Every year, we see students who underestimate the amount of time and attention applying to college actually takes. On the other end of the spectrum, we have students who begin thinking about their applications during their freshman year of high school (or even before!) So what’s the most sensible, effective approach? Here we break down all of the steps involved in writing a college application from start to finish, giving you a rough estimate of how much time it takes to complete one.
Stage 1: Research and list compilation
Consult a variety of resources (NOT just the US News and World Report rankings!) when determining which schools you would like to apply to. Talk to teachers and other adults you trust, but also be sure to get the perspectives of current students at schools you are considering. They will be able to give you insight that your aunt who graduated a couple of decades ago may not have. You should start this research during your junior year and continue through the summer before senior year.
Stage 2: Common App essay
At this point in the process, your grades and test scores won’t change much, if at all. Thus, the Common App essay that you will send to every single school on your list constitutes the most important remaining factor in your application–and it just so happens to be the one that’s totally under your control. For these reasons we recommend that students not skimp on time dedicated to the Common App essay. It’s advisable to begin brainstorming during the summer before senior year and have a complete first draft ready by the first day of school. Start to finish, this steps takes months, even for the most dedicated of students.
Stage 3: Activities list
The activities list on the Common App is deceptively short. Many students assume that filling this out will take no more than an afternoon or two. This is the wrong approach, especially given the fact that making the descriptions of all your extracurricular activities fit the small word count takes patience and time. Allow at least one full week for this step, working an hour or two at a time each day.
Stage 4: Supplemental essay(s)
Supplemental essay prompts vary in length and difficulty. Some top schools leave it at a simple “why do you want to attend (insert university name here)?” while others (we’re looking at you, U Chicago!) ask for responses to incredibly creative prompts that demand just as much, if not more time and effort than the Common App essay. You should anticipate that an average supplement, consisting of perhaps 2-3 250 or 300 word prompts, will take roughly two weeks to draft and polish. Of course, it’s recommended that you work on several schools at the same time in order to speed up the process; just know that you’ll have to allocate several hours a day to working on the supplements.
While every student is different, the college admissions process is a demanding one for most. The most important thing is to begin early in order to give yourself some leeway, should any difficulties arise. With enough planning and a lot of hard work, you’ll be all set come December.