college application process

Getting Organized

This is the first in a series of blog posts in which Jan Combs, college finance consultant and mother of a high school senior, will walk us through her son’s college application process. Along the way, Jan will share tips and tricks to help your family manage, and even enjoy, this nerve-wracking journey for you and your child.

There is no question that it is overwhelming to be the parent of a college-bound high school senior. You’ll have some friends tell you that you should leave the college process all to your child, while you’ll see others who are taking complete and absolute control of their child’s college process. I’ve decided to take an approach somewhere in the middle of those two styles. My son is absolutely taking the lead—this is his college education, after all. However, there is a lot at stake here, and my 17-year-old may benefit from my experience and loving guidance along the way. Since the school year has just begun, I wanted to take a moment to share a few thoughts with parents as to how to approach the upcoming application process.organizing college brochures

With a huge pile of mail and 1,493 email messages from colleges in my inbox (*hint: we opened a separate email account we can both access for anything college-related*), it’s no wonder the process is so daunting! It’s tempting to jump right in and try to tackle the myriad of college-related tasks that need to be done. However, it’s important to first take a very deep breath, and make a plan—taking time to get organized from the outset will be valuable time spent.

Start by setting up a calendar for the next twelve months so you can get a sense of the big picture—roughly sketch out important deadlines such as standardized tests, college visits, college application deadlines and the like, as well as any important family commitments.

Next, develop a spreadsheet that will ultimately serve as your detailed tracking system, the importance of which cannot be underestimated! Note the colleges your child intends to apply to (no worries… this will be a work in process!), and any and all deadlines associated with applying to said colleges. For each piece of the admissions application, be sure to include a column in your spreadsheet ready to be checked and note the important details related to each part. As you research the admission application details for each college, be sure to also note financial aid application requirements and deadlines, as well as any merit scholarship deadlines. And while you’re building your spreadsheet, be sure to make space for the ridiculously large number of passwords and user IDs that your child will need to access during the process (from colleges, testing sites, financial aid applications, etc.). Your spreadsheet will be a work in progress and constant point of reference as your child adds colleges to his list and begins to complete tasks. Trust me on this: even the most organized and Type A planners will benefit from a detailed spreadsheet and calendar. With your system in place, you and your child will be able to move forward under a little less stress, knowing your college application process is under control.

Lastly, remember that you are not alone in the process—teachers, counselors, your family, and other parents are right there with you. Reach out to others when you have questions or need support! Remember, there is a college for everyone and things will fall into place. Take it one day at a time, one event at a time, one task at a time, and, most importantly, remember to enjoy this year. This may be the final journey you get to walk hand-in-hand with your child, so don’t let the stress of the process overtake the moments of fun and insight that you and your child get to experience together along the way.


Written by Jan Combs
Jan Combs is a college finance expert at College Coach. Before joining College Coach, Jan was Director of Financial Aid at Harvard Graduate School of Education and Assistant Director of Financial Aid at Boston University. Visit our website to learn more about Jan Combs.