Ten Tips for Surviving the College Application Process
- Organize your info. It sounds obvious, but you would be surprised how many students don’t do it. Keep a folder with all of the college information you receive, and include SAT, ACT, and/or AP scores and dates of upcoming tests so that you have all of these materials in one place.
- Look at the Common Application early. This will help you to identify what information will be required before you start filling in forms. Gather all of the basic information and try to draft at least the short answer essay before starting your senior year.
- Decide which teachers you will ask for references and do it before you leave for summer at the end of junior year. Remember, your teachers are busy too, and they will appreciate advance notice so that they can plan accordingly. Put together a packet of information for your teacher such as your resume or a list of your activities and interests to help them know more about you.
- Narrow down your college list. It’s hard to write more than 7 or 8 high quality applications. You may complete more than that, but recognize that you will not have the time or energy to do your best work on all of them. Work in priority order. Do not include schools that you really do not want to go to, even if your parents, friends, or counselors say you should!
- Think about when to take the many tests that will be required. You need to balance test taking with everything else going on in your life. An athlete who plays a spring sport many want to take the SAT in January before things get too busy, while a musician may want to wait until the spring concert is over and take it in April.
- Agree on ground rules at home. No one wants to be bugged daily by their parents about writing applications, but let’s be realistic that there may be some bugging. Agree with your parents on a time once a week during senior year when you will talk about where you are in the process and what you still have to do.
- Make sure your school counselor knows who you are before October! Really. Every year during the third week of October, with the early decision deadlines looming, students flock to their counselors’ offices looking for advice. It is not easy for counselors to help you in a meaningful way if they don’t know you.
- Prepare for your interviews and practice interviewing. I have interviewed potential students for almost 20 years, and about 80% of them have been under-prepared. This is one part of the process that you can control so take advantage of it. Have several sincere questions prepared and practice interviewing with a friend, parent, or counselor. Try not to fidget and make good eye contact!
- Understand timelines, requirements, and deadlines. Colleges ask for similar, but unfortunately not identical information. Make a chart or spreadsheet with each college and write down EXACTLY what you need to submit with the deadline for each component of the application. If you are being recruited as an athlete or performer, realize that your process will be different and your timelines may be accelerated.
- Write about what matters to you in your own voice. There is no perfect essay, and trying to concoct one usually fails miserably. Think about something that you care about or that interests you. What do you want the reader of the application to know about you that they might not know without reading your essay? Try not to overthink it and be true to yourself. It’s appropriate to ask your school counselor, parents, or others to proofread it for you, but the work you submit should be your own. Admissions officers can tell when it’s not written in a student’s voice.
Maureen Brown served as the executive director of Challenge Success for nearly eight years. She co-authored, Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids with Denise Pope and Sarah Miles. She has over 20 years of consulting experience in health care, financial services, and technology and currently serves as the Interim Center Fund President at Center for the Arts in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.