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  • The college application process is the first step in your college career.
  • There are lots of deadlines and tasks to keep track of, so staying organized is key.
  • Taking school tours, getting letters of recommendation, and writing application essays will likely be on your list.

The college application process can be overwhelming. There are applications to fill out, essays to write, and deadlines to meet—but it can be well worth the effort. Your completed college application is meant to spotlight your hard work and show each school that you’d be a great addition to their campus.

Surviving the college admissions season comes down to tackling one task at a time. The first order of business is deciding which colleges to apply to. From there, this checklist can help you stay organized and get it all done in time.

1. Mark your calendar

The college application process is filled with deadlines and it’s important not to miss them. Go through every application and note important dates. That includes:

  • Standardized test registration deadlines and dates
  • Financial aid deadlines, including FAFSA® (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) dates
  • Early decision or early action deadlines if you plan to apply this way
  • Final application deadlines
  • Scholarship deadlines

Keep in mind that deadlines will vary from school to school.

2. Schedule school tours

Touring schools early—ideally during your junior year of high school—can help you decide which colleges to apply to. You might choose to go in person or opt for virtual tours. Either way, be sure to ask questions and take notes. College tours can provide a glimpse into student life and the academic experience.

3. Create a spreadsheet or checklist of all your application materials

Between the Common App, supplemental materials, other applications, scholarships, financial aid applications, and more, there are a lot of moving parts to keep track of.

Make a list or spreadsheet that includes everything you need to complete, along with deadlines so you can easily visualize what’s been done and what still needs to be completed. Having everything listed out can prevent things from slipping through the cracks.

4. See if you can apply to any schools through the Common App

The Common App is a general application that’s used by more than a thousand schools. You can save time by filling it out once and having it submitted to multiple institutions. Keep in mind that some Common App schools have extra requirements that you’ll need to complete by a school-specific deadline. That may include extra essays so it’s good to know about them in advance.

5. Tackle your essays or personal statements

If you’re applying to schools that use the Common App, you’ll need to write an essay that answers one of the Common App essay prompts. But you’ll likely need to write a number of other personal statements since individual schools may require additional materials. While you might be able to use some essays for multiple schools (perhaps with a little tweaking), you want to answer each school’s questions with a quality essay. Give yourself ample time to work on these. It’s also wise to have other people look them over so you can make revisions if needed.

6. Be sure to send your high school transcripts

If you use the Common App, you’ll designate your guidance counselor to submit your transcripts and other school forms. If your school does not use the Common App, inquire about the process for sending your transcripts. The earlier you can do this, the better. Check with your guidance counselor to find out if there's a specific request process you need to follow.

7. Ask for letters of recommendation

When deciding who to ask for a letter of recommendation, consider which teachers know you well—both as a hard-working student and as a person. Providing them with plenty of notice and some bullet points of your accomplishments can go a long way. If they agree to write a recommendation letter, politely follow up if you don’t receive it within 10 days of your deadline. And be sure to send a personalized thank-you note or email after they write it.

8. Send in your SAT®/ACT® scores

Some schools have made these tests optional, but including a strong score could strengthen your application. When you register for the SAT or ACT exam, you’ll get four free score reports. If you add a college to your list after your test dates, don’t forget to send them your scores.

9. Fill out the application forms carefully

Make sure you answer each question thoroughly and without error, including your biographical data. Mistakes or omissions can delay your application and could make you seem careless. Many application forms also include short-form questions and ask you to list extracurricular activities.

10. Follow up

After you’ve gone through the college application process, look out for a notification from each school. Colleges may send you information to set up an online account to view your application status. If you don't hear anything within a week of your submission, send an email or call the admissions office to make sure they received your application.

The college application process takes time, but putting in the effort could help you stand out to your dream school.

FAFSA® is a registered trademark of the US Department of Education and is not affiliated with Discover® Student Loans.
ACT® is a trademark registered by ACT, Inc., which is not affiliated with, and does not endorse, this site.

SAT® is a trademark registered by the College Board, which is not affiliated with, and does not endorse, this site.

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