Seniors Applying to College: You Need a Plan!

It is August and that means the Common Application is now live and most colleges have released their applications for the upcoming year.  Are you rejoicing because you are so excited to get to work on your applications?  If so, awesome.  But, if you are among the 99.9% who are feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the project and aren’t sure how to tackle such a huge and complex undertaking, read on. 

How do you tackle applying to college?  Short answer: with a plan.  Map out what you are going to do when and then you work your plan.  It is both as easy and as hard as that.  Here are 5 tips for making a plan that will help you get your applications done with a minimum of stress and drama. 

Tip #1:  Make a plan that allows you enough time to get it all done. 

You can assume that you will devote about 100 hours total to complete 8-12 applications. We know that sounds crazy, and you’re thinking that it couldn’t possibly take that much time. But trust us, it will. If you budget 100 hours, what’s the worst that can happen? You find yourself in the happy situation of having more free time than expected. Compare that to what happens if you fail to budget enough time for your college applications. You’ll have to scramble to make time when you are under serious pressure, and it won’t be pretty. 

Tip #2:  Make a plan that is based on the application requirements for each college on your list. 

Do you actually know what each college requires?  I’m guessing you don’t.  You probably have a general idea, but you haven’t actually done the research and gotten all the details.  You need the details.  A college application is not a single form that you complete and submit online; it is a set of materials that come together into an application file.  What is the full set of materials required by each college on your list?  What comprises your part of the application?  Is it the Common Application alone? Or the Common Application plus a College Specific Supplement? Or does the college have its own application?  What supporting materials do you need to submit?  A transcript?  A test score report?  One teacher recommendation or two?  Are there any supplementary materials that you are required or would like to submit? What are they and what format is specified for them?  Are evaluative interviews a part of the process?  If so, what do you need to do to request one?  Are you an international student or a homeschooled student?  If so, check if there are different requirements for you.  In other words, go to each college’s website and educate yourself about the details of each and every application you need to complete.

Tip #3:  Make a plan that capitalizes on any opportunities to “do it once and use it twice or more”

Once you know what each college on your list requires, you can determine what opportunities you have to “do it once” and “use it twice or more.”  It probably goes without saying that the Common Application is a wonderful “do it once, use it more than once” opportunity.  But beyond that opportunity, are there others?  Many of the questions on college applications are similar to each other and you will probably find that you can use one answer for multiple applications.  One important caveat: Don’t reuse answers unless they actually respond to the question being asked.  Doing that saves you time at the expense of getting in.  Not a good idea.

Tip #4:  Make a plan that structures your work “application by application”.

This is a strategy we learned from writer Anne Lamott, who recounts this story in her book, Bird by Bird:  Some Instructions on Writing and Life:  

My older brother was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin…and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird." (pp. 18-19, Kindle Edition)

Our advice mirrors the father’s advice:  “Application by application.  Just take it application by application.” 

Tip #5:  Make a plan that allows you to beat the submission deadlines by at least a week, preferably two. 

College application submission deadlines are firm and there is little or no forgiveness for those who miss them.  At many colleges, if you fail to submit your application by the deadline, your chances of acceptance are exactly zero, because your application will not be considered, no matter how legitimate your excuse and no matter how much you beg and plead.  If you make a plan that allows you to beat the submission deadlines, then even if everything goes wrong (computer crashes, your school is suddenly shut down due to environmental hazard, dog eats your application, whatever) – you have time to recover and still meet the application deadline! 

Comments or Questions?

Need help making your plan?  We’ll point you in the right direction if you post your question.  Have a tip of your own to share.  Post it for the benefit of all your fellow applicants.

Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey College Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (Southern Methodist University, University of Chicago, and Dartmouth College). She works with students and families throughout the U.S. and abroad.  Follow Alison on Twitter (@IveyCollege)