26 Weeks to College: Week 1

A Week-by-Week Plan for Applying to College Successfully and Sanely

Applying to college is a complex and difficult project. You know that. Your parents know that. Your teachers and college counselors know that. Admissions officers know that. In other words, everyone involved in the process knows that.

In fact, knowing that is exactly what might make you feel a bit overwhelmed. That's understandable because the truth is that you probably don’t have all that much experience managing complex and difficult projects, let alone projects as high stakes as applying to college. So how do you tackle that?

The grown-up thing to do is to take on the challenge. You’ve been preparing for this for the last 16 or 17 years. You are ready. You can do it. You really can.

Of course, you can do it better if you take advantage of the resources that are out there to help you. Like your parents, teachers, and college counselors. Like admissions officers. Like websites, apps, and books. Like this series.

26 Weeks to College is a week-by-week plan for applying to college. It breaks this complex and difficult project down into weekly to-do lists. Based on the Master Plan for applying to college in our book How to Prepare a Standout College Application, 26 Weeks to College is designed for any applicant who intends to apply to top U.S. colleges this admissions cycle beginning in August and taking you through January. And we’ll update beyond that as well, but January gets your applications submitted by the typical application deadlines.

Each week, we’ll post your list of to-dos for the week, along with some tips and tricks for getting those to-dos done. Your job? Read each week’s plan and execute. If you do, you’ll have more success and less stress in the process. Guaranteed.

An important heads up: A lot of the work you’ll be doing in the application process is front-loaded. It will get less intense as the weeks go by, we promise.

Ready to get started? Below you’ll find your to-do’s for this week, along with the promised tips and tricks.

WEEK 1 TO-DOS

  • Choose your calendar and put all the “non-college stuff” on it. You must use a calendar this year, because in order to get everything done, you are going to have to grab free hours whenever you have them. You need to know when you can focus on the college application process and when you are going to be preoccupied by school or life. So even if you haven't really used a calendar before, commit to using a calendar this year, whether paper or electronic or whatever method works for you. Start by putting all the key dates related to the non-college stuff on your calendar right now.

  • Set up your filing system and file all the stuff you have already collected in it. An avalanche of information is the nature of the college application beast. You have to have a system for managing it. Once you’ve set up your system, gather up everything you already have related to the college application process, sort it, and file it. That goes for everything — including your electronic stuff!

  • Finalize your college list and settle on the number of colleges you are applying to (10 is a good number).

  • Decide where, if anywhere, to apply early.

  • Decide the order in which you are going to complete your applications.

  • Extra help: Order your copy of How to Prepare a Standout College Application and use it as a companion throughout the next 26 weeks.


THIS WEEK AND EVERY WEEK

  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.

  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.


TIPS AND TRICKS

USE A SINGLE CALENDAR
Don’t have separate calendars for school, personal, and college applications in different places. That is a sure recipe for disaster in the form of double or triple booking yourself and missing deadlines. You can use either paper or electronic versions. For most students, electronic is the way to go because you always have your cell phones on you, and your cell phones have calendars on them. Personally we like Google Calendar, and you can create separate sub-calendars and colors for personal, school, applications, etc.

SET UP A GMAIL OR OTHER FREE EMAIL ACCOUNT THAT YOU USE EXCLUSIVELY FOR APPLYING TO COLLEGE
Setting up a dedicated email address offers two advantages. First, you can create a professional, appropriately serious email identity that is worthy of an applicant to a top U.S. college, and you can still have whatever email identity you want for other purposes. Second, by setting up a separate email account you have also set up an automatic “filing” system for your college related emails, because those are the ONLY emails that will come to this email address (so long as you maintain the discipline of using that address only for this purpose).

SET UP THREE IDENTICAL FILING SYSTEMS
One of the problems with figuring out your filing system is that the information will come in many forms — snail mail, email, voicemail, notes, internet research, hard copy brochures and folders, and text messages. Not only do you have to figure out how to store all this various information, you also have to figure out how to retrieve it when you need it.

For most students, the easiest way to go is to have three storage locations that all have the same file structure – set up one storage system in email, set up another storage location either on a hard drive on your computer or in the cloud, and set up a third in old-fashioned paper file folders. To get you started, we've compiled a basic list of files you should set up in each storage location.

Once you've set up those organizational tools for yourself, you'll be all set to tackle the rest of the series.

CHOOSE 8-15 COLLEGES BASED ON FIT, SELECTIVITY, AND AFFORDABILITY.
All of the colleges on your list should be "good fits," meaning that they offer what you want from a college educationally and otherwise. The colleges should have a range in terms of selectivity. We suggest you balance your list in this way: 2-3 should be colleges where you have a high likelihood of admission (safeties), 4-8 should be colleges where you have a good likelihood of admission (targets or matches), and 2-4 should be colleges where you have a low likelihood of admission (reaches). Finally, all of the colleges on your list should be affordable for you, meaning that between your family resources and the financial aid you are likely to get from the college, you can pay for it. Don’t assume the sticker price is what you’ll end up paying! Some colleges end up being dramatically cheaper after you’ve received a financial aid award, or if your annual family income falls below a certain level.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT SCHOLARSHIP SEARCH SERVICES
There's good news and bad news when it comes to scholarship searches. The bad news is that scholarship scams abound, and every year thousands of hopeful college applicants and their families get duped by them. It is so tempting to sign up for a service that "guarantees" you'll get a scholarship, but the only guarantee is that you'll never see the money you paid to this service again. Before you pay a single dollar to a scholarship search service, use this checklist to evaluate whether you are about to become a victim of a scam rather than the recipient of legitimate assistance.

The good news is that there are scholarships out there and that it is relatively easy for you to identify them for FREE thanks to the internet. You can use a tool like Fastweb or FinAid and the College Board’s Scholarship Search.

One note about these "free" services: They are free to you, but they are for-profit enterprises. So who pays? For the most part, these sites are supported by colleges, scholarship organizations, and financial aid related companies (such as lenders). They pay these sites so that they can have access to you! They want to sell you on themselves. So once you sign up for these services, you will likely become a target of a lot of marketing including web advertisements, e-mails, and snail mail. Our advice? Just deal with the hassle factor of all this extra stuff coming your way. It is worth it to get the information you need about scholarships for free.

In other words, the easiest way to avoid being the victim of a scam is simply to do your research.

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