Follow 7 Steps to Manage the College Application Process

You still have time to do a good job with your applications.

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Earlier this summer, I wrote about "8 Strategies for Starting Your College Application Process," directed at rising high school seniors as they began to contemplate the process that loomed on the horizon. Then, in August, I offered "7 Tips to Jump-Start the College Application Process." Given the importance of what lies ahead, I think it is prudent to make sure this topic continues to get the attention it deserves.

The advice in the earlier blog posts is pretty straightforward: Get organized. Be purposeful. And focus on key messages. Readers who heeded that advice should now be operating from well-conceived plans for completing their college applications.

Alas, the best of intentions can fall prey to summer distractions. The campus visits, essay development, and application preparations that, back in June, seemed to fit so logically into the empty spaces on the summer calendar, became another day's work. Now that school has started, these tasks re-emerge on the radar screen with a new sense of urgency. The time for action is now!

[Learn more in the U.S. News applying to college guide.]

The good news is you still have time to do a good job with your applications. The reality, though, is the application process is fraught with complexity and procedural land mines that even the most diligent students find onerous on top of the regular demands of the classroom. To get from where you are to where you want to be as a college applicant, with minimal disruptions to your daily routine, you will need to remain focused and make good choices about how you use your time.

The following strategies, along with those articulated in the earlier blog posts, will give you a better chance of getting through the application process unscathed and emerging with happy outcomes.

1. Get organized today: Read the directions on each application. Know what is required of you and when it is required. Enter this information on a planning calendar. Record meaningful dates and deadlines you must meet in completing your applications. Decide which standardized tests you want or need to take and enter the test dates as well as the registration deadlines. Post the calendar some place where it is easily referenced by you and your parents, such as your refrigerator or a family bulletin board.

2. Give yourself—and others—time to do a good job: Establish your own deadlines for sending in the materials that are at least one week ahead of the actual deadlines. Then work backwards to establish dates by which you need completed essays and letters of recommendation, allowing plenty of time (6-8 weeks) for these documents to be generated. By waiting until the last minute to get things started, you give up control of the process and lose your ability to put your best foot forward.

[Get 5 tips for securing recommendation letters.]

3. Pay attention to procedures and deadlines established by your school: Quite often, high schools assist students in compiling and submitting their applications. Make sure you know the drill. If your school utilizes a data management system such as Naviance, use it to communicate profile information about yourself that can be helpful to individuals who will write letters on your behalf.

4. Keep things simple: Eliminate schools from your list that are there because 1) you think it would be cool to see if you can get in, or 2) you'd feel better with a few more backup schools. You shouldn't need to apply to more than eight schools—six is an even better number. Focus your energies on the applications for schools you have researched thoroughly and about which you really care—they are likely to fit you best.

5. Establish a game plan for your application: Know how you want to come across to the admissions committees at each school and take stock of the opportunities you have with their respective applications to make your case. Develop a theme that speaks to who you are and pulls together the sum of your parts. Keep that theme in mind as you prepare the different elements of each application.

[Find out the right way to pitch yourself to a school.]

6. Connect the dots: A common mistake made by prospective applicants is the failure to make a cohesive presentation with their applications. They see their credentials as collections of random documents (transcripts, essays, letters of recommendation, test results, etc.) and thereby fail to pull things together. Take time to eliminate the randomness. Connect the dots so that a picture emerges reflective of the qualities you want admissions officers to see as they consider your candidacy.

7. Stay focused in the classroom: With all of the traditional senior year and college planning activities going on around you, it will be easy to lose track of the work you need to be doing in the classroom. Believe it or not, the work you do in your senior year could turn out to be your most important credential. Make it count!

Your senior year should be one of good times and fond memories. While the college application process is daunting, it can be managed effectively. Take advantage of these strategies to ease the stress and keep a smile on your face as you work to get from where you are to where you want to be!


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