Exact Steps to Completing College Applications Without Losing Your Sanity

Sometimes the hardest part about applying to college is knowing where to start. There is so much information (sometimes contradictory information) and with all of the different applications and deadlines it can be overwhelming.

Like most big tasks, applying to college becomes more manageable when broken down into small steps. Here are the steps for completing college applications without losing your sanity.

I. Pre-Work

Pre-work should be done before you start filling out actual applications. Some pre-work can be done throughout a student’s junior year. Don’t worry if you didn’t get an early jump on this; these items don’t take that long.

List all the colleges to which you will apply. — You can change your list, but start with what you know. Make sure you include at least one affordable school (often an in-state tuition option) and one likely admission school (where you are guaranteed admission or almost certain to get in.)

Look up application information for each school. — Use the college websites. You are looking for two key pieces of information at this point:

  1. what applications are accepted and
  2. deadlines

Determine which applications you will have to complete.—You may find three schools accept the Common App and two schools have their own applications. My daughter is applying to eight schools this fall and will have to complete the Apply Texas App, Common App, and one school specific app. The fewer applications you have to deal with the better.

Draft an activity list.— Sometimes referred to as college resumes or brag sheets, these are lists of all the activities, service, honors, work, and experience you have had in high school. It is much easier to print, edit, and change this list if you create it in a Word document than if you try to input the information directly into your applications.

II. ** Bonus Tasks**

Bonus items are little extras, not necessary items. Complete these ONLY if you have the time, energy, and mental bandwidth to tackle them. Don’t stress if you never complete these as pre-work.

Look at a sample from each application type your schools offer.— Which format will be easiest to complete? Which format allows you to showcase your strengths best?

Try to format your activity list to mirror the format and information requested on your applications.— I work with a lot of student in Texas who are applying to Texas schools and using the Apply Texas application. I have them divide their activity list into the same four sections found on Apply Texas:

  1. Activities
  2. Service
  3. Honors / Awards
  4. Work, Internships, Summer Experiences

Take note (or make an actual list) of information required on each application.—Here are my general items to note:

  • Activity info (how many spaces, divided into different categories?)
  • Essay questions
  • Other supplemental info
  • Counselor recs?
  • Teacher recs?
  • Mid-year report?
  • Interview required or recommended?

III. Actual Application Work

When you are ready to start the actual applications, work on one application for one school. My suggestion is to start with a school that is 1. Affordable and 2. Likely Admit.

I know how tempting it can be to start with the favorite school at the top of your list, but there is something to be said for making sure all bases are covered. Not to mention, you may get better at crafting answers as you go, so getting started with another application means you will be a pro when it comes to the app for your top choice school.

Create a login.— Save your user name and password to a safe place, preferably one where you are keeping other college logins for things like the SAT or ACT.

Enter biographical information.— Mom or dad may need to help with some parts, but this information is pretty straightforward.

Add activity information.—Here is where your nicely edited activity list comes in handy. Copy and paste into the application. If you didn’t have certain details on your activity list, make sure to add them, so they will be there for any additional apps.

Write, edit, and polish application essays. — It is unfair for me to list this as a single list item because I teach an entire course on application essays. Just take your time and give this step the attention it needs.

Complete supplemental information.— Some schools will have institution specific material beyond what is normally required on the application. Texas A&M University asks a series of questions; Rice University requires extra essays.

Review your application. Review it again.— Don’t get in such a hurry to submit that you make mistakes. A college consultant colleague of mine offered her clients a $20 gift card if they could enter all the information correctly on the application before sending it to her for review. Her rationale was that she typically spends so much time listing necessary corrections and reviewing applications two or three times, that it would easily be worth $20 to get her students motivated to review on their own.

Pay and submit.— Some applications are free, but most will cost you $50 – $75 each.

**Pro Tip** Once you get started on your first application, you can feel the momentum and sense of accomplishment. DO NOT be tempted to start filling out bits and pieces of multiple applications. You won’t finish sooner and in many cases you will unnecessarily duplicate effort. For example, if you were to complete your first application on Apply Texas (or Common App or Coalition) you have the option to copy all of the information to your next application. So there is no need to enter biographical or activity information more than once.

IV. Additional Items

Your part of the college application requires the most work, but you can’t stop once you hit submit. There are a few more things you need to complete.

Send SAT / ACT scores.— You need to send scores directly from ACT or College Board to the schools that require them. (If you are applying to a test optional school, you can skip this step for that school.)

Request school-based items (transcripts, counselor and teacher letters.)— Every high school will have its own procedures for students to follow. Pay close attention and follow instructions. You may need to verify to make sure everything was sent, but allow a couple weeks, especially if you are asking for letters of recommendation.

Submit college transcripts (if any.)— A growing number of students will have completed college courses through dual credit programs. If you have completed any college courses through your high school’s dual credit program or on your own send transcripts.

Meet any major specific requirements.— You may find your choice of major requires additional work for admission.

  • Will you need a portfolio or audition for your arts or performance major?
  • Does the university require a specific essay for applicants in architecture or nursing?

Plan ahead schedule any appointments as soon as you can.

Schedule an interview if required (or even if recommended.) — Don’t wait until you feel ready to interview; get on their schedule now. I had a client make an appointment to interview on-campus at Rice University. She scheduled in late July and took the first available appointment — in early November.

V. Next Steps

You are almost done, but there are some important things left to do.

Verify your application is complete.— Some universities will have you create an online login to their system where you can verify receipt of test scores, letters of recommendation, transcripts, etc. Your application won’t be considered complete until all elements are received. Unfortunately, sometimes items are lost in the mail (or in cyber-space) and you want to catch any errors before you miss a deadline.

Submit grades from the first marking period and/or mid-year report.— Some schools want to check on your senior year progress. Are you still taking the classes you listed on your application? Are you making grades similar to those on your transcript?

Complete applications for honors programs and/or scholarships. — Some colleges use your admission application to determine honors college placement or scholarships, but other schools require separate applications.

Work on financial aid paperwork.— Start with the FAFSA which will open October 1. (I’ll cover that in more detail later.) You may need to complete other forms specific to a particular institution, so verify requirements with each school.

Whew! The list looks long, but if you work step by step, you can finish without losing your sanity.

If you are ready to hit the panic button or wondering how to start, I offer personalized application advising. I can look over applications and answer your questions in a 90-minute consultation ($225.) For more information or to schedule your appointment, see my consultation information. 


Campus Visits: When Plans to Visit Don’t Work

We’ve all heard its important to visit college campuses during the search process. I find it easier to learn about top programs, recent changes, and overall campus climate in person. In other words, my campus visits replace hours of reading a school’s website and trying to scour the internet to form an impression of a particular college.

But sometimes setting foot on a campus isn’t in the plans. Whether time, distance, finances, work or family demands keep you from taking an in-person tour, there are options when campus visits don’t work out.

Here’s what happen to me just last week. My daughter, a rising senior, and I had plans to look at a few schools in North Carolina. She had just finished a week-long psychology institute at one of the colleges on her list. The plan was to let her interview at the campus she had been at then drive to the second university where we would meet with her admissions counselor on Friday afternoon and take a tour on Saturday morning. Our plans did not work as expected.

During her interview at the first school, it began to pour rain. It was raining so hard that they canceled the walking tour of campus. (Messing up visit plans for all of those families.) I began to wonder if we’d make it to our next meeting; I hadn’t left a lot of extra time to get there and the drive would take an hour in good conditions. My daughter’s interview ran long and the weather slowed us down; we wouldn’t be able to meet the admissions counselor at the second university before they closed for the day. (Little did we know that that campus had lost power and everyone had been sent home early—more messed up plans for visitors.)

Over dinner my daughter received a text that all tours and visits for the next day had been canceled due to the rain and flash flood warnings around campus. So even our best plans to visit campus didn’t work out. Our flight home was later the next day and we wouldn’t be able to make another trip this fall.

There are things each of us can do to make up for not making an official campus visit:

Spend significant time with the college website.

Grab a notepad and look for information on

  • Admissions (standards, deadlines)
  • Campus life
  • Housing / food service
  • Academic resources
  • Core / required curriculum
  • Scholarships and financial aid
  • Your particular major or area of interest

Take a virtual tour (or self-guided tour.)

At a minimum you can see what the school looks like even if you don’t get the personalized commentary from a tour guide. I’ve seen some services that will sell you a virtual tour of campus, but you can look for free options first. YouTube is always a good place to start. Some college have significant footage online and you might be able to find a walking tour on the admissions website.

*Extra credit if you pay attention to the year and who made the video. Colleges are always making changes and you want a relatively up to date look from a relatively reliable source.

Check out the school’s videos on YouTube.

After (or while) you search for campus tour videos, check out what else the school has online. Pay attention to the activities and people. Are these the people and activities you want to surround yourself with for the next four years? Try to watch a mix of official and unofficial videos. Sometimes candid videos from current students and their parents give a more realistic view than the professionally edited promotional shots.

Review the college newspaper or news channel.

What issues are affecting students? What are the problems? The official campus tour won’t show you the problems, but campus news will include a variety of student complains from the everyday (tuition increases and food quality) to more serious (crime on campus, problems getting required courses, and equality issues.)

Seek opportunities to connect with admissions counselors off campus.

You might find them visiting your area or even your high school. You can call or email if you have questions. Admissions officers are accessible and want you to have the information you need to make a decision.

Start your campus visits early.

The more schools you visit, the better you will get at evaluating what is (and isn’t) unique. At the first three schools, students may be impressed with the Starbucks in the library or the state of the art fitness center. Even visiting local schools when a student is in 9th or 10th grade can help. Hopefully by 11th and 12th grade, students will be better at evaluating what is important. And if you can’t visit every school on your list, at least you will have a good picture in mind as you do your online research.

Our canceled campus visit was less of a disappointment because we had visited that college last summer. As my daughter and I took a drive around campus once the rain let up, she said, “Seeing all the buildings again is reminding me of the things we learned last year.” While I’m disappointed our plans didn’t work out, I’m glad we had other options for learning about the school.


Many students this fall will apply to schools they have never visited. That’s ok. You have many other resources to inform your decisions. However, before you make a deposit, visit the campus, preferably when school is in session and you can sit in on a class, speak with current students and professors, and get a feel for the social and academic life on campus. You wouldn’t purchase a car without taking a test drive; don’t make a deposit on a college you haven’t visited.

** One thing that really caught my daughter’s attention as we searched through that school’s website in our hotel room that night was the campus calendar of activities. She was impressed with the list of guest speakers, variety of creative performances, and opportunities. Even something as trivial as the calendar of events can give you insight into life at a particular school.

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Necessary college planning for current sophomores and juniors

Two weeks ago I was speaking with my daughter, a high school junior, and we were talking about college visits. She’s narrowing down her choices somewhat, but there are still a number of potential schools we have not visited.

I said, “We can see them over the summer.” Then I looked at the family calendar.

Between speech & debate tournaments, a mission trip, family vacation, a week at a psychology immersion camp, and a family reunion, we only had three weeks available. That’s three weeks to cover 6 schools across the state of Texas and 4 other colleges in Maryland, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

And that’s when I felt like the client instead of the professional.

I’ve seen so many families with good intentions (and plans) fall behind because they didn’t realize how little time they actually had for college visits, attempts at the SAT or ACT, or applications. Today’s article will outline some of the optional and necessary college planning for current sophomores and juniors. If you have a freshman, take notes because you will need to start planning soon.



College Planning

We’ve all seen plenty of college planning timelines. I’ve written articles on the subject. But it only becomes real when it is written on the family calendar.

It is easy to think, “We can do that over the summer.” Or, “She / he will have time for that next year; college is so far off.” But once we are in our routines for the school year or summer, it is easy for time to slip away.

Here are the college planning activities I would encourage you to pencil in for your family:


For Current Juniors:

Maybe you are one of the lucky ones who has already finished with testing. Congratulations! But many students are still preparing and working towards a score goal. Here are the remaining test dates:


  • April 14, 2018
  • June 9, 2018
  • July 14, 2018
  • September 8, 2018
  • October 27, 2018 (but this is pushing it!)


  • May 5, 2018
  • June 2, 2018
  • August 25, 2018
  • October 6, 2018
  • November 3, 2018 (but this is pushing it!)

Plan which test(s) you can take. Remember to watch for conflicts with AP Exam weeks (May 7-18), prom, final exams, vacation, and fall activities.

The sooner you finish testing, the sooner you can devote your full attention to the next step: applications.

For Current Sophomores:

You have the luxury of planning ahead right now. Next year when will you have the most time and interest to prepare? Try to avoid competition season for sports and activities. Consider the time demands of future Advanced Placement (AP) classes. (AP exams are always the first two weeks of May.)

Students who complete Algebra II as sophomores will have enough content knowledge to take the ACT or SAT in the fall. Students who are currently taking geometry and will take Algebra II in the fall may want to consider

  • Taking the ACT which does not include higher level Algebra II concepts and / or
  • Waiting until the spring to take these exams

Other than math, most students will not learn anything in school that will help on the ACT or SAT. So you don’t need to wait for spring in order to test. Many of my clients are done with testing. Some finished back in September and October when they earned top scores on these exams as juniors. The key is finding the time that is right for you.

Here are the test dates for next school year, so you can start planning. Keep in mind many students will take their choice of exam 2-3 times.


  • September 8, 2018
  • October 27, 2018
  • December 8, 2018
  • February 9, 2019
  • April 13, 2019
  • June 8, 2019
  • July 13, 2019


  • August 25, 2018
  • October 6, 2018
  • November 3, 2018
  • December 1, 2018
  • March 9, 2019
  • May 4, 2019
  • June 1, 2019


College Visits

It is not a requirement to visit every school on your list before you apply. But it is a good idea to visit a minimum of 3-5 colleges so you have a better idea of what different schools offer and how your interests may be met differently at specific schools.

There are so many variables when it comes to finding schools that are a good fit. I always say a college visit is like test driving a new car or trying on a new pair of shoes. You can read websites, compare rankings, talk to neighbors, and get the advice of experts. But when it comes to making a final decision, the only opinion or ranking that matters is yours.

I understand time and money are limiting factors in making college visits, but I also know the more informed you are, the better you can decide. Part of the evaluation process is where to apply, but the other part is where to attend. Notes made on trips during your junior year might save you a last-minute rushed visit in the spring of your senior year as you try to make your final selection.

Here has been our college visit approach:

  1. Summer before junior year—visit a variety of schools (big, small, urban, college town, etc.), take good notes, make a list of likes, don’t likes, and must haves.
  2. Junior year—continue adding possible colleges and removing some for not meeting criteria. (For example, my daughter likes liberal arts colleges, but has decided schools with fewer than 1500 students are just too small.)
  3. Junior year—visit more campuses. Take advantage of school holidays and breaks. Look for colleges you might be near as you take family trips.
  4. Summer before senior year—narrow your college list. I’m nervous when students have fewer than 5 schools on their lists and I know most students don’t have the time, energy (or money) to apply to more than 15. (They Dorsey list currently has 10 schools. That might increase or decrease by a couple between now and August.)
  5. Summer before senior year—make sure you have done official tours with a minimum of three of the colleges on your list. Visiting friends and relatives doesn’t count. You need the tour and information session from the admissions office to count it as a college visit.

As I found, it was easy to imaging we would have time to make all these college visits—until I started to pencil them in on my calendar. Most admissions offices let you schedule campus visit online, so you can do this at anytime.

Note: Many campuses are in a transition period right now, so don’t worry if you can’t schedule summer visits just yet. The national date to inform students of college admission in April 1. Seniors have until May 1 to inform the colleges of their decisions. Many schools are still focusing on this year’s seniors and will get summer visit schedules online soon.


Ideally students should be involved in meaningful activities throughout the year. But sometimes projects, community service, and hobbies get delayed during the school year. Summer is the ideal time to catch up.

This summer my daughter needs to finish her Girl Scout Gold Award and she has a goal of earning more service hours. She will also attend a week-long psychology institute at Wake Forest University. And we can’t forget all those hours working on speech & debate!

What are your summer plans? What else can you accomplish?

When students tell me they are just going to hang out for the summer, I remind them they will still have time for fun AND activities. And if you need a little convincing, take a look at some college applications and see how well you can fill in the “activities” section.


I will cover the topic of applications in greater depth in another article. What you need to plan for is some time, maybe a couple weeks, to draft a resume and start working on college essays. Summer is a great time to get started, but keep in mind, most colleges don’t open their online applications until August 1.


For those of us with juniors, that senior year will be here before we know it. It seems like high school just started and now the reality of college applications is here.

Take a little time to actually put testing, college visits, activities, and application work on your calendar, so you don’t accidently fall behind.

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Does it hurt to take the SAT / ACT multiple times?

Does it hurt to take the SAT / ACT multiple times?

Will colleges question why I took the test for a 4th time?

Will it help if colleges see I’m improving my scores by taking the ACT / SAT more?

Most students will take the ACT / SAT two or three times. Colleges know this and are not surprised when they receive multiple score reports reflecting a student’s attempts at these standardized tests.

In admission, colleges and universities are looking for reasons to admit a student– in other words, looking for the best results possible. Find out how colleges use scores when a student has taken tests more than once.