Applying to college is a complex and difficult project. You know that. Your parents know that. Your teachers and college counselors know that. Admissions officers know that. In other words, everyone involved in the process knows that.
So, you might be feeling just the teensiest bit overwhelmed. After all, most 17-year-olds don’t have all that much experience managing complex and difficult projects, let alone projects as high stakes as applying to college.
The good news is that you are ready – you’ve been preparing for this for the last 16 or 17 years. The better news is that you don’t have to do it alone. There are tons of resources out there to help you. Like your parents, teachers, and college counselors. Like admissions officers. Like websites, apps, and books. Like this series.
26 Weeks to College is a week-by-week plan for seniors applying to college. It breaks this complex and difficult project down into weekly to-do lists. Based on the Master Plan for applying to college in our book, How to Prepare a Standout College Application, 26 Weeks to College is specifically designed for those of you who have your heart set on attending a selective college in the U.S. and will be applying to start college in the fall of 2021.
Each week, we’ll post your list of to-dos for the week, along with some tips and tricks for getting those to-dos done.
Your job? Read each week’s plan and execute. If you do, you’ll have more success and less stress in the process. Guaranteed.
An important heads up: A lot of the work you’ll be doing in the application process is front-loaded. It will get less intense as the weeks go by, we promise.
Let’s get to work!
Choose your calendar and put what you already know on it. You must use a calendar this year, because in order to get everything done, you are going to have to grab free hours whenever you have them. So even if you haven't really used a calendar before, commit to using one this year, whether paper or electronic or whatever method works for you. Start by putting everything you already know about your life for the next six months on it. Know the first day of school? Put that on it. Know that you are going to (try to) take a standardized test on one of the newly offered days? Put that on it. Know that you have a part-time job? Put your work schedule on it, when you get it. Know that you have a birthday coming up and will want a few days off? Mark off the time you want for celebrating. You get the idea.
Get ahead of the avalanche of paper, emails, and other communication coming your way (if it hasn’t already). The college application process inevitably generates a huge amount of information that you have to be able to access easily. You can’t do it without an organizational system for managing it. Once you’ve set up your system, gather up everything you already have that’s related to the college application process, sort it, and file it. That goes for everything — including your electronic stuff!
Work on finalizing your college list. You want to have decisions made about where you are applying no later than the first week of August.
College applications are specific to the colleges where you are applying. Even if the college uses a shared application platform, like the Common App or the Coalition App, each colleges will have some questions that are particular only to it. Since most applications for this year won’t be released or “go live” before August 1st, you are in good shape if you have your list finalized by then. In the meantime, we’ll have you working on components of the application that will be relevant to all colleges.
Consider whether you want extra help from us. If you are a DIY ninja, you can follow along via our blog posts only, but if you want some extra help, here’s how:
1. USE A SINGLE CALENDAR.
It can be tempting to have a calendar that you use only for college applications. But that is a sure recipe for disaster in the form of double or triple booking yourself and missing deadlines. For most of you, the easiest calendar to use is one on your phone. Personally, we like Google Calendar, because lots of you already use Gmail, but any calendar app will work. For those of you who like to rock it old school, choose a paper calendar that appeals to you and that you will keep with you most of the time.
2. SET UP A GMAIL OR OTHER FREE EMAIL ACCOUNT THAT YOU USE EXCLUSIVELY FOR APPLYING TO COLLEGE.
A good portion of your communication with colleges will be electronic. Setting up a dedicated email address offers two advantages. First, you can create a professional, appropriately serious email identity that is worthy of an applicant to a top U.S. college, and you can still have whatever email identity you want for other purposes. Second, by setting up a separate email account you have also set up an automatic “filing” system for your college related emails, because those are the ONLY emails that will come to this email address (as long as you maintain the discipline of using that address only for this purpose).
3. SET UP THREE IDENTICAL FILING SYSTEMS.
One of the problems with figuring out your filing system is that the information will come in many forms — snail mail, email, voicemail, notes, internet research, hard copy brochures and folders, and text messages. Not only do you have to figure out how to store all this various information, you also have to figure out how to retrieve it when you need it.
For most students, the easiest way to go is to have three storage locations that all have the same file structure: set up one storage system in email, set up another storage location either on a hard drive on your computer or in the cloud, and set up a third in old-fashioned paper file folders. To get you started, we've compiled a basic list of files you should set up in each storage location.
4. CHOOSE 8-15 COLLEGES BASED ON FIT, SELECTIVITY, AND AFFORDABILITY.
All of the colleges on your list should be "good fits," meaning that they offer what you want from a college educationally and otherwise.
The colleges should have a range in terms of selectivity. We suggest you balance your list in this way: 2-3 should be colleges where you have a high likelihood of admission (safeties), 4-8 should be colleges where you have a good likelihood of admission (targets or matches), and 2-4 should be colleges where you have a low likelihood of admission (reaches).
Finally, all of the colleges on your list should be affordable for you, meaning that between your family resources and the financial aid you are likely to get from the college, you can pay for it. But don’t make the mistake of assuming that the sticker price is what you’ll end up paying! Some colleges end up being dramatically cheaper after you’ve received a financial aid award, or if your annual family income falls below a certain level.
5. WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT SCHOLARSHIP SEARCH SERVICES.
There’s good news and bad news when it comes to scholarship searches.
The good news is that there are scholarships out there and that it is relatively easy for you to identify them for FREE thanks to the internet. You can use a tool like Fastweb or FinAid and the College Board’s Scholarship Search. Just be aware that these sites are supported by colleges and you will likely become a target of lots of marketing when you sign up, but hey it’s free so just delete the emails that are irrelevant to you.
The bad news is that scholarship scams abound, and every year thousands of hopeful college applicants and their families get duped by them. It is so tempting to sign up for a service that "guarantees" you'll get a scholarship, but the only guarantee is that you'll never see the money you paid to this service again. Before you pay a single dollar to a scholarship search service, use this checklist to evaluate whether you are about to become a victim of a scam rather than the recipient of legitimate assistance.
Once you’ve done this week’s To Dos, you are officially on the way to getting into college. Congratulations!
And stay tuned for Week 2.
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Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the book How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.