How to Start the College Application Process: 38 Tips

InGenius Prep

How to Start the College Application Process: 38 Tips

The college application process has long been notorious for its daunting requirements. Nowadays, the hype begins years in advance. To be competitive when you’re a senior, you must find your own way to keep up, figure out how to start the college application process!

We get that you might just want to put your head down and not think about college. But the reality is, the earlier you start chipping away at your college applications, the more manageable the process will feel.

It’s tempting to keep putting off starting your college applications when a homework assignment or procrastination opportunity comes up. But trust us – you don’t want to be that applicant who leaves everything until the holidays. Here are 38 tips to help you begin your college application process today and feel excited about the future ahead of you.

How to Start the College Application Process – Organizing Yourself

1. Keep Track of All College Application Dates

What’s the last SAT test date before you must hit submit? Do you know the 2018-2019 Common Application essay prompts? When are applications due for your dream school? With numerous application components to juggle, there are quite a few dates to anticipate. When wondering how to start the college application process, make a calendar that has all of the dates you’ll need to track, from the SAT, the Common App, school specific deadlines, and FAFSA.

2. Create a Master College Research Spreadsheet

Keep track of your research in one document so that you stay organized. This spreadsheet should include logistical things like testing requirements, application fees, deadlines, and supplemental materials you must submit. As you research school websites and visit campuses, make sure you track important or interesting features that resonate for you personally. What aspects make this school different from others? Is there a dual degree program that combines two of your favorite things? Noting all of this information in one document will help you begin to see the differences between schools, and —bonus — it will also help you write all of your inevitable “Why do you want to go to (fill in the name of the school)?” essays!

3. Go Ahead and Create Application Accounts

You can't plan on how to start the college application process without familiarizing yourself with centralized application systems. Both the Common App and Coalition Application now allow accounts to roll over from year to year. Log in, review the sections, and start to understand what goes into the process. Knowing what the application physically looks like will help you understand how to use each section strategically. The Coalition Application encourages students to use their “Student Locker” to upload accomplishments throughout high school. This can help you visualize the kind of activities and community engagement you will want to have.

4. Gather the Necessary Information for Your Financial Aid

You can fill out the FAFSA and your CSS profile as early as October 1st, but before that you'll need to prep some materials. Not only will you need to provide your own information, but your parents will also need to supply their personal and financial data. Start talking with your parents early about tackling both of these forms and, most importantly, make sure that your family’s tax forms from the previous year are in order and easily available.

5. Pick Your Test Dates

There’s no denying that standardized test scores are a big part of what makes you competitive for college. Planning out your test dates for the SAT or ACT and Subject Tests is a big part of thinking about how to start the college application process. This will help you structure your year so that you’re ready when it’s go time. There is no “perfect” test date for these requirements, but aiming to take them earlier rather than later will help reduce last minute stress. In order to maximize your study time, try to align your AP classes with whichever subject tests you plan to take.

6. Determine Which Application Platforms You’ll Need

While the Common Application is the most popular way for schools to accept applications, many schools also use the Coalition Application or the Universal College Application. Some schools use their own unique application portals, designed specifically for their school. Do your research, create accounts for each, and get to know the systems so that you are aware of everything you’ll need to apply.

7. Interview Early

If you’re applying to a particular school and plan to request an interview, make sure you schedule the interview the summer before your senior year or early in the fall. You’ll be increasingly busy as the semester progresses and the finite number of interview slots fill up QUICKLY. Watch out for schools like William & Mary that only interview rising seniors the summer before 12th grade.

8. Update Your Resume

While you may have a resume from that summer job you applied to sophomore year, you’ll definitely want to update it and follow professional formatting guidelines when thinking about how to start the college application process. Keep a 1-page version of your resume, as well as a longer one that includes all your previous and current jobs, extracurricular activities, volunteering, research projects, awards, etc. Some schools ask you to upload a resume, and even if they don’t, this document will really come in handy when you start working on your Common App Activities List.

9. Create an Appropriate Email Address

Nothing screams “I’m immature!” like a “[email protected]” email address. When you apply to colleges, you’ll need to add your email address to your applications and potentially communicate with admissions officers via email. Be prepared with a professional email address that is clear and appropriate.

10. Tune Up Your Social Media Presence

While most admissions offices don’t have a policy of looking at every student’s Instagram, anything you post publicly on social media is fair game. And the craziest stuff has a way of spreading like wildfire. Take a moment to vet your social media presence and make sure the mortifying YouTube video that seemed like a good idea 3 years ago does not become a factor in your application. Google yourself and see what comes up. Check your privacy settings on all of your social media accounts. Delete, change, or limit content that you would not want admissions officers to see when deciding if you should join their college community. Be careful and protect your online identity before applying!

11. Set Smaller Goals

The college application process can be daunting and stressful to think about, so start with smaller tasks for yourself. Pick ONE thing to focus on per week (or per day when you get closer to the deadline). Break tasks into smaller steps and write them down so you feel less overwhelmed with all that you’ll need to do.

How to Start the College Application Process – School Research

12. Figure Out Your Preferences

In the US alone, there are over 3,000 colleges and universities. Even if you started your search at the Top 100, there are incredible differences. In the college search, one size doesn’t fit all. Take some time to reflect about what you really want in a college. What size campus are you looking for? What type of weather can you tolerate? What do you plan to study? There are many relevant questions you can ask, and each one will help to make the college search process more manageable.

13. Explore College Websites

Spend a few minutes every night researching a new school online. Become acquainted with each school’s requirements, admissions standards, and application process. Look through housing setups, student activities, and social groups as well as course listings, professor bios, and any interdisciplinary or dual-degree programs. Getting a sense of both the social and academic life on campus is key for understanding what kind of school fits you!

14. Visit College Campuses

If you are able to travel and actually visit college campuses, then definitely take advantage of this. There are many ways that you can capitalize on your college visits. Start by choosing a date to visit while students are still on campus in order to get an accurate sense of the vibe and to be able to ask real students questions. There is no better way to see if a school is right for you than walking around and seeing if you can picture yourself there.

15. Research the Campus Climate - and We’re Not Talking About Weather!

Going to college is exciting. But for some students, college can also be a scary and dangerous place because of bias or hate incidents on campus. School climate reports typically include a wealth of detailed information including demographics, bias crimes, and the institution’s vision for the future. This report is usually available on the website and if not, just ask for it! Once you get it, you and your family should pay attention to the number of bias incidents recorded over the last few years. What is the university’s vision for increasing faculty and student of color retention? Do campus affinity groups support these initiatives? What is the school’s position on undocumented students? Empower yourself to ask these questions and get the answers you need to make an informed decision!

16. Compare Pre-Professional Programs to Liberal Arts Curriculums

Many people start their search by targeting a school like Stern or Wharton from the moment they set foot in high school (or even earlier). In 99% of such cases, students don’t really have a firm grasp of the difference between majoring in Economics in the School of Arts & Sciences and jumping head-first into a program that will result in a Bachelor of Science in Business. Think far ahead about how certain curriculums will help you build the necessary foundation for graduate school and your career beyond that. Some of these coveted “pre-professional programs” are more selective, but they’re not necessarily better and might be a poor choice for many students depending on their objectives and interests.

17. Think Critically About Joint Programs

Interdisciplinary programs are generally smaller (and more selective), especially at top schools. Applying to the Jerome Fisher Program at the University of Pennsylvania makes acceptance considerably less likely than applying to the College of Arts & Sciences. This is the case at most schools that offer such joint or interdisciplinary programs.

See this graphic below as an example of prestigious and highly selective programs at the University of Pennsylvania:

How to Start the College Application Process

Consider the pool you will be applying in for specific university programs, and strategize what path makes the most sense for you.

18. Consider Honors Colleges and Scholarship Options

Many colleges have strong, unique academic opportunities through honors colleges and scholarships. Research is extremely important here, since each college has its own system for these programs. Some colleges simply consider all applicants for scholarships or honors college opportunities as part of the application process. Others require separate applications or essays to be considered, and qualified applicants may later be asked to interview. Learn about each college’s process so you don’t miss out on a potentially amazing opportunity!

19. Use Resources from Admissions Offices

Every college has countless events, online webinars, virtual tours, blogs, student ambassadors, and Q&A sessions where you can directly interact with the Dean of Admissions. All of these resources are intended to provide you with an “insider perspective” on campus life. They also help you understand what each college will be looking for when they read applications! Sign up for newsletters and notifications so that you’re sure to take advantage of these free resources.

20. Develop a School List (and Be Realistic)

It’s important to develop a comprehensive list of schools that you intend to apply to before beginning the process. Do your research and include your dream schools on your final list, but also be realistic: include schools that are a fit for you academically. As you know, admit rates are low at the top schools. Be sure to balance your college list so you will get positive results when application season is complete.

How to Start the College Application Process - Talk to People!

21. Talk with Current Students or Recent Alums

By the time you start your application process, you will be an expert at knowing all the quirky facts and figures of your prospective schools. But current students can give you insight into how this school might be experienced by a person like you because they’re living it! Recent grads can give you the good, bad, and the just okay because they’ve moved on to other things.  Contact your local alumni group, which will include graduates with a range of experiences. You can also contact a campus affinity group to gather some specific perspectives. It’s a little bit of homework now for a big payoff in the end!

22. Remember Your Guidance Counselor

The guidance counselor recommendation is often ignored by students, but it can make a real difference to your application. Find out who from your school will write this recommendation for you, and then put effort into sharing your dreams and enthusiasm with them. Too many kids only talk with guidance counselors when they are upset about something. Let these important recommenders see your best side as well!

23. Talk to Your Parents!

Parents always have hopes, expectations, and goals for college experiences. Being on the same page as your parents will help your college application process proceed smoothly, and this means talking to them early on. They know you well and can help you think about impressive aspects of your life and personality. Ask for their help when brainstorming stories you might want to highlight through your application and when deciding the kinds of schools you’d enjoy.

24. Get to Know Your Recommendation Writers

Most teachers have written many recommendations throughout their careers. I’m sure you’ve heard that some use generic templates that they dust off every year and just fill in the blanks. But the best of the best recommendations vividly describe unique individuals, using specific anecdotes that demonstrate character. Cultivating personal connections like this requires time and forethought! Make the effort to get to know teachers all year, so that when the time comes, they can genuinely endorse your application in a thoughtful, personal, original letter.

25. Give Your Recommendation Writers Plenty of Advanced Notice

In addition to getting to know your intended recommendation writers well, you should be sure to ask them for their letters very early in the application cycle. Assuming you’ve had sufficient time to build a strong relationship with your reference, there is no reason not to ask for your letters at the end of junior year or at the very beginning of your senior year. Even though many regular decision applications aren’t due until January, you don’t want your recommendation writer to rush through your letter. In no case should you give your reference fewer than four weeks notice to write his or her letter.

26. Practice Some Interview Skills

We talk about ourselves all the time, but typical banter is not necessarily the same as a college interview. Read up on what college interviews are like and ask people you know that have gone through this experience. What kind of questions do interviewers ask? What kinds of questions should you ask your interviewer? You can start casually practicing how you would conduct yourself in an interview and decide what things you want to make sure you communicate. Practice early so that showing your strengths becomes more natural and you don’t freeze up later!

How to Start the College Application Process – Essay Planning

27. Look at Essay Topics Early

In your master college spreadsheet, make note of which essays you will have to write for each school and give yourself plenty of time to brainstorm. Look at these essay prompts once they are released, even if you do not plan on writing anything right away. Do you notice any common themes? Giving yourself a few weeks to just write down bullet points as they come to you will help you mull over the topics. When it comes time to write, you won’t have a blank page in front of you!

28. Start a Brainstorming Sticky Note on Your iPhone or Laptop

We can’t tell you how many times we've had great ideas only to let them slip away to the back of our minds...lost forever. In the months (or even years) leading up to 12th grade, you should create a sticky note on your phone, laptop, or the old-school way, in a notebook. Any time you think of an idea for an essay—an anecdote that exemplifies your personality, anything that makes you unique, an experience that has shaped your perspective, etc. — write it down immediately. Add to this list over time so that when it is time to apply, you’ve got a long list of great ideas to pull from right there on a note — not lost in the depths of your mind!

29. Develop a Personal Theme

Take time to reflect on your own personality, quirks, and interests in addition to your academic and extracurricular life. What are one or two lines that capture who you are and who you aspire to be? What are the underlying currents that string together your hobbies and other passions and commitments? Try brainstorming a “theme” for yourself, tweaking as necessary as you proceed in the application process.

30. Finish the Easy Parts Early

You can begin to fill out the biographical and education profile in the Common Application now! Inputting this information doesn’t require a lot of thought, but it does demand time. Another big time sucker is the Activities List. If you create a strong Activities List finished by the time August rolls around, your future self will thank you endlessly. You can get the ball rolling for your Personal Statement once school is out. Save the later months of summer and early fall for your college-specific essays!

31. Focus on Fit in Your Writing

‘Fitting’ a school means knowing the school culture in distinct and nuanced ways. While there are stereotypes about each school (MIT kids are hands-on, Swarthmore kids love learning-for-learning sake), most schools want a diversity of experiences, thoughts and opinions. To be truly compelling, you need to match your convictions with what you know and feel about a specific school. Authenticity is key here, so reflect on your own convictions first, then what you love about a school, and finally merge the two in your writing.

How to Start the College Application Process – Understand What’s Ahead

32. Familiarize Yourself with Admissions Types

Make sure you understand the differences between Early Decision (ED), Early Action (EA), Restrictive Early Action (REA), Single Choice Early Action, Regular Decision (RD), Early Decision II (ED II), and Rolling Admissions in order to understand which option is best for you. All of these terms and acronyms are hard to keep straight! There is overlap in how these options work, but distinct differences will impact your admissions process. Familiarize yourself with all of the early admissions options.

33. Know How Each College on Your List Will Interpret Your Test Scores

When it comes to interpreting your testing history, not all admissions committees are created equal. Some schools allow the use of score choice, other schools require you to submit your entire testing history. Depending on your testing record, the differences in these policies can generate very different scores in your file across schools. Map out all of the standardized test rules for every school on your list, so that you know what scores will appear on each application!

34. Recognize the Importance of Demonstrated Interest

All colleges and universities want a campus filled with students who are genuinely happy and excited to study there. One way that some admissions officers ensure this is through keeping track of demonstrated interest, or points of contact by the student. This could be attending a campus tour, meeting an admissions officer at a college fair, or talking to an admissions officer when they visit your high school. That said, there are some universities where demonstrated interest doesn’t play a role in their admissions process. For example, you could visit MIT 100 times and it wouldn’t improve your chance of being admitted. Looking into whether the colleges you are applying to consider demonstrated interest should be a part of your research process.

35. Understand Your Financial Situation

Will you apply for Financial Aid? How much aid does your family need for you to be able to attend college? Even though you’ll complete your FAFSA and CSS Profile during the application process, your financial situation should help shape your school list. Schools have varying amounts of money available to students. Sometimes this exists in the form of grants, sometimes it’s loans, and sometimes it’s merit scholarships. A few schools will meet all demonstrated need and others aren’t able to. Learn about the financial options at schools you’re interested in and talk to your family about financing your education.

How to Start the College Application Process – Final Tips

36. Read Every Line Out Loud One Last Time

Your counselor, friends, parents and even teachers may have helped you make sure that your essays and activities list are perfect. But, it’s your responsibility to make sure everything is good to go before you hit “submit.” A great strategy is to read everything out loud one last time, slowly, line by line. You might catch grammatical errors or phrases that just don’t flow. Do this and you’ll have the peace of mind that everything is ready for submission

37. Ask 3 People to Read Your Personal Statement

You should ask one person who knows you well to read your essay. They can tell you whether or not the narrative you’ve chosen sounds authentic. The next reader should be someone who doesn’t know you well, perhaps a teacher or family friend. They will view the application in the same way an admissions officer might view your application. Finally, ensure you have a good writer review your application. They can help you with syntax and catch spelling or grammatical mistakes. Having multiple people provide feedback on your personal statement is always valuable.

38. Remember That Results Don’t Dictate Who You Are

Many students see where they get into college as validation of their life’s hard work, if not also their intelligence and self-worth. While it is hard to remain rational during this process, it is also very important to remember that the results do not change who you are as a person. Not all Harvard graduates are successful and not all movers and shakers in the world are Harvard graduates. Don't spend too much time worrying about how to start the college application process. You will leave your mark and impact regardless of which college you attend!

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