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The Essential Step-by-Step Guide to College Applications

The college application process can be stressful. But with this step-by-step guide, you can get organized and apply to colleges with ease. Check it out!

College is an exciting time of higher learning, community building, and self-discovery. But before you can get to any of that, you have to get into college first—and that means getting through the application process. What if you forget to send something in? What if you realize there was an error or two in your essay after you send it? Not all schools are going to have the same application process or require the exact same materials—and if you plan on using the Common App, you have to be prepared that one or more of your schools may not use it.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed about handling your college apps the right way, here’s a step-by-by step guide to help you get organized and make you feel more confident about the whole college application journey.

Step 1: Finalize your top schools list (with backups)

Before you can start applying to schools, you need to know which schools, so back up a few steps and finalize your college list! Admission experts typically recommend applying to between six and 10 colleges. Whether you fall on the low or high end of that range will depend on your goals. However, it’s also smart to have a few backups set aside if you have to apply to additional schools later.

Once your picks are finalized, organize your schools into three categories:

  • Safety schools: Based on their requirements and your credentials, you have a very high chance of getting into these schools.
  • Target schools: You have a higher-than-average chance of getting into these schools, but they’re typically more competitive than your safety schools.
  • Reach schools: You don’t quite meet all the admission requirements for these highly competitive schools, but your supplemental materials may still lead to an acceptance.

Organizing your schools this way will keep you focused on your goals and where you want to take your future career path.

Related: How to Pick Your Match, Safety, and Reach Colleges

Step 2: Research deadlines and make an application timeline

This step is important because schools have different types of deadlines as well as specific priority dates. When you do your research, organize everything in a way that’ll be easy to read and even easier to remember; you don’t want to send an application to the wrong school or on the wrong day! Try using an Excel spreadsheet or a blank calendar to keep track and customize your organization to your needs.

Essential tip: The most common admission deadlines are Early Action, Early Decision, Regular Decision, and rolling admission. Keep track of which schools offer which deadlines to help organize your application timeline.

Step 3: Gather your materials

College admission teams ask for a lot of information because they have to get a good sense of who you are to make sure you’re right for their school (and vice versa). So gather your application materials diligently—and early. Request copies of your transcripts and in-progress grades as soon as you can in the process. Set up your SAT, ACT, or other major test scores to be sent to your colleges of interest for when you’re ready to submit your applications. Ask for letters of recommendation from influential people who know your academic and personal accomplishments well and can speak highly of you—and give them plenty of time to write them!

In addition to all these materials, you should get your résumé in order and keep a document of all reusable responses to questions that are commonly asked on college apps about extracurriculars, work experience or internships, and volunteer work. Find an organizational method for keeping track of everything to make submitting your applications that much easier. 

Related: Do I Need to Submit Supplemental Materials?

Step 4: Write your application essays and responses

The admission essay is where you can really shine on your college applications. You have room to be creative and express your personality. Depending on where you’re applying, your essay could follow the usual format in which you write about a reflective moment in your life or explain why you want to attend a particular school. But some colleges will ask specific “essay response” questions instead of seeking a full essay.

To make this easier on yourself, write your standard college application essay first. You’ll likely be able to reuse this essay for multiple schools. Once you have that squared away—first draft, second draft, reviewed by someone else, final draft—look at the applications for schools requesting short answers for specific prompts. Schools may have similar questions, making it easy to adapt one answer for each school, or a specific essay prompt may be close enough to your universal essay to adapt it slightly to answer the prompt. It’s all about working smarter, right?

Step 5: Have someone else review your applications

There’s nothing worse than realizing that you forgot an important piece of information, had a typo somewhere, or misrepresented yourself in some way after submitting your applications. Having someone you trust review your applications before you click send will give you peace of mind that you’re putting your best self forward for the maximum chance of getting accepted.

Essential tip: If you need help at any point during the process, you can reach out to college admission counselors via email or over the phone. They’ll always have valuable insight into the application process, and your initiative with exhibit demonstrated interest in their school.

Step 6: Organize your applications and submit accordingly

With everything collected and reviewed, organize all your materials—making sure your letters of recommendations, test scores, and transcripts have been sent—and submit them according to your application timeline. Focus on the closest deadlines first and work your way to the latest ones. The applications that should absolutely be taken care of first are the ones for schools you intend to apply Early Action or Early Decision. 

Related: How to Organize Your College Search

Step 7: Track your responses

Whether you receive acceptances or rejections, you should be thanking the people who helped you along the way. If you had a really helpful admission counselor from a school that ultimately didn’t admit you, it speaks a lot to your character to send that counselor an email thanking them despite the status of your application. Tracking your acceptances and rejections also allows you to analyze what may have gotten you accepted to one school and rejected from another. Once you decide which school you’ll enroll in, you should notify any schools that accepted you so they can offer your spot to another student. 

Step 8: Assess and apply to more schools if needed

If your applications didn’t go the way you wanted them to, assessing any differentiating features allows you to know what to highlight if you have to apply to more schools—or if you want to appeal a deferment or rejection. You can appeal a deferment by updating your résumé with anything you may have missed, getting another letter of recommendation, or writing a deferral letter. These are also potential options for a rejection appeal—but be aware that this is rare. In your communications, be humble and self-aware of the likelihood that the school representatives will change their minds.

Essential tip: If you think you’ll need to do a second round of applying, set yourself up with any additional materials required for backup schools ahead of time so you aren’t scrambling to submit anything right before a deadline.

Related: 4 Things to Do If You’re Deferred by Your Dream College

The road to college acceptance is a long one—but you can (and should!) enjoy the process of getting to know yourself better and learning how to best present yourself to your schools of interest. With a little organization and this step-by-step guide, you can pull your applications together with ease and find a great college that wants you for all you’re worth.

Give yourself a leg up on your applications by checking if any of your colleges of interest are featured schools on CX. If they are, you can have your profile info sent straight to them and make yourself known early in the process!

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