26 Weeks to College: Week 3

Tailor Your Application Strategy to Each College
August 22, 2019

Applying to college requires you to make some big decisions. This week you need to make some of the biggest of the big decisions. You need to decide where you are applying to college, and where, if anywhere, you are going to apply early. Read on for your full list of to-dos for the week, along with tips and tricks for getting it all done.

(Need to get caught up on previous weeks? We've posted them on our blog here.)



  • Finalize your college list.

  • Decide where you are going to apply Early and in which order you’ll submit your applications.

  • Create an application strategy for each college on your list. While your overall application strategy is to tell your story (see last week’s post), you want to tailor that strategy for each college on your list.

  • Decide whether you are going to submit optional supplementary materials. Optional supplementary materials would include an arts supplement, an athletic supplement, samples of your academic work, and additional recommendations.

  • Decide whether you are going to take any additional standardized tests. Deadlines for registration for the fall ACT, SAT, SAT Subjects, and TOEFL are coming up, so you need to know whether you are going to be taking any additional standardized tests.

  • Research the financial aid available at each college on your list. Add the financial aid applications and deadlines to the Master Plan. (The 26 Weeks series assumes that you will complete the CSS/PROFILE and FAFSA forms as well as 5 scholarship applications.)


  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.

  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year. 



At selective U.S. colleges, admissions officers have the power; they are the decision makers. Therefore, your tailored application strategies should be developed with those admissions officers in mind. How do you know what matters most to the admissions officers at a particular college? You do a little research on the College Board’s Big Future website. Each year, the College Board conducts a survey and asks each college to indicate what factors they consider in admissions (from a list provided) and how important each of these factors is. Wow! That’s exactly the information you need. Download our free College Research Guide that will show you how to find this information on the College Board site.


Here’s a basic question for you. If you are planning on applying to 10 colleges and 9 of them accept the Common Application and 1 has its own application, how many applications do you have to complete? Many, if not most, applicants would answer "2" — the Common Application and the other application.

It’s a reasonable answer, but it’s the wrong answer. Despite its name, the Common Application isnot a common application.The standardized components form only the core of each application, not the whole application for each college. Every selective college can (and usually does) customize these applications. Therefore, what every applicant needs to understand from the outset is that every college has its own application.

Most applicants make a similar mistake when it comes to analyzing the admissions policies at the colleges on their lists. Although all selective U.S. colleges do have holistic admissions policies and consider multiple factors when evaluating your application, this doesn’t mean that all colleges have the same admissions policy. Instead, each college has its own policy. Not only will the list of factors considered vary from college to college, but the importance assigned to each of these factors will also vary.

What does all this mean for you? It means that if you are applying to 10 colleges, you will have to complete 10 applications and understand 10 admissions policies. You might think this is bad news because it means more work, but it is also good news because it means you can tailor your application strategy to each college and thereby increase your chances for admission. Isn’t getting in your ultimate goal? Of course! So stay focused on the good news and spend this week creating your tailored strategies.


Many well-meaning people will advise you that optional supplementary materials are the key to a standout application. We beg to differ. Once upon a time (like almost 30 years ago), this was the conventional wisdom. Hours and hours were devoted to thinking about how to send exactly the “right” supplementary materials. But that was then, and this is now. Supplementary materials are now considered much differently. What once might have impressed an admissions officer is now nothing but a somewhat irritating distraction for admissions officers trying to process and evaluate tens of thousands of applications.

The takeaway for you? More is not always more. More is only more if it really, truly adds something to your application. Furthermore, more is only helpful if your supplementary materials are welcomed and considered by the collegeSo do yourself a favor and exhibit restraint when it comes to optional supplementary materials. Plan to submit supplementary materials only if they truly add something, and they are both welcomed and considered. You'll find many schools' policies on supplementary materials on their admissions websites.


We encourage applicants to get all (or at least most) of their testing done by the end of their junior year, so they can focus on applying in the fall of their senior year. We hope you are in that position. If you aren’t, then you must take the required standardized tests this fall.

If you have taken all the required tests already, then think carefully before you register to take any more. Now is not the time for the “new test.” If you have taken the SAT a couple of times, but now think you would be better off with the ACT, think again. The likelihood that you will perform substantially better is low, and you really do not have sufficient time to do the necessary preparation to take on a new standardized test.

As to whether you should take the same test one more time, we apply the three strikes and you’re out rule: If you have already taken this test three times, you are out. Your score is not likely to improve enough to make taking the test again worth the time and energy. If, however, you have taken the test only once or twice, then it is worth considering whether to take it again. But take it again only if you can prepare and you have a plan for preparing differently and better than the previous times.


There are significant benefits to applying early.

First, applying early can increase your odds for admission. How much it increases your odds depends on the college and the early options available. To get a sense of how much it might help you, research the statistics for early admission at the colleges on your list. (Here, here, and here are some examples.) Many of the selective colleges fill up to half their class from the early pool.

Second, applying early often shortens the waiting time between application and decision.

Third, even if you don't get admitted in the early round, applying early still benefits you. If you get denied, then you can move on to focusing on other colleges on your list. If you get deferred, then you get a second chance at admission and you can keep adding to your application.

Are there reasons not to apply early? Yes. Applying early will impose certain restrictions on you. The restrictions concern when you must apply, how many colleges you may apply to early, whether you must commit to attending the college if accepted, and what information you will have about financial aid at the time you must make your commitment. Research the restrictions imposed by the colleges on your list.

Another reason not to apply early is if you think you can improve your profile after the early deadline, for example a higher SAT score, or better grades, or impressive performance or results in an extracurricular activity. If so, you’re better off applying for the regular deadline and improving your profile in the meantime.


Financial aid is a complicated business and requires you to expend some time if you are really going to understand what options are available to you. At a minimum, you need to know:

  • your eligibility for financial aid (international students should pay close attention, because much of the financial aid available is restricted to U.S. citizens and permanent residents; some schools will also include DACA students for financial aid eligibility but others don’t);
  • the "net price" of the colleges on your list (the net price is the cost of attendance minus the need-based financial aid you would be likely to receive) — you can use the College Board’s Net Price Calculator;
  • what merit-based financial aid might be available to you at the colleges on your list, and;
  • what the financial aid applications and deadlines are for each college.

You also need to know whether the ability to pay is a factor in admissions, although figuring this out is a bit tricky because you have to be conversant in "admissions speak" to decode the information that colleges give you. In admissions speak, colleges that consider your ability to pay as a factor in admissions will describe themselves as having "need-aware" or "need-sensitive" admissions policies, while colleges that do not consider your ability to pay as a factor in admissions will describe themselves as having "need-blind" admissions policies. If a college does not explicitly state that it is need-blind, assume that your ability to pay will be a factor in admissions.


In our experience, lots of applicants hem and haw when it comes to making these big decisions, and that's a big mistake. Procrastinators lose out in multiple ways.

First, they lose out because rushed decision making is never good decision making.

Second, they lose out because they can't take advantage of the opportunities that arise only after the decision is made. You can't apply early to your top choice college if you don't decide it is your top choice college until after the deadline has passed.

Third, delaying your big decisions deprives you of valuable time you could be spending preparing your standout applications, either because you dither the summer and early fall away reflecting on your big decisions or because you spend time working on applications to colleges that don't end up on your final list.

Bottom line: this week is your chance to concentrate on the big decisions related to your college list. Dig in and get your decisions made so you can "work smarter, not harder."

See you next week!

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