How to Survive the College Application Process

Student Life

College application season is here, and while this is no doubt an exciting time, it can also be extremely stressful. Many high school seniors, myself included, find it difficult to narrow down their college list, write their supplemental essays, or compile the necessary information for all their applications. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by this daunting task, here are several tips for successfully navigating the college application process.

1. Organization

Organization is key to staying on track with your admissions process. I found that one of the easiest ways to stay organized is to have a folder in your Google Drive dedicated to college stuff. You can then create subfolders based on each school, supplemental prompts and essays, deadlines, and anything else. Organization is up to you, but make sure it works; you’ll be reviewing the materials in this folder often.

You’ll also want to be sure you have a space to keep track of passwords, emails, and usernames associated with the many websites you’ll have access to. I was surprised at the sheer amount of login information I had to keep up with, so having all of that in one place is super helpful.

2. Stay on top of deadlines

Needless to say, this is vital in the college application process. Do not wait until the last minute to ask for letters of recommendation, turn things in, or get feedback on your essays. If you’re a procrastinator like me, this is not an easy feat. But forcing yourself to stay on track is more than worth it in the long run, especially if it eliminates more stress in the short term. Keep a planner or calendar (refer to organization above) so you know what deadlines are coming up. You can also use these tools to spread the work out, so you’re not rushing to finish an application the day before it’s due. Remember, missing a deadline could mean the difference between a sizable amount of aid money and nothing at all since many colleges have application deadlines for the consideration of merit-based scholarships and aid. Also, know what your admission plan is. There are early deadlines for early action and early decision that you should look out for if either of those options is of interest to you.

Rushing to finish things doesn’t just jeopardize your sleep and sanity, but it also risks a quality essay that could be much better if you spent more time on it. There are a lot of deadlines associated with the college application process, but as long as you stay on top of them from the start, you’ll have no problem getting everything done on time.

3. Don't compare yourself to others

I have a twin sister who is also currently applying to college, and I often find myself comparing myself to her and her progress. College is a hot topic at school with many of my friends and classmates discussing what they’ve completed and where they are in the process. It’s easy to want to compare yourself to your peers to gauge whether you’re caught up or falling behind, but it is important to avoid doing this. It isn’t a competition, and it isn’t a race, and comparing yourself to others will only make you more stressed out.

Instead, remind yourself that everyone’s college path looks different and everyone works at their own pace. Remember, this is YOUR decision.

4. Use Your Resources

There are a myriad of resources available to you for applying to college, all of them with the intent to make the application process as stress-free and as painless as possible. So take advantage of this! If your school has a future center or even just counselors, talk to them about your goals and how to best achieve them. Even your teachers can be of great help. These adults work with high school seniors year after year, so they are especially familiar with the college application process.

But if you prefer to use resources outside your school, I recommend checking online. There are countless websites (many of them free!) that can give you tips for writing supplements, keep track of deadlines for you, give you micro-scholarships, walk you through the admissions process, tell you what major you might be successful in if you’re not sure, and many more. My favorite websites include Niche which gives you quick information, thorough reviews, and accurate ratings, CollegeVine which you can use to calculate your chances of getting into any school, and College Factual which has all sorts of different rankings I’ve found super helpful.

5. Start the common app or coalition app early

If there’s one thing I wish I had done before starting the application process, it’s starting the common application much earlier. If you aren’t familiar with either the common app or coalition app, they are essentially one-size-fits-all applications that can be used to apply to several different schools. That means you only have to write one essay and fill out your information once if the schools you’re applying to take them.

I can only speak on the common application since that’s the one I’ve used, but you can start it fairly early on, even before you have a finalized list of colleges. Putting in all your information including the classes you’ve taken and activities you’ve participated in will make things a lot easier down the road and save you a ton of time. And if you haven't started either application, it’s probably a good time to start.

Finally, make sure you know which application you’ll need to fill out for each school. Many schools take the common or coalition app, but some have their own applications that take a bit more time.

6. Gather any necessary materials

Applying to college requires a lot of information, so you should make sure you can find all this information and have it ready to apply. You’ll need your transcripts including past grades and coursework, the names and course codes of any college classes, any test scores (SAT, ACT, AP, etc.), any previous activities or volunteer work with names and hours of participation, and financial information. Most of this information will likely need to be found on your own. However, it is important to discuss finances with your parents or guardians. You may need to report their income on your application, and you’ll definitely need it to complete the FAFSA or other aid applications. Having all the necessary materials there makes applying quick and easy because you’ll be done with all the preparation.

7. Keep Narrowing that list

Some of my friends are applying to a whopping 15 schools. If you can avoid doing this, you probably should. It’s completely fine to have several schools on your considering list, but when it comes time to apply, you should keep your list between 8 and 12 schools.

If you have the time (and bandwidth) to apply to 15 schools, go for it! But remember, in the end, you can only pick one school. Application fees can be expensive, and the actual applications can be extensive, so narrowing down your list can save you a ton of time and money. Ask yourself: If I end up going to this school, will I be excited? If the answer is no, take the school off your list.

Not sure what schools to have your own list? I suggest having a few safety schools (ones you know you’ll get into), a few targets (ones that might be a bit harder but still doable), and one or two reach schools (ones that will be a challenge).

8. Do your research

This is one of the most important tips when applying for college. You’re about to make a major decision: many of us are deciding where to spend the next four years. When it comes to picking schools to apply to, make sure you know what you want. What location are you interested in? What major? Do you like big schools? Small schools? Is it hard to get in? Is cost a big factor in your decision? Considering these questions will help you choose schools you’re interested in and weed out any that don’t fit your criteria. With so many colleges in the US, it’s good to be selective. Once you’ve picked out a few schools, you’ll want to learn more about them. Researching may uncover questions you can pose to the admissions counselor which will not only be helpful to you, but it will also put you on that school’s radar.

9. Don't take on too much

You should challenge yourself, but you should also know your limits. Don’t sell yourself short and settle on schools with easy applications, but don’t go crazy either. Most of us likely still have school, sport, and other extracurricular obligations that make it impossible for college to be our main focus. When getting ready to apply, keep this in mind. Don’t sacrifice sleep (or your sanity) to apply to a ton of different schools and scholarships. Remember that it’s okay to take breaks. Your schedule and list of priorities will undoubtedly change during this time, so it’s important to plan accordingly.

10. Have Fun with it

This might be a little cliché, but it is an important piece of advice. Remember that this is an exciting time. It is stressful, but it’s also fun. Don’t look at it as another assignment or chore, but as a chance for you to expand your boundaries and explore something new! Get out of your comfort zone and use this opportunity to think about what you really want to do with your life after high school.

Grace McClung
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Grace McClung is from Denver, Colorado, and will be attending the University of Florida in the fall.