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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.