselors at the new institution will evaluate the coursework students once completed to determine which credits to apply to their new degree program. Students typically receive their transfer credit evaluation before or with their admissions decision.

A school’s accreditation status can affect whether another institution accepts previously earned credits. Regionally accredited online colleges only accept credits from other regionally accredited schools. Meanwhile, nationally accredited schools accept credits from both types of institutions.

Graduate students

Application requirements typically get more rigorous as the level of education rises. In addition to the standard application procedures listed above, applicants to master’s and doctoral programs may have to submit additional materials, including supplemental essays, work samples, professional credentials, and capstone projects or theses.

The threshold for admission might also be higher for these programs. Applicants may need a specific undergraduate major, minimum GPA, or prerequisite coursework or professional experience to be eligible.

International students

While international students cannot enroll in fully online programs in the U.S., they are eligible for hybrid programs that combine in-person and virtual learning.

Additional admissions requirements for international applicants include official transcript evaluations from a recognized credit evaluation agency like World Education Services (WES), Education Credential Evaluators (ECE), or International Education Evaluators (IEE), and ESL test scores, such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), and the International Test of English Proficiency (ITEP).

Step-By-Step Guide to Applying to an Online College

1. Choose your area of study

Before you apply to online colleges, you must find the colleges you’re interested in potentially attending.

Clarifying your educational and professional goals can help make this process easier. Knowing what kind of job you want or what field you want to enter post-graduation will help you identify relevant degree programs. You can then focus your search on online colleges that offer the degree program you want.

Students should also consider their practical needs to find appropriate programs, including determining whether they’ll enroll full-time or part-time and want an asynchronous or synchronous online program.

Given the volume of online colleges available, setting parameters for academics and logistics can help make a student’s search more manageable.

2. Research programs

Visit the college’s website to gather information about specific schools and programs. Here, students can typically find a wealth of information about online programs, including curriculum, faculty, admissions requirements, cost, and financial aid.

Schools and programs may also host virtual events for online students, such as information sessions or open houses. Attending these events allows students to interact with faculty, current students, and other program representatives and gives them a sense of what the school is like. Another way applicants can gain insight into a school or program is by following them on social media.

During the research phase, students should confirm that the schools and programs they’re considering are accredited by a recognized accrediting body. They should also confirm the school’s admissions requirements and procedures.

Some of the key pieces of information students should collect include:

  • Who are the program faculty, and what are their qualifications?
  • How do online students interact with classmates and faculty?
  • Is coursework delivered synchronously or asynchronously?
  • What does the curriculum include? Are there options for electives or specializations?
  • Can students receive credit for professional experience or credentials?
  • What support services are available for online students, such as tech support, tutoring, academic and career advising, and counseling?
  • What networking opportunities are there for online students?
  • What are the application requirements and deadlines?

3. Prepare and submit applications

As students conduct research, they should know the school’s application deadline policy and start terms.

Some schools or programs may only enroll new students once a year and have specific deadlines by which students must submit their applications. Others offer multiple start terms and accept applications on a rolling basis. Students applying to multiple schools may find keeping track of deadlines and requirements with a spreadsheet or checklist helpful.

Regardless of a school’s application deadlines, it’s always wise to give yourself as much time as possible to gather the necessary application materials. If you’re taking standardized tests, schedule them as early as possible, as it can take a few weeks for testing agencies to send results to your intended colleges. Request letters of recommendation early to give your references sufficient time to write detailed letters. Leave enough time in your essay-writing process to have a teacher or counselor review it before submission.

The application submission process will vary by school. Some want all materials submitted together, while others accept them piecemeal. Most schools will only consider an application complete once all required documents are received and processed.

4. Review acceptances and select a program

Once an application is complete, the school’s admissions committee will review it to see if the student meets the eligibility requirements for acceptance. If necessary, schools may request additional information, like updated transcripts. They may also invite applicants to participate in other evaluations, such as interviews. Depending on the school, all admissions decisions may be sent out at once, or students may receive decisions on a rolling basis. Decisions typically post on a student’s admissions portal, but they may also receive electronic or postal mail notifications.

There are a few different decisions schools will render on an application:

  • Admit — These students are accepted outright into the school and program.
  • Conditional Admit — These students will be admitted into the school or program if they meet certain conditions, including completing prerequisite coursework, improving GPA or test scores, or earning credentials.
  • Waitlist — Students placed on a waitlist will be admitted to the school or program if space becomes available. Some schools will rank students on their waitlist, while others randomly select from the pool of waitlisted students.
  • Deny — Not all students are a good fit for all programs. Students denied admission are not allowed to enroll at that institution. However, most schools allow students to re-apply for future terms.

Admitted students typically must submit a deposit and enrollment confirmation paperwork to secure their place at the school. These deposits are typically non-refundable and may or may not be applied to a student’s tuition bill. Students should confirm enrollment procedures to ensure they take the necessary steps to commit to the school they want to attend.

Frequently Asked Questions About Applying to an Online College

Is it hard to get into an online college?

Each school sets its own standards for admissions, which can range from very selective to very flexible. For example, Ivy League institutions like Yale and Princeton have some of the most rigorous admissions processes. In contrast, community colleges, designed for accessible education, typically have simpler admissions requirements.

The degree level a student is seeking can also influence how demanding the admissions process is. Associate and bachelor’s degree programs usually have fewer requirements than master’s and doctoral programs.

Most schools publish their acceptance rates. Students can use this information to help them determine their odds of admission.

How can I improve my chances of admission to an online college?

Taking your time and putting effort into your application is a key way to improve your chances of admission to an online college, including investing time before you start filling out your applications. Whether in high school or college, do your best to earn strong grades in all your classes. Challenge yourself, especially in areas where you show aptitude, by taking AP or advanced-level courses.

Many schools value well-rounded students who display leadership, self-motivation, and diverse interests through activities outside of school, like involvement in school clubs and organizations, athletics, community and religious organizations, and internships or jobs. Having these experiences reflected in your resume, essay, and letters of recommendation can help boost your application, especially if your transcript has weaker areas.

While some schools require standardized tests, others make them optional. Students with high test scores may want to submit them, even if they’re not mandatory to enhance their application.

When will I receive an admissions decision from an online college?

Receiving an acceptance depends on whether the school sends out all admissions notifications at once or on a rolling basis.

Usually, schools that send decisions in bulk publish the date students will receive their notifications. Meanwhile, those who accept students on a rolling basis may send students their decision within a few days to a few weeks after receiving a completed application.

Enrollment terms usually dictate notification timelines. Online colleges may enroll students anywhere from once to several times a year. Students should confirm their enrollment options when they apply to ensure they submit their application on time for their desired enrollment term.

Should I attend college online or in person?

Whether to attend in person or online is decision based on a student’s needs and preferences. Each option has its pros and cons.

The benefits of enrolling in an online college include flexibility, accessibility, and affordability. Because attending school remotely allows students to learn from anywhere at any time, online programs can be helpful to those who need to work around job or caregiving responsibilities. However, online programs require that students be comfortable with independent learning and have strong time management and organization skills.

Meanwhile, some students learn better through hands-on activities and interaction with classmates and instructors. They may also want a traditional college experience with residential life and on-campus student activities. These students may find that an in-person or hybrid program meets their needs better.