You’ve thought long and hard about what you want from your college experience. You’ve gone on college visits and talked to recruiters. You’ve developed your short list of possible choices.

Now, all that stands between you and your college dreams is completing the applications.

It sounds easy when you put it that way, right? 

But we all know the truth. College applications are a lot of work. You have to gather all the information you need, ask for transcripts and recommendations, write the essay, maybe even take standardized tests (if required). It takes time and energy.

You can, however, make the process a little easier and a little less stressful, while still ensuring that your applications stand out.

A thoughtful, authentic approach, advanced planning, and these helpful hints can make the process easier and smoother. And remembering to stay positive and keep a balanced perspective can help as well! 

Your application in the larger admissions process

By the time college applications are due, your high school resume is nearly finalized (although it’s important to not let senior year grades or activities slide). Now, you have the opportunity to tell your story about you and your journey thus far. 

As you think about your story in the context of college applications, it can be helpful to remember two important points.

First, grades, recommendations, activities, and all the other information on your application absolutely impact your chances of getting into the school of your choice. 

But admissions officers read each application as a whole. The story you tell on your application can—and should—include special circumstances, unique situations, and anomalies that might appear in transcripts or test scores. 

Second, admissions committees look at your individual qualifications within the context of the entire student community and the incoming freshman class. 

Most colleges and universities want a diverse, engaging community of students with a wide variety of different skills and interests. 

So when evaluating your individual application, college admissions officers aren’t just looking at whether you, as an individual, will succeed in college. They are also looking at how you will fit into and contribute to the community they are building.

Getting started early?

Even if you don’t know exactly what school you want to attend, you can still start thinking about—and preparing for—the application process. 

Schedule meetings with admissions officers during campus visits. Ask questions about their application process: you may be surprised at how much they will tell you. And your curiosity demonstrates interest and engagement, which many schools, especially small colleges, look for in their applicants.

Attend college admissions fairs. Take advantage of any opportunities you can to meet representatives from colleges and universities, whether through your high school, a college prep program, or other setting. You can get a ton of helpful tips (like these) and insights into the admissions process that will help your application, even if you don’t plan on applying to that school.

Participate in college readiness activities. Again, don’t pass up any opportunity to participate in workshops, panels, or classes designed to help you through the application process. Many college prep summer programs, for example, offer seminars focusing on writing college essays and other helpful panels that will help guide you through the college application process. 

Tell your authentic story in every application

The goal of your application is to help the admissions committee get to know you, not just your specific qualifications. 

Your application, when read as a whole, should offer a window into your goals, your motivations, and your interests.   

In other words, your application does not need to be a long, extensive resume of everything you’ve ever done. In fact, padding your application to make it appear more impressive, including unnecessary information that isn’t requested, or trying to guess what the admissions committee wants to hear, can hurt your application more than help it.

Instead, focus on showing why your interests and activities are truly important to you. And if there are special circumstances in your life that have impacted your grades or your activities, explain them. 

Personal statements and admissions essays are an especially great opportunity to tell your story.

While you do have to choose one of the prompts offered on the appropriate application, be sure that your audience—the admissions committee—knows why your answer is important and what it says about your journey. 

And because this is your story, it’s absolutely appropriate to use the first person. You don’t have to stick to the formal academic essay format that you’ve gotten used to in English class. 

You can even include personal anecdotes. Just make sure they are relevant to the prompt and show how they have contributed to your personal growth.

This unique, authentic story, told in your own voice, tells the admissions committee how you might fit into the student community. And that story might just be potentially more compelling than your transcript and extracurricular activities might be on their own.

Things to do (and not do) on your application

Whatever story you choose to tell, you want to be sure that you present yourself in the best possible light.

So you want your application to be as complete and as error-free as possible. While typos and omissions may not prevent you from getting into the school of your choice, they certainly won’t help.

These tips for approaching the application process with efficiency and organization can help make your application as strong and compelling as possible, and reduce your stress as well.

Be organized

Know what application each school you are applying to requires (Common Application, Coalition Application, or a college-specific application) and what information you will need to include with every individual application.

Don’t forget letters of recommendation, test scores, and financial aid forms. If you are relying on someone else (such as a teacher, coach, or parent) to provide a piece of your application, make your request with plenty of advance notice and inform them of applicable deadlines.

Use a spreadsheet, calendar, or other organizational tool to create a checklist of each school you are applying to. Include all the forms and information each application requires on that checklist as well. 

Complete each application thoroughly

Make sure that you fill in every line on every form on each application.

Of course, you need not provide information listed as optional. You won’t be penalized for leaving optional lines blank. But excluding required information can be detrimental to your application. 

By completing each application thoroughly and completely, you are giving the admissions committee exactly what they need to evaluate you. 

And in most cases, you won’t have the opportunity to add additional information or update it after the submission deadline. So make absolutely sure each application is complete before hitting that “Submit” button.

Personalize your application

Make sure that each application is personalized for and directed to the school you’re sending it to.

This is especially important if you are using the Common Application or the Coalition Application, or using the same essay for multiple applications.

It’s easy to cut and paste answers into more than one application. But if that answer includes the name of the college, or any other information unique to that school, be sure to change it for each individual application. 

Meet all deadlines

There are no extensions when it comes to the college application process. Really.

Know when every application and every form is due and add it to your spreadsheet or checklist. Each school has its own deadlines, so make sure your checklist is school-specific.

And remember financial aid forms as well. Financial aid forms often have their own deadlines that may or may not differ from the application itself.

As tempting as it is to wait until the very last second to turn in the application, remember that the admissions officer can see when you submitted the application. Turning it in a day or two early can show organization and enthusiasm. What does waiting until 11:59pm on the day the application is due say about you?

Proofread, proofread, proofread!

Typos and errors are easy to make and can be difficult to find. Unfortunately, they can also show that you are careless and sloppy.

Proofreading your application carefully to avoid careless errors is the easiest way to make sure you are putting your best foot forward. Unfortunately, in the rush to get applications in on time, it’s an easy step to overlook.

Once you have read over your application one last time, ask a family member or friend to check it over carefully as well. 

A fresh pair of eyes can often see small mistakes that are easy to overlook when you have read through your application multiple times.

Don’t procrastinate

You’ve almost certainly heard this advice before, but it’s so good that it’s worth repeating again. And again.

Don’t procrastinate when it comes to your college applications.                                             

The longer you wait before starting, and the closer that deadlines gets, the harder it becomes to follow these simple tips outlined above. And when time grows short, it becomes much easier to make simple errors that can really hurt your application.

So don’t wait. Once you know where you want to apply, get started on your applications right away. It’s the best way to increase your chances of getting accepted at the school of your dreams.