The college application process can seem overwhelming when you’re standing at the starting line. After all, your actions and decisions will determine the course of your life for the next four years and beyond. It’s no wonder many students stumble over their own stress right out of the gate.
Before you start hyperventilating – over deadlines, essays, money and your chances of getting into your dream school – stop and take a deep breath. College applications are a big deal, but you don’t have to resign yourself to sleepless nights and uncontrollable mayhem.
Start off on the right foot with these tips for managing your college applications:
Start Your Shopping List
You can save yourself a lot of work in the long run by taking time to create a shopping list before you even begin the application process. Doing so will save you from wasting hours applying to schools that don’t fit your needs.
Start by brainstorming what you know you will need in a school. Topping the list should be a strong program for your major, as well as internships and other professional opportunities. After listing your needs, add in your wants – or what you think you’ll want. Consider whether you’d prefer public or private, in-state or out-of-state, large or small, rural or urban.
There are a lot of factors to consider when choosing a college, so start the brainstorming process early. Once you have your preliminary list, start searching for colleges that meet those criteria.
Understand Your Budget
A clear budget is the next step in the search process. With countless colleges and universities to choose from, a budget is one of the best ways to start narrowing your search field.
Although you want to be able to afford the colleges you apply to, it’s OK to apply to a few schools that are financially out of your league. Don’t forget that there are many scholarships and grants available, especially for students willing to go the extra mile when searching for financial aid.
Filter Your Search Results
You may have found 30 colleges you like – and can afford – but you don’t want to apply to that many. Now it’s time to narrow your list of possibilities down to 10 to 12 final candidates.
After your budget has narrowed the field, go back to your shopping list and measure each school against it. Utilize top college search sites and make thorough pro and con lists. It may also help to categorize schools according to your chances for admission: longshots, true contenders and safety schools.
Go for Visits
You can’t know how you really feel about a college until you’ve visited it. Pro and con lists are all well and good, but there is a lot to be said for atmosphere and gut feelings.
By going on college visits, you may discover that a perfect-on-paper school is not the right fit. On the other hand, schools that were lower on your list may jump up thanks to a knowledgeable tour guide or welcoming atmosphere.
What’s more, schools keep track of their visitors. A quick trip can help show a college that you are serious about applying.
Calendar Your To-Do’s
Calendars make deadlines less daunting. Start by creating a master list of everything that needs to get done: visits, applications, essays, etc. Let personal preference dictate whether that list is a color-coded spreadsheet or a handwritten to-do list.
Once you have your list, transfer it to a calendar. For some, a physical wall or desk calendar is the best reminder. Others may prefer creating events with email reminders on a tool like Google Calendar.
Remember, applying early keeps you from getting lost in the crowd and shows schools that they are a priority. So set your deadlines earlier than the school’s deadlines.
Set yourself up for success by establishing a consistent, easy-to-manage organizational system from the start.
An accordion file is a great way to keep important papers for multiple schools in one easy-to-transport location. Three-ring binders require extra steps and separate files and folders can get unruly, making it easier to misplace documents. Use tabbed labels to divide your accordion file by school. Use color-coded paperclips or other fasteners to denote financial assistance, applications and other key categories within each school pocket.
Organization is also crucial for electronic files. You could create a folder for each school, then subfolders for financial assistance, essays, applications, letters of recommendation, etc. Or you could create category folders and subdivide them by school. Whatever you choose, be consistent.
Respect Your References
One of your earliest deadlines should be reaching out to potential references. You want to give them as much time as possible to write your reference. Also, keep in mind that teachers receive numerous requests and may not be able to accept them all; asking early helps ensure a yes.
Remember that your references are doing you a favor, so be polite, gracious and informative. Let them know if there is anything specific they need to cover and – if applicable – provide addressed envelopes and postage.
Furthermore, you want a good reference. Be sure to pick teachers and individuals with whom you have a positive, well-established relationship.
Don’t Slack Off
There’s still a lot you can do after those application deadlines pass.
Financial aid deadlines can range throughout the year. Commit to searching for any and all scholarship opportunities. Don’t write off small scholarships just because they require a little work. That $100 scholarship won’t look so small when you need to pay for books, a laptop or other necessities.
The time between getting your acceptance letters and choosing your school is perfect for further college visits. A weekend stay or a day spent sitting in on classes can be a big help in making your final decision.
Nothing Is Set in Stone
Don’t let a fear of making the wrong choice paralyze you. Remember that you will always have the option to transfer if you discover that your perfect school isn’t actually a perfect fit.