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How to Stay Organized and Complete Your College Apps on Time

Triumphant high school student sitting at computer with arms raised after submitting college application’

By Matt Musico

Submitting college applications isn’t overwhelming when you plan properly. Here are some organizing tips for both juniors and seniors -- that’ll keep your stress level as low as possible, regardless of when you begin your college admissions journey.

How to Organize and Get Ahead Junior Year

If you’re currently sure that college is in your immediate future, there are ways to start working on your application as a junior in high school, even while researching and/or visiting colleges.


1. Complete Parts of Your Application

I focus on helping students build and finalize their list by the end of junior year, but once we hit the spring semester, we begin multi-tasking to cross other items off our to-do list. If that’s the spot you’re in, this includes completing activity list descriptions and filling out parts of the Common Application.

Within the Common Application, you’re allowed just 150 characters to describe each of your extracurricular activities done throughout high school. This is typically a multi-meeting process with my students because it’s harder to write these descriptions than they initially realize. Instead of focusing on describing the activity, focus on any accomplishments achieved, or why you enjoy participating in it.

I’ll also let you in on a college admissions life hack – while the Common Application doesn’t go “live” until August 1st, you can start filling out parts of it before then.

At the end of July every year, the Common Application shuts down to prepare for the next admissions cycle. If you’ve answered any specific college application questions, your answers will be lost, but info about your personal and educational background (located in the Common App tab) and any college lists you’ve created will get rolled over from the previous year’s version.

Instead of waiting for August 1st to start filling things out, you can already have the Profile, Family, Education, Testing, and Activity sections done before shifting your focus elsewhere. Even if your college list includes non-Common Application schools – schools that might be included with the Coalition Application, the University of California application, Apply Texas, among others – these schools will ask similar questions. But now, you have a bunch of basic information ready to copy and paste wherever it’s needed.

2. Prepare to Ask for Letters of Recommendation

If asking two teachers to write you a letter of recommendation for college during the spring of junior year feels early, that’s because it is. This is on purpose, though -- some teachers may only say yes to a certain number of students. If you want specific people to be part of your application process, it’s a good idea to ask sooner rather than later.

I usually suggest that students ask for letters of recommendation right after spring break. Teachers are coming back from vacation, so they’re relaxed, and there’s no end-of-year stress with AP tests or final exams yet. It’s that perfect lull in the school year – especially since they’re typically not getting bombarded with these requests yet.

Use your time at the beginning of junior year to continue cultivating your relationships with all teachers and to decide which two you’d like to ask when the time comes.

3. When to Start Thinking About College Essays

My favorite time to help students conceptualize essay ideas is in June and July prior to senior year. Writing an essay still feels natural at that time because you were just doing it in school, but you don’t have homework to distract you from getting a first draft written.

I’ve found that the best way to get a first draft on paper is to break up the writing process. First, spend time brainstorming different topic ideas, whether it’s just writing notes on potential ideas, or answering writing prompts that’ll force you to contemplate various aspects of your life experiences and personality. From there, map out how you’d like to attack this topic with a thorough outline.

But juniors shouldn’t worry about essays until the end of junior year. Before then, focus on crystallizing your list, completing parts of your application, and getting prepared to ask two of your current teachers to write you a letter of recommendation.




How to Stay Organized Senior Year

What happens if you’ve started senior year and you’re feeling behind? Maybe you didn’t write your essay over the summer, or you haven’t finalized your college list. Or perhaps you’re deciding just now that you want to pursue a college education and haven’t done any college research.

You’ll have to accomplish more tasks in a shorter period, but it just takes proper planning to make sure your head doesn’t start spinning.

1. Finalize Your College List

It’s impossible to submit college applications if you don’t know where you’d like to send them. So your first step is to finalize your college list.

In an ideal situation, you could comfortably visit the colleges to see if they have the characteristics you’re looking for. However, in the fall of senior year, that may not be feasible for several reasons. Doing thoughtful online research is one way to build a college list you can get excited about, especially if you’re asking yourself the right questions at the beginning. If you can’t visit all the schools you’re considering in person, here are some thoughts on how you can build a list virtually.

2. Make a Tracking Document

The number of college applications submitted varies by student. Some college admissions experts suggest applying to somewhere between five and eight schools, while others think between eight and twelve makes sense.

Either way, that’s a lot of dates, deadlines and other details to keep track of. Instead of trying to commit everything to memory, create a tracking document in Excel or Google Sheets so it’s all in one place.

Your tracking document should include the following information for each college on your list:

  • College name
  • Admission programs available (Early Decision, Early Action, Rolling, Regular Decision)
  • The deadline dates of those various admission programs
  • Which applications are accepted (Common App, Coalition App, etc.)?
  • What’s the school’s testing policy?
  • Is there an extra writing supplement to complete?

3. Condense School-Specific Supplemental Questions

For my students, part of the stress with college applications is not knowing what’s coming on the horizon. With most types of applications asking the same – or similar – questions about your personal, family, and educational background, one of the most common variables lies in the school-specific supplements.

Some colleges include short-answer questions, and others don’t. These might include a shorter essay on why you want to attend the college, or other questions. Every college does it differently, making the process of simplifying things crucial. It can be tough to keep all the short-answer prompts straight in your head, so you might find it helpful to compile all the extra writing you’ll have to do in a single document.

Not only can you see everything that you have to complete in one document, but you’ll see if any of the questions or short-answer topics overlap between schools. By combining your writing tracking sheet with the admissions tracking document you made, it’ll be easy to prioritize which writing supplements need to be completed first based on the deadlines you’re working against.

4. Plan Out Your Writing

Mapping out how you’re going to finish your short-answer questions and writing supplements – and when – takes a lot of the guesswork out as you continue creeping toward those deadlines. If you have five, eight, ten, or twelve schools that require extra writing, you don’t have to do it all at once. Order the colleges on your list from the earliest deadline to the latest one so you can see what needs to get done now and what can wait until later in the fall. Make a commitment to complete one or two writing supplements a week and hold yourself accountable by writing your plan down. If you stay consistent with this, your applications will be complete and ready to submit before you know it.

5. Do One Thing at a Time…

It’s common to look at all the parts of a big task and immediately get overwhelmed with everything that needs to get done. As Chinese philosopher Laozi once said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Prioritize what needs to get done first and focus on completing that one single step as best you can before moving on.

Here’s one way you might approach your application tasks:

  • Start with your basic information (personal, family, and education) because even if it’s asked in different ways on various applications, the answer is always the same.
  • Next, take care of your activity list descriptions – they’re going to be sent to all the colleges you apply to in some form, so it’s important to get that done. Completing this task will feel great because you’ve crossed something off your to-do list quickly, providing a confidence boost as you head into writing your college essay.
  • Write your essay, using the tips described for juniors (above). Or see 6 Steps to Start Your College Essay. Make sure you give yourself time to get feedback on your essay and to complete revisions.
  • Once your essay is done, the final big hurdle to jump over before submitting applications is completing the school-specific supplements. Make your writing plan and follow it.

You Got This!

Nobody conquers a huge task by accident. It takes a lot of planning and devotion to executing that plan to get it done. It’s possible to not feel totally stressed out when completing and submitting college applications – even if you’re starting late. You just need to create a plan, stay organized, and put one proverbial foot in front of the other every day, and eventually, you’ll reach your destination.


Matt Musico, a current college counselor at Collegewise is a freelance writer for CollegeData. He has worked in higher education for the better part of a decade. Half of that time was spent working in an undergraduate admissions office, while the other half has involved working with high school families as a private college counselor.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to CollegeData, 1st Financial Bank USA or any other person or entity. All liability with respect to actions taken or not taken based on the contents of this article are hereby expressly disclaimed. 

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