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 in middle school!) So what’s the most sensible, effective approach? Here we break down each of the steps involved in working on a college application from start to finish, giving you a rough estimate of how much time it takes to complete each one.

Stage 1: Research and list compilation

Searching for schools can be time consuming and stressful, and it helps to know where to start. We highly recommend consulting a variety of resources. US News and World Report rankings are great resources to use when determining which schools you would like to apply to, but they are not the only ones. Reading ‘The Fiske Guide To Colleges 2019” is a great way to learn more about a school, in addition to searching the school or university’s main website page and looking through anything from campus clubs and activities to courses/professors and study abroad programs. Another way to learn more about potential schools that are the right fit for you is to talk to teachers and other adults you trust. Your guidance counselor may be able to suggest and speak to you about some potential options for you based on your grades and standardized test scores and what you’re looking for in a school. Be sure to also get the perspective of current students at schools you are considering. They will be able to give you insight that your aunt or parents who graduated a couple of decades ago may not have. You should start this research as early as your sophomore year and continue through the summer before senior year. Some questions to consider as you’re looking to compile your list:

Academics: What academics majors and minors interest you most? Does the school have strong resources for your major? Do the courses offered sound interesting and professors intriguing? What is the teacher to student ratio? Can undergraduates take part in research? When would you have to determine your major? Is the school a liberal arts school? Would you be able to double major? Do you want large lecture halls or more intimate classroom settings?

Socially:  What do students on campus do for fun? Are there sororities or fraternities? Is Greek life important to you? Is the campus known for its athletics? Do you want to be apart of a lively, spirited campus? What campus clubs and activities would you want to be apart of? Do you care about being apart of a diverse student body?

Food/Housing: Do students live at dining halls? Where do students live? On campus or in off campus housing?

Location: How far is the school from home? Will you have to fly home for holidays and breaks? Is it within driving distance? Is it near a major city? More in the suburbs? Or more in a rural area? What is the feel of being on campus? Is it close to other colleges? Is it near a city where you would want to continue your professional career after college? What is weather typically like? What surrounds the campus?

Size/Type of University: Is the school public or private? How many students are on campus? Will you be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond?

Cost: How much is room and board, housing, fees, textbooks, etc.?

*Before you take any schools off your list due to cost though, there are many ways schools can become more affordable through FAFSA or scholarships.

Stage 2: Common App essay

By the time you are in the end of your junior year or early senior year, 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 luckily, 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. Especially if you are applying to schools early decision or early action, it will make your senior year far less stressful if you are able to have your common app finished by the beginning of senior year. We find that students take as long as the window of time they give themselves, so set a deadline and get to work, your senior self will thank you, we promise.

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 and making sure to effectively capture each of the 10 activities that have taken up the most important and meaningful experiences of your high school career.

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.

Stage 5: Waiting to Hear Back

How long does it take to get accepted into college after applying? Depending on when you submitted your application (i.e. early action, early decision, or regular decision), it will take a few months for you to hear back from your schools and by spring of your senior year, you’ll have committed to the school of your choice .

While every student is different, the college admissions process is a demanding one for most. The 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 and will be able to submit a final product that you’re very proud of.

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