A Comprehensive Guide to Tackling College Applications


Starting the college applications process is no easy feat; with simple planning and clear goals, you can tackle college apps withease. 


Where to start?

The first step to organizing y

our college applications process is to make a “college email.” A separate email solely for college-related activities is a grea

t way to separate personal and college emails so you don’t miss anything. A quick way to set this up is using the format (FirstNa[email protected]). 


The next step to kicking off the college applications process is to make a list of colleges that interest you. This list is not final; it’s simply a rough draft of schools you think are interesting. As you build your list, it’s important to think about location, cost, programs offered, and test score/GPA requirements. A great way to organize all this information is through a spreadsheet


Think about testing

Due to COVID, many schools are going test-optional. This is great for students who may not be good standardized test-takers. However, keep in mind that many schools offer “Merit Aid,” in which your GPA and standardized test scores influence how much aid you receive. So while a school may be test-optional, submitting test scores could affect how much money a school may give you. 


If you decide to take the ACT/SAT, junior year is the time to knock it out of the park. Create goals for the score you want to achieve, and formulate a timeline for how much you plan to study each week. In your spreadsheet of colleges you are interested in, list the average ACT/SAT score for students admitted to the school so you know what your goal should be. Another thing to keep in mind is many schools “Super Score.” A Super Score is the average of your best scores from each subject from multiple test attempts. This allows you to focus on specific subjects for each test and better spread your studying. A good rule of thumb is to aim to finish testing the summer before senior year, so you don’t have to worry about essay writing and testing at the same time. 


Start Demonstrating interest 

When admissions officers look at your application, one thing they track is Demonstrated Interest. Demonstrated interest is how colleges assess a student’s interest in a school. Even though your college list is not final, take the time to demonstrate interest in the schools on your list. You can do this by attending a campus tour, going to a local informational session, or emailing your admissions counselor. COVID has made it much easier for students to demonstrate interest because many colleges offer virtual tours offered most weeknights by students and admissions staff. A simple zoom call where you ask questions and stay engaged is a great way to make yourself known to colleges. 


Letters of recommendation

As junior year comes to a close, it’s important to lock down your recommenders. Approach teachers who know you well and can write you a strong letter. It’s important to do this before senior year because teachers get swamped with students asking for rec letters, so it’s good to verify your recommenders early on to ensure your letters will be submitted on time and well written. 


Calculate cost

Soon you will begin to narrow down your college list, but an important first step is to calculate how much your family will actually be paying for a school. When you simply google how much x school costs, you will be met with the “sticker price.” The sticker price is typically very high as it doesn’t take into account financial or merit aid a school will give you; this price is not reflective of how much your family will pay. To determine the actual cost, you need to fill out a “net price calculator.” Net price calculators are calculators created by individual schools where you input your family’s financial information and occasionally your GPA/Test scores to determine how much aid a school will give you. These calculators are completely anonymous, and none of your information is sent to the college, but it’s a great way to determine how much your family will pay for school. 


As you calculate the net price for all your schools, this is another great addition to your college spreadsheet. 


Narrow down your list 

As you have toured some schools, done more research, and gotten an idea of what your test scores look like, it’s time to begin to finalize your college list. When finalizing your college list, you should separate schools into three categories, safety, reach, and target. 


Safety schools are schools whose GPA/test score requirements are way under your personal numbers. Additionally, safety schools should be schools that your family can safely afford. Typically these are in state schools, but there are plenty of good out of state safety schools (however, they may not be “financially safe”)


Target schools are schools whose GPA/test score requirements are right on track with what you are at. They are schools that your family could reasonably afford. These schools will make up a majority of your list and are typically out of state. 


Reach schools have GPA/Test score requirements way higher than what you are scoring. Think of reach schools as your dream school – a school you would love to attend but you aren’t sure you would get in. Many students tag on ivy league schools as a hopeful reach; others simply put it in big out-of-state private schools. 


How many schools to pick

As you are narrowing down your list, you have to ask yourself how many schools you want to apply to. Keep in mind the maximum number of schools you can apply to in Common App is 20. 


Set up all your college accounts

There are a few accounts you are going to need to set up to complete your college applications. Common app, Apply Texas, FAFSA, College Board are all websites you are going to need to set up accounts for. Use your college email when setting up these accounts, and keep track of all your usernames and passwords!


Create a resume 

Over the summer, a key thing to do is create a resume. You want to complete all your achievements and activities into one document. This will come in handy when teachers are writing rec letters, and many colleges allow you to submit your resume with your application. 


List your activities 

Another great thing to get out of the way during the summer is compiling your activities list. In Common App and Apply Texas, there is a section to list all the achievements you did in high school. You will need to know the name of the activity/organization, what your position was, how many weeks a year you participated, how many hours a week you did the activity, and how many years you did the activity. Here you will list everything from sports to clubs and internships and jobs. 


Start your personal statement

When working on the essay part of your application, you are going to have one main “personal statement.” This is your big essay that will be sent to every school you apply to. The prompt options for this essay are typically very vague, so you have a lot of flexibility to write about whatever you want. Many students focus on a life-changing experience they had or a hobby/interest they are dedicated to. This essay will require the most time and edits; working on your personal statement over the summer is a great idea so you can get your major essay out of the way and focus on smaller supplemental essays during the fall. 


Track your deadlines 

There are three priority opinions when submitting college applications. Early Decision is binding. This means if you apply ED and are accepted, you have to retract all other applications, and you’re required to attend the school you applied ED (you can only apply to one school ED). You should only apply ED if you know you can absolutely afford the school and that school is a school you one hundred percent want to attend. 


The next option is Early Action. Early action typically has an earlier deadline that gives you priority and allows you to receive a response sooner. Early action is not binding; it’s simply a way to apply early and receive a decision early with a greater shown demonstrated interest. It’s important to keep in mind that some schools require you to apply EA to be eligible for additional scholarships. It’s recommended you apply early action if your application is ready in time. EA may increase your chances of admission as it’s a smaller pool of applicants, and it shows the college you have a demonstrated interest in the school. 


The last option is Regular Decision. For most schools, the regular decision deadline falls in early January. This is the most common Decision, but you must ensure all required materials are submitted in time because you are offered no later date to get your application in!


Get your recommendations in order

At this point, your list should be pretty close to final. As your senior year starts, now is the time to officially submit your recommendation letter requests. This is done by linking Naviance with Common App and adding teacher recommenders through Naviance. When you add a recommender, they receive an email to write your letter from Naviance; make sure you have contacted your teacher so they know to expect this email. 


You want to make this process easy for your teacher, so it’s good to provide some supporting materials. Include your resume and a list of the schools you need a letter of recommendation for, along with the deadline for submitting the rec letters. 


Work through all your essays 

At this point, you should go into Common App or Apply Texas and make a list of all the essays you are going to need to write. Most schools have “supplemental essays”; these are essays unique to each school. These essays typically range from 150 to 300 words. As you make a list of all the essays you will need to write, you should note the prompt, word count, and deadline. As you complete your list, you will quickly find some prompts are similar, allowing you to use the same essay for multiple schools. 


Start with the essays for schools with the earliest deadlines and work your way down. Through this process, it’s good to have a point person who will review your essays. While close family and friends are great editing resources, it may be best to get someone more impartial to the process who isn’t afraid to give you honest feedback. You should expect your essay writing process to take longer than you think. You will likely go through multiple rounds of re-written and editing.


Attacking the “Why College” essay 

One essay that nearly every school will ask is why do you want to attend x school? To attack this type of essay you want to strike the balance of being well informed about the school you are applying to without sounding like you are genetically repeating information off the college website. Look into specific classes or professors that interest you, take note of interesting school traditions, programs, or clubs that you would love to attend. All of this should more broadly connect to your passion/major, showing not only when you like the school but what the school would benefit from having you.


The dreaded FAFSA 

FAFSA typically opens at the beginning of October; as painful as it is, it’s best to get this out of the way as soon as possible. Take out the time to sit without parents and fill out the financial information. This is a great time to get together as a family and decide how much you can afford to pay out of pocket and how much you are willing to take out in loans. The last thing you want is to get accepted into a bunch of schools your family can’t afford; this step really allows you to finalize your list and ensure you have good financial options in all the schools you apply to. 


It’s important to not even if you think your family makes too much money to qualify for financial aid, still fill out FAFSA! Often when receiving merit aid for scholarships, filling out FAFSA is an important requirement. 


Additions to your application

There are plenty of lesser-known ways to enhance your application to stand out from other students. One way is to create a portfolio. A portfolio is a collection of creative works you have done throughout high school. This can be photography, art, newspaper articles, or video creations. Many schools allow you to insert a link to a website showcasing your creative work. There are plenty of free, easy-to-use websites that allow you to put together a collection of your creative works. 


Additionally, interviewing with the colleges you are really interested in is a great way to set apart your application. Many colleges offer alum or student interviews; these interviews are typically very conversational, allowing you to talk about why you are interested in that school and ask questions about what that individual’s experience in attending that school was. If you do decide to do a college interview, be sure to prepare well ahead of time. Look up questions that you could be asked and jot down some questions you have. These interviews are typically over zoom; be sure you have dressed appropriately and are on time!



Be sure to keep careful track of your deadlines. Double and triple-check your application to ensure you have no errors. When the time is right, get ready to submit! Once you submit your application, you will receive emails from your colleges to set up your applicant portal. Each school has its own application portal; keep track of the usernames and passwords you create for each school. 


Check your expectations 

While it’s great to have a dream school, it’s important to keep your options open. No matter how much effort you put into an application it’s always possible to be rejected or accepted based on the smallest things. No matter what school you end up at, you are bound to succeed and have a positive college experience!