If you feel stressed and overwhelmed by the college application process, you are not alone. Many students (and parents) feel this way. Fortunately, the secret to getting admitted isn’t simply to do more and more activities; it’s finding one thing you can do really well. Sure, colleges do care about high test scores and top grades in challenging courses. But they also want students who have demonstrated that they can pursue something with dedication and fascination. Therefore, it’s important to leave yourself free time to dabble in a variety of activities until you find one that really grabs your interest.

How do you come up with a list of colleges?

Do a self-inventory. How far from home do you want to live? What type of learning environment works best for you? What are your interests and personality traits? What would be the ideal peer group for you in college? Assess whether you’re ready to live away from home. If not, consider taking a gap year, attending a community college or taking steps to develop the independent living skills you’ll need.

Learn about colleges. Go on campus tours, talk to enrolled college students and alumni and find resources to help you. The goal is to find not the best colleges, but the colleges that are best for you.

Based on a balance of the factors important to you, identify 8-10 schools, including some you’re very likely to be admitted to.

Here’s a year-by-year guide:

Freshman year of high school: Plan out four years of solid academic courses that will challenge you. If you struggle with certain subjects or aspects of school (studying, socializing), seek out the help and strategies you’ll need to succeed. (See our article on special accommodations if you think you’ll need them in college.) Start a resume or log of your accomplishments; it will be a helpful reference guide when it comes time to complete your applications.

Sophomore year: Get to know your teachers and keep an eye out for ones who might be a good source of future recommendation letters. Look out for opportunities to be a leader (e.g., in school or outside clubs). Save copies of your best work for future portfolios. Consider taking the PSAT. Make some college visits during spring vacation, if possible. Research career options; this will help you narrow down your choice of schools and majors.

Junior year: Take the PSAT in October (if you haven’t already) – or the SAT or ACT. Find out which tests are required by the schools you’re considering – for example, some colleges want you to take one or more SAT Subject Tests. Sign up well in advance, take practice tests and get test prep help (or learn anxiety management) if you need it. Register for AP tests, if applicable. If you are an athlete, talk to your coach and learn about eligibility from the NCAA. When college reps visit your school, try to attend these meetings. Start developing a list of potential colleges and learning about them (see below). Do more spring-break college tours. (See our article on demonstrated interest.) If you will be creating a portfolio (e.g., art, music, videos), it’s time to start assembling it. Find out how to upload your work via Slideroom or other platforms. In the spring, talk to the teacher(s) you hope will write your letters of recommendation, and confirm they are willing to do so. Over the summer, work on the components of you applications (e.g., via the Common App), especially your essay(s). Brainstorm essay topics, write drafts and get feedback.

Senior year: Request letters of recommendation in the fall, giving teachers/counselors plenty of lead time and background information about you to make their job easier. Revise essays. Schedule interviews; they are often optional (but advisable), and the deadline for scheduling them may be a month or more before the application deadline. Complete and submit applications. Consider early action/early decision options: if you know where you want to go for sure, getting your application in early can make all the difference. Collect financial information to apply for financial aid; you will need this for the FAFSA and/or CSS. Collect financial records. Know the deadlines – for example, sometimes merit aid deadlines precede regular application deadlines. Use the Net Price Calculators on college websites to estimate what your family may be expected to pay.

Summer after senior year: Prepare for the transition. Continue working on life skills (financial, practical and emotional). Obtain and sign documents to allow parents to communicate with the school and healthcare providers, if needed.

Take a break to feel good about a job well done!

You can find the federal government’s annual student checklists (including financial aid tasks) here. If you want personal, one-on-one guidance, contact us today.