Organizing College Applications

Applying to colleges in today’s competitive environment can be an overwhelming process. With the huge volume of paper mailings, test dates and scores, e-mail information, and online and offline application materials to contend with, many students find themselves spending as much time sorting through a box full of papers as they do writing the key essays that will gain them admission to the school of their dreams. To maximize your time during this critical period and to reduce the stress that can result from impending deadlines and missing documents, we have created this guide with a variety of tips on organizing your college applications.

Get It Right From the Start

When you are applying to colleges, time management and organization both become crucial skills. You will find that the entire process will be much easier if you create an efficient organizational system ahead of time and follow it from start to finish. In addition to streamlining your work on each of your schools, an effective system that frees you from stress will help you remain calm and confident – two traits that will translate themselves into an improved tone in your actual applications.

Create a Manageable Filing System

One of the first steps towards organization is to buy a box of folders and a filing organizer (cabinet, wire stacker, etc). As silly as it sounds, having everything in order and in one place will save you a lot of time later on. Even if you are the type of student whose backpack is a jumble of papers, you will thank yourself at the end of December when your efficient filing system has helped you stay on top of deadlines and free from last-minute freakouts.

Make a folder for each college you’re applying to and label that folder clearly. This is where you’ll keep the view books, contact information, and application materials for each school. It’s a good idea to get a folder that you can write on, so you can put deadline information, as well on any other details, on the cover. For instance, this would be a good place to write what requirements the school has (SAT II’s, SAT dates, recommendations, essays, etc), in addition to when the application should be mailed. As you complete each item, you can cross it off the list. Keep all of your folders in one place, and you’ll never worry about losing important information.

Keep a Calendar

Next, it’s crucial to get a calendar exclusively for the college application process. Something big that you can keep in the kitchen or your room – something you’ll pass regularly and notice – would be best. On this calendar, you can put all of your deadlines, test dates, tour dates, and any other time points significant for the college application process. This way, not only will you keep yourself organized, but you will also get helpful pressure from your parents and siblings. With so much to remember, it’s easy to forget certain things you have to do, and tempting to procrastinate. The calendar will remind you, and anyone else looking at it can nudge you along.

Leave Time to Space Out Work

It’s also important to get a head start and plan ahead on certain dates and deadlines. For instance, you don’t want to leave all of your SAT II’s to the last possible test date. Instead, if possible, spread out what you’re taking and when. This will free you to study for only one test at a time, and it will also provide you with retesting opportunities if necessary. It’s common to take the SAT more than once, so plan accordingly. Start studying early, and try to space out the material.

These recommendations also hold true for the applications themselves – don’t wait until a week before the deadline to begin working on the necessary forms. You might be able to fill in the blanks in time, but it won’t be your best work. College applications are first and foremost a way to paint a picture of you; it is obviously preferable to portray a relaxed and confident applicant rather than a hurried last-minute procrastinator.

Letters of Recommendation

Don’t forget recommendations. Most colleges require at least one, so you should start thinking early (preferably by the end of junior year) about a teacher with whom you have a solid relationship and whom you trust to write you a good recommendation. Most teachers expect to write these during the fall of your senior year, as long as you give them enough warning. You will rarely find a teacher willing to write a recommendation one week before the deadline. Instead, most guidance counselors recommend that you ask your teachers during the first few weeks of senior year. This way you will catch them early, before they have been bombarded with last-minute requests, and you will leave yourself plenty of time to get the necessary materials to them.

Choose a Reasonable Number of Schools

Don’t overload yourself on applications. Though you don’t want to apply to too few and run the risk of not getting accepted, it’s important to consider which schools you’re actually interested in, in addition to your chances of getting in. This list shouldn’t be hard to make as long as you do the necessary research ahead of time. You should have a wide variety of options, including one or two safety schools (schools that you are fairly certain you could get into), “solid” schools (schools that are a good match and a good fit for you), and “reach” schools (schools that you like, but whose admission rates might make it uncertain whether you can get in). Don’t fall for the mass hysteria that tells you that you have to apply to twenty schools “or else.” Remember that each additional institution will require more College Board fees and more supplemental questions. Instead, choose a number that makes you feel comfortable with your chances but doesn’t leave you with the nagging feeling that you overdid it.

Writing the Essay

The college essay is a vital part of the application process. Start brainstorming ideas the summer before your senior year, if possible. You don’t need to obsess or be on draft number 17 by the time the application season rolls around, but it’s a good idea to develop some original and interesting ideas, and let those ideas mature over the course of the fall months. Jot down an outline that you can start working on when you get back to school.

You don’t want the essay to be a dull list of your extracurriculars -colleges can find this information in your application. This is your one and only chance to speak in your own voice and excite the admissions committee with your personality and originality. This is a chance for admissions officers to learn something about you that might set you apart form the crowd. It should be creative and genuine. It’s usually a good idea to have a teacher and a friend check it over when you’re done for proofreading and suggestions. It is critical to ensure that your final product is free of misspellings or grammatical errors. If you start the process early enough, you will have more than adequate time to brainstorm, write, revise, and stay calm throughout the whole process.


  1. Develop an organizational strategy ahead of time and stick with it
  2. Prepare and utilize folders, even if this is not your typical method of organization
  3. Keep a calendar and allow it to be visible to others in your household for accountability
  4. Space out standardized tests and application writing time
  5. Choose a teacher to write your recommendation and approach him or her early
  6. Find a balance between a safe number of schools and an excessive amount
  7. Brainstorm your essay early and leave plenty of time for maturation and revision

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