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If the college admission season has gone according to plan, you’re likely putting the finishing touches on your last supplemental essays, penning personal thank-you cards to your teacher recommenders, and hunkering down for a congratulatory bowl of ice cream and Netflix marathon. While this dream scenario is appealing to parents and students alike, it doesn’t quite match up with reality for so many seniors scrambling to stay on top of things during this stressful fall. If you’ve put off your applications for the last few months, waiting until a sense of urgency kicks in, you’re not alone. But we’re here to tell you that the time to get started is now (if not a month ago), and to help you take the first big steps towards college application success.

Finalize Your List

Your list of schools drives everything you do in the college application process, from the number of supplemental essays you’ll have to write to the number of standardized tests you’ll need to have completed. If the University of Chicago makes the final cut, you’ll have two challenging supplemental essays to write. If you want to apply to Georgetown and have just two SAT II Subject Test scores under your belt, you’ll need to register for another before the year ends. Adding schools to your list means adding more work to your plate, and as long as your list remains incomplete, you’ll have a hard time knowing where to start.

Take the list of schools you’re currently considering and ask yourself a few basic questions: Do I have two “safety” schools on my list? If not, you’ll want to find at least two schools you really like that fall into that category for you. Am I giving myself enough options? Applying to 10 “reach” schools may seem ambitious, but it’s also foolish. At the end of the day, you’ll want to have good schools to choose from, so make sure your list is appropriately balanced. What kind of financial aid do I expect to receive? Just as your list should be balanced in terms of your chances of gaining admission, it should be balanced in terms of expected financial aid. Use the schools’ Net Price Calculator to get a sense of expected final cost—you won’t want to put yourself in the position of having only expensive options in April.

Build a Spreadsheet

Once you’ve figured out where you’re going to apply, enter your final seven to 10 schools into a spreadsheet. You’ll use this document to keep track of all the materials you need to submit, and by when. In one column, include the application deadlines for each of your schools—don’t forget your financial aid deadlines, either! In a second column, write the number of required supplemental essays and total word count. Use the remaining columns to build a checklist for other materials you’ll need to submit, including test scores, transcripts, letters of recommendation, and relevant supplements for art or music. If you spend a few weekend hours building this spreadsheet and populating the cells with all the relevant data, you’ll save yourself an enormous amount of time later in the process. With the spreadsheet filled, you now know everything you have to do and by when.

Inform Your Counselor and Teachers

These days, you can’t apply to college on your own. At the very least, you’ll need your high school to send your official transcript to the colleges on your list. And it’s quite likely that you will need letters of recommendation from your counselor and one or two teachers from your high school. Managing your relationship with your teachers and counselors is a critical part of the application process. If you haven’t yet asked two teachers for letters of recommendation, you need to ask them as soon as possible. Asking at the last minute reflects poorly on you at best, and in the worst case scenario it might mean a teacher is too busy to say yes. Just as importantly, many high schools have deadlines by which students must request transcripts and additional forms from the counseling office. These deadlines often come much sooner than your applications will be due, and it is imperative that you do not miss them! Set up a brief meeting with your guidance or college counselor, discuss the schools on your list, and ask what he or she needs from you to ensure all materials are sent in a timely fashion. A brief conversation this week can save you a whole mess of heartache over the next few months.

Your time to apply to college may be wearing thin, but it has not yet run out. By taking control of your list, organizing yourself, and keeping everyone in the loop, you’ll be taking the first steps towards college application success.

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Written by Ian Fisher
Ian Fisher is an experienced educational consultant, part of College Coach’s team of college admissions consultants. Ian received his master’s in policy, organization, and leadership studies from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining College Coach, Ian worked as a senior admissions officer at Reed College. Visit our website to learn more about Ian Fisher.