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. 

Myths and Realities of College Admission

Podcast 193: What’s REALLY Important in

College Admissions?

Many families are confused about where to start with college admissions, and there is a lot of faulty information out there.

In this episode of “The College Prep Podcast”, I lay out, in concrete terms, what’s important when prepping for college and correct some myths that many families have.

Specifically, we explore:

  • 3 great underutilized resources for getting accurate information about colleges
  • 3 main criteria colleges look at when determining if you are a good fit for their school
  • 5 myths about the college admissions process (like: “you have to have top grades and great scores to get into any school”) and what is actually true instead

Listen here. 

How To Handle College Rejection Letters

Every spring thousands of students receive rejection letters from colleges and universities. While it is disappointing, particularly when a top choice school sends a rejection letter, there are steps students can take to manage upsetting news and move forward in the admissions process.

Acknowledge Disappointment

It is upsetting. No one wants to get a rejection letter. When a student has put time and effort into vising a school, submitting an application, and picturing him or herself on campus, rejection is hurtful. It is okay to spend a day or two grieving the loss of an opportunity. Students who acknowledge their feelings of disappointment, anger, frustration, or loss are better able to move onto new possibilities than those who try to ignore their feelings and end up lashing out at family and friends unexpectedly.

Reevaluate criteria and priorities.

Once the initial shock and disappointment wear off, get back to the big picture of finding a college that is a good fit. This means letting go of the option that is no longer available and getting into the mindset of finding the next choice. I’ve worked with students who ended up with no options by the time they graduated because they refused to get past the disappointment of a rejection and move on to “Plan B.”

This step goes hand in hand with attainable admissions standards. Sometimes rejection letters force students to face unpleasant facts. This is often where good (and great) students are told they are not exceptional enough to gain admission to the ultra-selective colleges on their lists. It is a time to look for great schools with friendlier admissions policies. Reevaluating the initial criteria for selecting colleges can help refocus on the overall goal.

Evaluate Other Acceptance Offers

Hopefully students will have developed lists of potential schools so that they will have other offers of admission. Focusing on the positive acceptances and the possibilities of each can help students handle rejection. This is why I have moved away from the term “backup school” because I want students to see all options as good choices and not feel they have to settle if they aren’t accepted at their top choice school.

Even if all top choice schools sent rejection letters, a student can still find a positive alternative. It is as if a student finds she won’t get a new luxury car, but will receive an economy car. Seeing the benefits of the new car, even if it is an economy model rather than a luxury one, can help. Other acceptance offers are better than no acceptance offers.

Apply to Other Schools if Necessary

If a student has been rejected from all schools to which he or she applied, it may be necessary to submit applications to additional colleges. Students who have reason to believe they will not receive any letters of acceptance should look for schools with easier admissions standards than the ones they applied to before.

I know application deadlines have passed at many schools, but there are still options. Schools with late spring application deadlines or rolling decision options may accept applications as late as May or June for fall registration. These new schools may have friendlier admission criteria, but don’t assume students will get in without trying. (In other words, don’t underestimate these colleges. Later deadlines doesn’t mean they accept everyone; put effort into those applications.)

In May colleges evaluate how many students have enrolled and how much space, if any, they have available in the incoming class. Students in need of a backup school in May, June, or July should contact their counselors to find out which colleges and universities still have openings for the fall semester.

Move On

The final step and handling college rejection is moving on. After a week or two of lamenting the lost opportunity, students need to move on. Accepting rejection, whether from a college, employer, or potential date, is part of growing up. Learning to handle rejection in a mature calm manner will help students avoid potentially embarrassing situations in the future and open their minds to new opportunities.


When highly-selective universities have admissions rates below 10 percent, even valedictorians are denied admission. What students do in the days and weeks following will determine if they are successfully able to handle rejection and move on.


All In! How To Avoid Overcommitting On Extracurricular Activities

In the past week I’ve met three new students who told me they were no longer involved in extracurricular activities because they had committed all their time to one thing which didn’t work out.

  • “Susan” played competitive softball.  She was on the school’s varsity team and a competitive select club team.  Last fall an injury permanently ended her ability to play.  Currently her only extracurricular activity is physical therapy.
  • “James” was in band.  He marched every fall, played concerts and competitions in the spring, and attended camp in the summer.  Band consumed his free time.  After marching season, he quit, primarily due to personality conflicts, but he was also burnt out on spending 20 hours a week on band.  Currently he is enjoying his extra time, but he has no other extracurricular activities.
  • “Morgan” was the queen of competitive cheer.  From the time she was in elementary school, she lived in the gym.  She took tumbling lessons, strength and flexibility classes, and competed with some of the best teams in the area. She quit her freshman year saying, “I was tired; it just wasn’t fun anymore.”  She’s currently involved with two clubs at school that take a few hours of her time each month.

Here’s my complaint – had Susan, James, and Morgan completed college applications a year or two ago they would look like superstars– highly involved, holding leadership positions, truly dedicated to developing interests and talents.  But now, junior year, when it counts, they aren’t doing much.

As parents we can talk about overcommitted kids or the pressures to excel from a young age.  But my complaint is with the “all in” mentality we’ve developed with activities. It can start slowly as kids are naturally drawn to some activities over others.  Add the pressure from coaches, teachers, or directors who suggest private lessons, additional practice, or off-season training.  Pretty soon kids are so deeply involved with ONE activity that if they choose to quit or are forced out due to injury, they have nothing left.

I understand that to become truly great in an area sacrifices must be made.  Sometimes potential Olympic gymnasts or figure skaters must forgo the traditional school experience to compete on a national stage at age 15, 16, or 17.  I know Justin Bieber didn’t spend the past two years worried about service hours for National Honor Society.

But most of our kids won’t be performing at the Grammys or Olympics.  Most of them won’t continue in their sport or activity after high school.  So are we doing them a service by allowing them to go all in with one activity at an early age?

Focusing on one activity to the exclusion of others can have drawbacks, even for students who continue to excel.  Students run the risk of appearing one-dimensional and missing out on developing other interests or related skills.

Before you allow or encourage your child to go all in with one activity, ask yourself some questions:

  • Could we make time for a couple hours of something else each week?  (Think service, writing, music, academics, work)
  • What other talents or interests could we promote with another activity?  Can we show another dimension or greater depth?  (Avoid the “dumb jock” stereotype by tutoring before school.  Develop writing and research talent by starting a blog.  Pursue an interest in the medical field by volunteering a few hours a week at the hospital.)
  • Is there a way my child could use his or her talents in another way?  (The athlete who volunteers with Special Olympics or coaches younger students.  The musician who plays at the retirement center every week or helps with the middle school band.)
  • Are we emphasizing the right things? Does our allocation of time and money reflect the values and things we feel are most important?

I love seeing kids who are passionate and involved.  They tend to do better in school.  But when it comes to college admission (and the more important goal of raising responsible, capable, and caring kids) going all out for one activity isn’t as beneficial as finding time for some balance.

My advice to Susan, James, and Morgan was the same.  Get out there and get involved.  Let your choice of clubs, activities, service groups, or work reflect your personality, talents, interests, and potential college major.  Participate in things that are rewarding.  Hang out in places and with people who encourage you to do your best and be a better person.  Don’t worry about what colleges want; there is no magic formula.  Get out there and get involved.  Just do it!