Organizing Your College Search and Application Process

According to the US Census, a record 3.3 million American high school students will graduate this Spring, meaning peak competition to join the College Class of 2013. Last year, Harvard rejected more than 1,000 seniors with perfect 800 math SAT scores, and it’s been reported that Princeton rejected hundreds of applicants who had straight-A’s throughout high school. Nationwide, colleges are tightening requirements such that former “safety schools” are requiring higher ACT and SAT scores, seeking more extracurricular activities with leadership positions, and are being more stringent in all evaluation procedures.

For all applicants, this means tough competition for acceptances, scholarships and financial aid, more application fees to apply to a greater number of schools to cover bases and more stress for teens and parents. Nonetheless, the National Association for College Admission Counseling‘s 2008 State of College Admissions report finds that there are opportunities for all who are willing to commit to being serious about the search and application process.

To increase your chances (or your college-bound teen’s chances) of a smooth college search and application process, follow these initial steps:

1) THINK INSIDE THE BOX— The key to organizing is having a home for everything. The mere act of taking the SAT or ACT exams results in an influx of promotional mailings from colleges from throughout the United States and Canada. Within a few months, a tidy study area can become overrun with glossy brochures, promotional DVDs and loose paperwork. Combat the clutter with a simple system for capturing, sorting and maintaining:

  • Get an open-top hanging-file crate, hanging files and a few manila folders. There’s no reason to go to ridiculous expense; in fact, your student will be more at ease if he or she can pick the brightly colored plastic file crate in the neon color of his or her choice.
  • As an extra, consider buying a labelmaker; the expense is low, and your student will learn the importance of categorizing and labeling, an essential organizing skill for their academic and professional lives.
  • During the college search phase, organize college promotional material by application priorities (see #2, below).
  • During the application process, the file crate offers an excellent home for organizing specific materials by college, and then by file type (like requirements, copies of applications and essays, correspondence with the school, etc).


It’s essential to know what you’re looking for in a school and organize the materials accordingly. Early in the college search process, sit down and decide (or help your student decide) the relative importance of each school’s:

  • Academic Program–Is the program rigorous enough (or not too overwhelming)? Is there enough depth and breadth of study opportunities? Are there enough alternative options for second majors or changing programs to make this school a valid choice if academic preferences change?
  • Cost–While tuition, room, board, living expenses and travel costs may be defrayed by scholarships, student aid and other financial assistance, the cost of a school is a valid concern when prioritizing where a student will apply and attend.
  • Student Life–Is this a study school or a party school? Are there extracurricular options (intramural sports, non-academic continuing education, fraternities and sororities, volunteer organizations, etc.) enough to satisfy the student’s non-academic preferences? Will their be access to religious services appropriate to the student’s affiliation?
  • Campus Style–Some students prefer a traditional Ivy-style campus with rolling hills and ancient buildings, while others prefer the delight of a bustling urban campus. Campus security may also be a concern.
  • Region of the Country–If you have a closely-knit family in Iowa, will distance prove too great for a student heading to Vermont? Does the idea of a sunny Florida campus appeal to your student from Seattle or Maine, or do opposites of weather patterns repel rather than attract?

Assign point values, ranging from 1-10, for how well any school fits the priorities–the things that matter to you.

Then, set a firm deadline for winnowing your list down to the schools to which you will apply.

Parents and students will need to have a reality check regarding limiting the number of schools. In the 1980s, the average was closer to 3-5, but students generally apply to 5-9 schools these days.

3) GO ON A TREASURE HUNT–Search every college application packet (from likely choice schools) for essential information and create a spreadsheet to track:

  • Admissions office phone # and school web site–For example, a severe blizzard the week the essays were due to my first-choice college created a panic. Even if I could have made it to the post office without turning into Popsicle Student, no mail was getting in or out for days. One impassioned call to the school later, I learned that the school was aware of the situation and was making notes in the application folders of all students who called regarding the blizzard. While it’s never wise to leave deadlines so close, and not all schools will be so understanding, having the phone number or web URL and email addresses handy can certainly ease the situation.
  • Application type–Some schools use the Common Application at allowing you to fill in one online document in order to fulfill partial application requirements. (This does not mean that schools using the Common Application might not also require customized essays or other school-specific forms.) Other universities require more complex school-specific information. Tracking this data will help you manage your time for completing all tasks.
  • Essay questions–It’s NEVER too early to brainstorm essay answers. Read the essay questions for schools for which you have high interest as soon as you receive the packet. In addition to listing them on the spreadsheet, write them on index cards to post in lockers or on bedroom bulletin boards to keep the ideas flowing.
  • Application fees–Parents and students will need to create a budget for application fees, so knowing what schools require which amounts will at least assist in budgeting, if not actually raising the funds.
  • Requirements like number of recommendations, required SAT or ACT scores, grades, etc.

4) LIVE BY THE CALENDAR–Mark all deadlines on a college-admissions calendar. If necessary, set an alarm on your cell or computer to review deadlines often—at least once per week. Block time slots weekly to work on:

  • Applications and essays–Applications can be tricky and essays require advanced thought. This is not the time to start an assignment the night before it’s due!
  • Transcripts and scores–You will need to authorize your school and the testing agencies to release your scores. Release of scores may also have a related fee, so ask early.
  • Fees–Once you’ve created a budget for all required fees, you must still mail checks on time.
  • Letters of recommendation–Ask teachers early! Favorite teachers are often asked by many students, so be sure to check in with your preferred teachers often enough to be a reminder, but not so often as to be a pest, and be sure to write a thank you note! Add writing the note to your calendar.
  • Don’t forget deadlines for the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form and scholarships! Teens should not expect parents to be able to pull their tax information together at the last minute, and parents should make a point of reviewing the FAFSA form early so they can collect the important data.

5) ORGANIZE YOUR PROFILE–Students should work to make up for deficiencies in their biographies early in the application process. Some options include:

  • Clean up an online life–Colleges look for, and take a dim view of, blogs and MySpace pages with embarrassing comments and photos, including evidence of underage drinking and inappropriate or illegal behavior.
  • Get coaching and take achievement tests again to boost scores
  • Participate in more extra-curriculars where leadership skills have an opportunity to shine

College is not merely a continuation of one’s education; it’s preparation for adult life in terms of professional endeavors and adult living. Strong organizing skills and systems based on the above tips can help you make a college selection wisely and then encourage your dream school to choose well, too.

Copyright © 2008 Julie Bestry and Best Results Organizing. All rights reserved.


About the Author:   Julie Bestry is a professional organizer, speaker and author, who helps individuals and businesses save time and money, reduce stress and increase productivity through new organizational skills and systems. Her most recent book is 57 Secrets for Organizing Your Small Business. For information on how Julie can turn your chaos into serenity, visit Best Results Organizing at

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