By Becky Grappo of RNG International Educational Consultants

Seniors who are going back to school have a lot on their minds – new classes, managing homework with the demands of extra-curricular activities, and finding time for friends, family, and chill time. But also looming on the horizon is the specter of college applications. If you’re the kind of student who thinks that you have all the time in the world – and hey, there’s always Thanksgiving and Christmas break – I have news for you. Though the deadlines might feel like they are months away, they may as well be tomorrow on the college application timeline.

But if you haven’t started with your applications yet, here are my top twelve tips to help you manage not only the applications but the stress.

  1. Turn down the noise: Hopefully you have been thinking about what kind of college experience you would like to have, and you have some colleges on your wish list that would be good fits for YOU. Don’t worry about where everyone is applying.
  2.  Double check your list: Check to see if your list includes a variety of colleges that are both vetted for selectivity AND affordability. You don’t want a list that is too top-heavy with schools that are overly competitive, nor do you want it to be not as competitive as you can handle academically. Also check for the cost and amount of need and merit-based aid you might receive.
  3. Ideal List Balance: I suggest a good college list should have between 8 – 10 universities on it that are balanced between wildcards (only 1 or 2, please), reaches (3-4), targets (3-4), and likelies that you will still love (1-2).
  4. Devote time to the essay: Spend the time you need to write a well-developed essay. Good writing takes time. Think through your theme, organize your thoughts, and then take time for revisions. You can show it to one or two people you trust, but don’t show it to too many people. Always keep a copy of your original, too, just in case the person providing feedback gets a bit carried away!
  5. Supplements: The supplements can really suck up your time. Once you decide on your list, decide on the application plan you want to pursue, then make a master document that shows the name of the college, the application deadline, the writing prompts (yes, even those that say they are just optional!), and decide on dates for when you will get the writing done for each college. Space them out so that you have time to do them well. These have to be just as good as your main essay, so really research your colleges in order to answer that “why us” question, or take the time to thoughtfully reply to the other prompts.
  6. Cali Schools: Those students applying to the University of California system have Personal Insight Questions. Students can choose to answer four of the eight prompts, each one allowed up to 350 words. These take time to do well, even for strong writers– budget your time accordingly.
  7. Pay Attention to Activity section: I often see students not take the activity section of the applications seriously enough. Be sure to write up your positions and descriptions using powerful verbs and be thorough in explaining the impact YOU made on the organization. Don’t waste valuable space just telling us what the activity is – admissions offices are looking for students who will bring that enthusiasm and talent to their campuses.
  8. Coordinate: Make sure you coordinate with your school counselor to meet all internal deadlines and follow all established procedures for asking for letters of recommendation, transcripts, etc.
  9. Teacher Recs: Ask your teachers for those letters of recommendation well in advance and remember to thank them for going the extra mile for you. Rarely is it in the teacher’s contract that they must do anything for students, so please show your appreciation.
  10. Testing: Be sure to prepare for them well if you choose to test at all. If you submit scores, you can self-report or choose to just have scores sent from the ACT or College Board.
  11. Be Timely: If you choose to submit test scores, order them separately from the appropriate organization so that they are received in time to evaluate your file. Read the college websites carefully to be sure you understand all instructions.
  12. Submission: Be sure to submit your final applications BEFORE the last minute. Websites have been known to crash during periods of heavy use.

Lastly, a final bit of advice. No matter where you go to college, it’s what you do once you get there that’s really going to make the difference in your life. Get involved, foster good relationships with professors and advisors, find the career services office and participate in their events, do internships, study abroad, research projects, keep your grades up, go to listen to the guest speakers who come to campus, choose the company you keep wisely, and reach out for help when you need it. Having a degree from a fancy name school won’t make a difference if you didn’t take advantage of all that it had to offer. The college experience is, after all, what YOU make of it.

About the Author: Rebecca Grappo, M.Ed., is an independent educational consultant and Certified Educational Planner offering personalized college planning services. Over the last 15 years, she has visited hundreds of colleges around the United States and helped a wide variety of students find the right college for their needs.  You can find her at or email her at