Checklist and Timeline for Applying to Schools

Transcripts. Admissions essays. Standardized tests. Letters of recommendation.

You haven’t even started applying to colleges and you’re already exhausted and ready to give up. Applying to colleges is one of the single most stressful activities of high school life, but unfortunately, it’s nearly unavoidable. The best way to keep from crumbling under the pressure is to plan, and really, really stick to the plan. There’s a lot to do, but not as much as it seems. The problem comes in when you realize November of senior year that all the applications are due January 1 and you haven’t done anything. That’s when the walls feel as if they’re closing in. So here are some tips to keep those walls in place – and your sanity too.

Make a list . . .early. Your best weapon against college application stress is time. Protecting every minute of it, and making sure you have enough to do everything in a calm fashion, not running around in a crazed state. The more time you have to prepare, the less anxiety you’ll have. You need to make a list during the spring of junior year. Yes, really – junior year. Fall of senior year is too late. Why? Because you’re likely to find at least one thing (and probably more than one) that needs to be tackled that will take a bit longer than you anticipated, but if you discover that in spring of junior year, fortunately you will have the whole summer – and no busy school schedule – to get it all sorted out. Maybe you moved to your current high school second semester of freshman year, and now you have to track down official copies of your transcript for the first semester from your old school. Or you had an amazing teacher who would give you a great letter of recommendation, but she retired last year and you need to find out how to get in touch with her. Whatever. It’s always something. And that’s the point. You’re not scheduling for anything in particular, you’re scheduling for the something that’s bound to come up. So make a list of all the things that have to be done to apply to college. And to be clear, no thing is too small. Write it all down now, because you’ll likely keep remembering other little things as you go along (another reason to start the list early). Some of the big ones are easy to remember: take standardized tests, write college essays. Some of the little ones that are easy to forget: figure out whom to ask for letters of recommendation, being sure to note all of the activities you’ve participated in since freshman year.

Find time for a timeline. A list is only as good as the calendar you put it on. Take every little thing that you put on that list and assign to it a date and time between junior year and December 1 (not January 1) of senior year of high school. One rule of thumb is do the easiest stuff and the hardest stuff first. So, for example, you are almost certainly going to use the Common Application, which so any universities across the United States now use for their application process. You can go ahead and fill out all the basic information now, even a good part of your extra-curriculars and academics. It’s a small step, but now it’s done. Something hard? The Common Application also lists the college essays. If you got those done before senior year, you’d practically have a stress-free fall. Practically.

Now for some specifics, and suggested time lines:

Considering Schools: Junior Year, Spring. Don’t wait until fall of senior year. Way too late. Most schools have a college night for juniors in the spring. Go. Ask questions. Pick up brochures. Visit websites. Start asking yourself questions. First of all, do you know what you want to major in? If you have no idea, you should eliminate schools that are heavy in one specialty such as technology institutes that focus on engineering, math and science, or art schools. Better to look at liberal arts colleges that have a broad base of disciplines. Next, start thinking about where in the country you can imagine living. To be clear, this is not about choosing a college for its location, like near the beach, or where you can ski. That is like, the worst idea ever for choosing a school. You’re going for an education, not a vacation. Rather, this is about making sure that you don’t pick a place in the Northeast if you know that you hate the snow, or selecting schools in urban areas if you hate being in big cities. You’re going to spend the better part of every year, for four years, at this place, so begin filtering out anywhere that is going to make you miserable. You want to do this now so that you can . . .

Visit Schools: Junior Year, Spring. If at all possible, try to visit at least a few of the schools that you’re considering. It’s difficult to fit this in during the school year, but if you go during the summer you’re not really seeing active student life. It might be better to just wait until the fall if you can’t do it junior year in the spring. If you can, join a student-led tour around campus. See if you can meet with a student 1:1 and find out about their experiences – was it hard to meet people, how difficult are classes, what kind of extracurricular activities do they participate in, whatever. And bonus points if you can also meet with a professor, or at least a grad student who teaches. Find out how long they’ve been there, what they enjoy about teaching at that university, do students generally attend classes. You’re there to find out the truth, right?

Make Final Decision on Colleges: Senior Year, August Before.Make it your goal to have your final list of schools that you plan to apply to before you go back for senior year. You can begin to pull together the lists of what each school needs by September 1, since the stress of the indecision is over. You’ve likely thought everything to death by this point, and for all the reasons stated above, at some point you have to draw a line in the sand and pull the trigger. Yes, it’s a huge decision, but you’ll never have perfect information. And no one ever died from not choosing the right college. You’ll learn to enjoy it. Or you’ll transfer out. But if you keep dragging your feet, it will suddenly be October before you really pull every little detail together because you didn’t know which application to look at. Some schools have supplemental essays and other extra requirements. So, just decide. Please.

Begin Studying for Standardized Tests, Senior Year, July Before. If you can, you should do this junior year, but we’re realists, so we would say, if you can truly focus for two months during the summer, that’s probably sufficient. If you plan on using a standardized testing service, the summer is a great time because you’ll have a lot more energy than trying to do it on Saturdays during the school year. If you’re studying on your own, just be sure to set up a schedule and stick to it. It’s hard during the summer, it’s the last thing you want to do. We get that, and we know it’s unfair to ask. But GPA and test scores have a huge influence on the strength of your college application (we know that you know this, we’re just saying it again). By the time school starts the pressure to actually take the tests will be upon you, and trying to cram for these tests is not impossible, but far from ideal. And you’ll have next summer – after graduation and when you’ve been accepted to college – to just hang out. This summer, you’re going to have to forego hanging out and learn what happens if Train A leaves at one time and Train B leaves at. . .

Begin College Essays: Senior Year, August Before. It makes us a bit sad to say this, because you’re not going to listen. But those college essays cause so much angst and so many people end up spending sleepless nights the last week of December because they realize that it’s not easy to cram a personal essay. It just isn’t. You need inspiration, and execution, and revision, and all of that comes at a price: time. Which you won’t have on December 30. It probably won’t be your favorite activity whenever you do it (unless you want to be a writer, in which case you probably did it last spring. Or freshman year.), so do it in August, at which point if you’re truly having trouble, you’re not panicked, because you have time to find help. A lot of high school counselors can assist, as well as some English teachers, and there are private services as well. Why not in September? Because we have other stuff planned for you in September, and between regular school activities and all the other college application activities you should take advantage of in the quiet of summer to knock it out. Please believe us. Please.

Ask for Letters of Recommendation: Senior Year, September. And not one second later. Do you know how many students are hitting up the same teachers, coaches, priests, rabbis, counselors and mentors at the same time? Be the first that season, not the 101st. They’ll be fresher, they’ll still be feeling flattered, and they’ll be glad you gave them two months instead of two days to fill it out. If your applications say that you need three, ask at least four or five people, that way, if someone forgets, or is late, or has to pull out at the last minute, you don’t have to panic. And don’t forget to send a handwritten thank you note. It’s the corniest, most old-fashioned, nicest, completely appreciated thing that you can do. So do it.

Standardized Tests: Senior Year, September. Do it early in the semester for two reasons: if it goes well, it’s off your mind; if you don’t feel good about it, you can cancel your scores without hesitation because you have plenty of time to take it again. You can even go and get additional help before you take it again, with some time to spare. Remember the whole point of a checklist and schedule is to create time, that’s the real enemy here that creates so much stress. Standardized tests are public enemy number one (with college essays being a close second) so you want to get them over with as early as possible. Since you did your college essays in the summer, if you can get this done early in the school semester, which means you’ll be a good way to finishing all the tough parts of the application process. After this, it’s mostly a lot of paperwork.

Complete 90% of Applications: Senior Year, October. We’d say 100% but we’re going to cut you some slack. Most schools use the Common Application, so whatever you didn’t already finish junior year (if you did so like we told you to) should be super easy to finish now. And since it’s your senior year, what can really change between now and January? You know your name and where you live. All your extracurriculars are set. Just get it all done. If you’re not doing it in October, it’s strictly a matter of procrastination. You can fill out all of the short form essays, which are things like describing your extracurricular activities or what you enjoyed most about your high school experience, or the other 150 to 300 word questions that colleges ask. They are not as difficult as the full-on college essays, but schools are looking for legitimate, thoughtful answers, so you want to knock them out while you’re not under pressure. Even one or two a week during October should be plenty of time to take care of all of them. Also during this time – if you are applying to any colleges not using the Common Application, it’s definitely time to tackle those, because they could have questions and requirements that you haven’t prepared at all. You need to go through the entire application first, without answering anything, and just make a note of what you need that you don’t already have, and then begin actually filling it out, and reaching out to others to get what you need.

Proofread the College Essay: Senior Year, November. The essay should not have a single spelling error, grammatical mistake, punctuation problem, anything. Have someone else read it over, check it again. Put it through Grammarly. Whatever you have to do — if it’s 100 words per day, you’ll still be done in less than a week. If you send something in with typos, to a college admissions officer who sees thousands of applicants each year, it gives them an unnecessary excuse to have a bias against you. November is still early enough that you aren’t stressed and rushing. You can take a thoughtful and thorough review of your essay (that you wrote back in August, right?) and be sure that it is absolutely, positively, error-free.

Submit Applications: Senior Year, Early December. Notice that we said early December. There’s a fear that leads to procrastination that leads to submitting at the last minute, even though everything is ready December 1. It’s totally natural and completely illogical. As long as you still have everything on your side of the send button, you’re still in control of the process. Still one more chance to catch any mistakes, revise one more answer, whatever. Time to let go and have faith in the process . . .and yourself. If you’ve followed all of the timeline above, you should have had plenty of time to double check, proofread, be thoughtful, be thorough and do your very best. Don’t torture yourself. Organize one application at a time, press send and don’t look back.

There is no easy way to get through it all. Even following the most thorough calendar and comprehensive checklist doesn’t mean that you won’t be stressed about your applications and anxious about decisions. It’s impossible to pretend that the college application process isn’t a selective one with high stakes. Even very good students don’t always get into the schools that they hope to. But on the other hand, very few students don’t get into a school that turns out to be a great fit for them. Most students meet great people who become lifelong friends, they find a major they love, at least some of their classes turn out to be incredibly inspiring and educative and almost no one looks over their shoulder back at spring of senior year. So try to remember that, while this is the center of your universe now, it will be a blip on the radar in a year. In the meantime, all you can do is grin and bear it.