As the summer winds to an end, high school seniors everywhere are stressing about the coming semester. For many of you, the fall comes with worrying about college applications, personal essays, and scholarships. Navigating all of these important tasks alongside school and other extracurriculars can be difficult. To lessen the burden of this juggling act, we have created a checklist and schedule that you may follow. In this guide, we will be giving you a structured method to tackle the college application process.

To begin with, we’ll discuss each stage within the process. Then, we’ll go into more detail on ways to work through each stage as efficiently as possible as well as answer some common questions. Each of the methods we will discuss works best if you personalize it for your needs. Hopefully, by the end of this guide, you will have a clear idea of how the next couple of months will look like with respect to college.

College Application Process: 4 Stages

In practice, it is best to separate the college application process into four different stages. The stages are as follows:

  1. Planning
  2. Gathering Information
  3. Personal Statements
  4. Submission and Results

Of these four stages, the first and third stages are the most work-intensive. As a result of this, we recommend that you perform aspects of each stage simultaneously. We’ll explain more about this later.  Let’s start discussing each individual stage, beginning with planning.


While the title of this stage may seem self-explanatory, the actual process of planning out your college application is extremely nuanced. Firstly, you would have had to start this stage almost a year in advance when you were deciding on which college admissions test to take. If you still have not taken the SAT or ACT, do not panic! Check out our SAT MasterPost and other ACT related materials here. You may have also planned out which SAT Subject Tests to take or which AP classes to enroll in as you progress through high school.

If you are up to date with all of the competitive exams you planned or are planning on taking, then you can proceed to the next part of the planning process⁠—choosing colleges.

We recommend that you create a spreadsheet with your colleges and the different classifying factors we discuss below. 

1. Choosing Colleges

How many colleges should I apply to?

The number of colleges you choose to apply to is ultimately up to you. Unfortunately, there is no optimal number that will give you the best results. We would say 1 to 15 colleges is an acceptable range for applying to colleges. However, most college counselors recommend that the average college-bound student applies to 6 to 8 schools. Do be aware of your financial limitations and how much time and effort you can allot to each individual application.

What kind of colleges should I apply to?

Do not choose colleges based on their name or brand value. Look at your major of choice and what sort of atmosphere and extracurricular activities you would like to participate in. Remember, one of these colleges will be your home for the next four years. Ensure that you will like it there! It will be tempting to only apply to all Ivy League schools and other top-tier schools. However, if you are not accepted by any of those schools, you will be in trouble in the spring. College counselors recommend that students apply to 2 safety schools, 2-3 target schools, and 2-3 reach schools.

How do I classify schools as safety, target, and reach?

Believe it or not, this is quite easy. Using your GPA and SAT or ACT scores, find the college in question’s admission statistics. They will have a report on the median scores and GPAs of their most recently admitted class as well as that year’s acceptance rate. Simply compare the statistics with your own scores to figure out whether you would easily get in (safety school) or not. If the scores are on par with your own, you can classify that school as a target school. If the statistics suggest that you would have some difficulty getting accepted, classify that school as a reach school.

2. Check Requirements

Nowadays, most schools have streamlined the process of submitting applications by using universally accepted application systems like the Common Application, Universal College Application, and Coalition Application. As a result, most everything you will need to submit to schools will be along the same line and sometimes, through the same system of application. If your colleges of choice largely accept one universal application system, be sure to peruse through each college’s application to see what you may need. Although many schools accept a specific type of application, there will be some key additions in the applications of different schools. If you are applying for an impacted major, like any engineering, law, or business major, the college may require extra information, tests, or personal statements.

Other schools may ask for letters of recommendation. Generally, private universities will ask for a student profile and a separate letter of recommendation from your high school counselor. They will also require a letter of recommendation from a teacher of your choice and suggest you have a third letter of recommendation from someone outside of your academic world.

Moreover, some schools may have their own application system. A notable example is the University of California system which has its own application system for its various UCs.

Note down each college’s individual requirements and deadlines to have a clear understanding of what you will need to do before you start the application.

3. Ensure You Meet Deadlines

As mentioned above, you may have to have external sources send essential information about you to colleges. Most colleges will require a mid-year transcript from your counselor. Letters of Recommendation will need to be added to your application by the recommender themselves. Get these sorted as soon as possible. You need to give your chosen recommenders time to write a glowing appraisal about you. Score reports from the College Board or ACT will also need to arrive to your colleges on time if they require the official reports.

You are ultimately responsible for these aspects to reach your colleges on time. As a result, you need to allow adequate time for all of these parts of your application.

With this, the planning stage wraps up and you can advance to the next stage⁠—gathering information.

Gathering Information

As you begin filling out each application, you will encounter questions that ask for extensive, personal information. We suggest you gather personal information from your parents or guardians or better yet, fill out the online forms with them nearby. Some personal information that the application may ask for includes but is not limited to:

  • Social Security Number
  • Identification Proof
  • Nationality or Visa Proof
  • Parents’ Identification Proof
  • Parents’ Nationality or Visa Proof
  • Annual Household Income
  • Residency Details

Finally, you may complete this stage simultaneously with the planning stage as it only requires a couple hours time of patience and coordination between you and your family members.

Personal Statements

Doubly important as the planning stage is the stage of the personal statement. College admissions officers say that your personal statement can make or break your entire application. Although personal statements are supposed to be one part of the holistic review of college applications, remember that this is where the college can see who you are. They do not want to hear about your grades or numbers. They want to know what makes you, you. What an easy task, right?

We’re kidding. Writing personal statements is usually the hardest part of the applications for students. Each college generally requires extra, college-specific answers to introspective questions. This is alongside one or two major personal essays. Each personal statement also has different word limits. It is important to think out of the box but still remain true to yourself.

We suggest looking at the different prompts and spending weeks crafting the perfect responses. Do this on a separate document that you can easily access. Be ready to write multiple drafts and have people close to you to review your answers. Don’t be afraid to get introspective and personal. The admissions officers want a look inside your mind. This can feel exhausting at times. You may have to take a break from certain statements and return to them later with a fresher mind.

Keep editing until the week before your application is due. We suggest that you stop letting others review it around this time as well. Spend some time transferring your personal statements to the applications and fix any formatting errors. This will may the submission process much easier.

To prepare for this particular stage, we suggest learning the art and techniques of writing a personal narrative. A private writing tutor can truly make this stage move more smoothly from a nuance perspective. Still not convinced? Check out 5 Reasons Private Writing Tutoring is Essential.

Submission and Results

Finally, try to submit your college applications a couple of days before the deadline. We know that you may not be able to do this for every single college but try to do it for most. Sometimes, the application portals crash near the deadlines due to the influx of students submitting their applications. Avoid the stress of submitting your application last minute. Go through your application one more time before you submit, perhaps with a family member or another trusted person.

Once you submit, your job is over. Congratulations on making it to the end! Now, all you have to do is wait until spring. The results are in the colleges’ hands now.

Good luck with college applications, seniors! We’re looking forward to May 1st to see which college you’ll decide to pursue your higher education at.