General Education

You Know College Applications Don’t Need to Be Brutal… Right?

You Know College Applications Don’t Need to Be Brutal… Right?
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Nedda Gilbert profile
Nedda Gilbert May 23, 2019

Because adulting is already hard enough.

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From writing essays to getting recommendations to applying for financial aid, the college application process is time-consuming. The demands can be especially tough on non-traditional students, many of whom must also juggle career and family obligations. With so many commitments, busy applicants may be left scrambling to meet important college admissions deadlines. But you want and need that education, so you’re not going to let those time constraints stop you.

Here are some tips for streamlining the application process so that you can reach your academic goals while balancing other responsibilities.

1. Create digital and paper-based organizational systems

Almost every part of your college application — from your personal statements to your FAFSA to your recommendations — will be submitted online, so you will need to keep digital copies of your test scores, unofficial transcripts, personal statements, important emails, and other key files saved in one place. Create a folder on your computer desktop to house all these documents. Most schools prefer PDFs, so that’s the format you should save them in.

In addition, you will collect plenty of snail mail, notes, business cards, brochures, forms, test score reports, and other paper documents leading up to the application process. You need to find a home for these documents as well. Create a physical folder for each institution you’re applying to and place every piece of paper relating to that school in the folder. Decide how you will organize important emails; is it best to print them out for reference, or will you label them within your email program (Gmail, for example, has an easy-to-use labeling system)?

Aside from categorizing your folders by individual school, you should create separate digital and/or paper files for financial matters and scholarships, test scores, login and password info, upcoming seminars and webinars, and miscellaneous correspondence.

2. Track schools, dates, and applications in a spreadhsheet

Who doesn’t love a good spreadsheet…? Programs like Google Sheets, Microsoft Excel, and Apple Numbers can perform lots of complex analytical functions, but they are also extremely useful as simple organizational tools. Spreadsheets organize information in rows and columns, allowing you to easily compare school-by-school dates, costs, application requirements, and more.

If you’re unfamiliar with these programs, enlist a tech-savvy friend or family member to set-up your master sheet. Once that’s formatted, it will be easy for you to fill in dates and other data.

Not convinced you have a spreadsheet’s worth of information to keep track of? Here are just a few of the at-a-glance items you’ll want to keep handy:

  • College websites
  • College mailing addresses
  • Admissions representatives’ email addresses and phone numbers
  • Your application login/password info
  • Application deadlines (early decision, early action, priority admissions, regular admissions, and/or rolling admissions)
  • Date your SAT/ACT/subject tests were taken (if applicable)
  • Date you SAT/ACT/subject tests were sent to schools
  • Date your high school transcript was sent to schools
  • Names and contact information of recommenders
  • Date recommendations were sent to schools
  • Date thank you notes were sent to recommenders
  • Date your applications were submitted
  • Admissions decisions (accepted, rejected, deferred, waitlisted)

Don’t waste precious time digging through files, emails, post-its, and browser histories every time you need to find these various pieces of information. Instead, keep everything organized in a spreadsheet so that it’s there when you need it.

3. Use a synced calendar system with reminders

Digital calendars are another great organizational tool. The college application process is a not only high stress, it’s high stakes. A forgotten item can mean a lost opportunity. An online calendar that is synced across all your devices (phone, laptop, ipad, etc.) can keep you on track by sending reminders and alerts days, hours, or even minutes before an event. You can also use a calendar application to hold yourself accountable. Having trouble finding the time to write your personal essays? Add 90 minutes of “essay drafting” to your calendar every Saturday morning and hold yourself to it.

4. Make a master list of all your essays questions

Creating a master list of your essays allows you to assess the amount of work you have to do and plan accordingly.

It takes some time to come up with a good topic and craft a great story, so it’s smart to get a head start. With your essay topics laid out, you may find yourself brainstorming on your commute home or during that rare free moment. People are often creative when they let their minds wander.

If you have numerous essays to write, look to see whether there is overlap or common ground among the essay questions. If so, you may be able to write one essay for several schools or adapt one to use for another. If you go this route, be extra careful that each essay is labeled correctly with each school name. Admissions officers receive reams of essays that name the wrong school (especially embarrassing when the essay prompt is “Why do you want to attend this school?”). This error could mean an automatic ding.

5. Let go of the need to get it right the first time

Whether you are crafting essays, explaining why you left school for a period of time, or answering short questions on your college application, learn to start with drafts. It takes time to finesse the right message. It takes trial and error.

A handy trick for beginning the draft process is to write down exactly what you want to say as though you are explaining it to a friend. It removes the pressure of trying to write a perfect essay and allows you to harness it into a story. A similar strategy is actually to say your thoughts out loud, recording them on your phone or computer using a voice memo app. Most such apps will transcribe what you say — poorly, but at least it will get you started.

Ironically, pressuring yourself to get it right the first time can be a time-waster. More often than not, you will delay putting pen to paper for fear of not getting it exactly right. Writing several drafts, refining each time through, may seem more time-consuming, but it is actually a lot faster for most people.

6. Know what entrance exams your schools require (ACT, SAT)

It’s wise to anticipate what tests you’ll need to take, and build this into your calendar many months before the application deadline. You want time to prepare and study. You may also want to take the test multiple times.

The ACT and SAT allow students to choose the score they send a school, a system that allows applicants to take the test over and over until a personal best is reached (three times is usually the maximum advised). Be aware that this process can take many months.

7. Find a school financial advisor or counselor

Many scholarships and grants have strict eligibility rules and deadlines. The federal deadline for the FAFSA, for example, is June 30; most states and private institutions, however, have a much earlier FAFSA deadline. The sooner you determine whether you are a candidate for financial aid and begin the process, the better.

If you intend to apply for federal and state financial aid, you must submit the FAFSA. Like most financial reporting forms, the FAFSA requires highly detailed information. It can be time-consuming to obtain all the information you need to complete the form, so it’s important to build this critical task into your application timeline.

8. Enlist a college application buddy

It’s easy to procrastinate and avoid the drudgery of applying to college, but if the end result is a rushed application or an all-nighter spent frantically writing all those essays, you will wish you had devoted more time to the task. A friend or partner can go a long way towards helping you with this.

A friend can help you hash out essay topics and get you over your writer’s block. If you need prepping for an interview, your friend can role play with you. And if you’re just plain burned out, your friend can encourage you and help you across the finish line. Don’t feel you need to go it alone; in the immortal words of Dionne Warwick, that’s what friends are for.

Making the time to do it right

For a non-traditional student, time can be in short supply. That’s why when it comes to the college application process, good time management strategies are key. Whether you’re a former student returning to school or an adult considering college for the first time, working effectively and efficiently on your applications will make a big difference in meeting important deadlines and submitting an application that propels you toward the degree you want.

Questions or feedback? Email

About the Author

Ms. Nedda Gilbert is a seasoned clinical social worker, author, and educational consultant with 25 years of experience helping college-bound and graduate students find their ideal schools. She is a prolific author, including The Princeton Review Guide to the Best Business Schools and Essays that Made a Difference. Ms. Gilbert has been a guest writer for Forbes and a sought-after keynote speaker on college admissions. Previously, she played a crucial role at the Princeton Review Test Preparation Company and was Chairman of the Board of Graduate Philadelphia. Ms. Gilbert holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University and is a certified interdisciplinary collaborative family law professional in New Jersey.


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