Does anyone else feel like September is flying by? It seemed like only yesterday that we were in the dead of summer, and the fall months were so far away.
Now, over on r/ApplyingToCollege, the subreddit where I act as moderator, those fall months loom large in the minds of high school seniors. College deadlines are fast approaching. So many kids are nervous about the process.
I see it every year. The college admissions process is scary. After all, you’ve never done this before. College applications are complicated documents. With all the pressure you might feel to knock your applications out of the park, it’s no wonder that you might feel anxious and frantic.
But guess what? The college admissions process follows a set path. Thousands upon thousands of kids have taken this exact journey and have gone on to be accepted to and attend wonderful schools. All you need to do is take a concrete number of steps before you can hit “submit” on your college applications.
I want to guide you. Below, I’ve compiled a comprehensive list of the steps you need to take in the fall semester of your senior year. It doesn’t matter what your situation is — this list will give you a starting point. Even if you know what to do but feel overwhelmed. Even if you don’t know where to start. (If you like, you can even download this handy College Admissions Checklist, for free, here!)
Print it out, take a deep breath, and start working through the list. It might seem like a lot, and there’s definitely a good amount of stuff to accomplish, but you got this. Remember that this is all your hard work. The College Admissions Checklist simply helps you organize it.
1. COLLEGE LIST/SPREADSHEET. Take your list of colleges and pare it down to your official choices. You will need to include at least one or two Surefire Safety Schools. That is a school where a) you are guaranteed admissions based on your stats, b) attendance is financially feasible for you, and c) you can see yourself attending. You will also need a collection of Match, Reach, and Lottery Schools (if Lottery Schools are your thing).
Additionally, include columns in your spreadsheet for:
a. Application deadlines.
b. Supplemental Essay topics — you want to look for any overlapping topics between schools.
c. Testing info.
d. Contact info for your regional officer.
2. PRIORITY DEADLINES. Go to each of your schools’ websites and create a calendar of deadlines. If possible, try to apply Early Action to as many schools as possible. Add Early Decision deadlines as well, if you’re doing Early Decision for your top choice.
3. INTERVIEWS. Every school has a different method for signing up, so read the school’s website carefully. Some schools automatically sign you up for interviews; others require that you sign up. Interviews might be mandatory or optional. If your interviews are optional, I suggest you still participate. Be sure to check your email (and voicemail and trash and spam folders) for interview invitations.
4. FINANCIAL AID. This is a biggie because you don’t want to sabotage your hard work by spending time applying to a school you can’t afford. Reach out and establish a relationship with your schools’ financial aid offices. Create FAFSA and CSS accounts and start filling out that information. Both the FAFSA and CSS open on October 1!
5. DEMONSTRATED INTEREST. Yes, schools get your information from testing institutions. But that’s not enough — you need to request information and materials from each school, even if you’re technically already on their mailing list from your standardized testing. Some admissions offices track these things. Once you’ve reached out, make sure you’re receiving emails by regularly checking your spam folder. Go one step further and reach out to the regional admission officers for each school.
6. SOCIAL MEDIA. Follow each school’s social media with a clean account to learn more about what is happening on campus and receive important updates.
7. SAT/ACT/SUBJECT TESTS. Finish up any testing you have left to do. Then check your colleges’ websites for their last accepted testing dates. You want to submit your test scores with plenty of time left, especially for schools who don’t allow self-reporting.
8. RESUME. If you haven’t already, make a list of all the activities you’ve pursued since freshman year. Anything you do outside of class, homework, and test prep counts as an extracurricular. That means old-fashioned summer or part-time jobs, home and family responsibilities, caring for children and the elderly, personal projects and hobbies, and independent research (in addition to more traditional research), internships, and in-or-out-of-school clubs and sports. Use the following categories: Education, Extracurriculars, Work Experience, Community Service, Interests and Hobbies, Awards, and Honors.
9. ACTIVITIES LIST. This list is very closely related to your resume, and there might be a fair bit of overlap. Where a resume is a standalone document, the Activities List is geared more towards your application. Both can be used to help your teacher recommenders write their letters.
10. LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION. If you haven’t done so already, ask 2–3 teachers to write your letters. They should be teachers who know you well and who taught you in core academic subjects (preferably one STEM and one humanities). Provide copies of your resume and activities list to help them write you a stellar letter. If you’ve already asked them, check in with your recommenders. Send them a reminder email and stop by if you can. And be sure to give them a big thank you!
11. PERSONAL ESSAY. It’s go-time for essay writing, for real now. Focus first on your Personal Essay. Remember, the Personal Essay is about you — not your extracurriculars or your grandparents or your sport or your mission trip. Try to get the Personal Essay done by October 15.
12. SUPPLEMENTAL ESSAYS. After you tackle the Personal Essay, organize your supplemental essays by topic. How many “Why [This College],” “Why [Your Major],” or Extracurricular Essays do you have? When’s the first one due? Categorize your supplemental essays by due dates. Think about whether you want or need to write an Additional Info essay.
That’s it! After you’ve completed your College Admissions Checklist, you’ll feel so much more reassured about the whole college admissions process. Again, feel free to download the College Admissions Checklist here.
If you want to learn more about the elements of the College Admissions Checklist, or if you need more college admissions advice, head over to Amazon and pick up a copy of my book, Hey AdmissionsMom: Real Talk from Reddit.
You can also find me on r/ApplyingToCollege, drop into the comments, or reach out to me on Twitter (@admissionsmom_) or Instagram (@admissionsmom).
Good luck and stay amazing!
Carolyn Caplan is an independent college counselor, a moderator on r/ApplyingToCollege, and the author of Hey AdmissionsMom: Real Talk from Reddit. She’s on a one-woman mission to bring mindfulness to college admissions.