Organizing and completing college applications

Joan Franklin
On College

Question: I am feeling overwhelmed trying to get organized and get all my applications completed. Any advice?

Answer: It is vital that you create a strategy for organizing all your applications before you start. You can create a tracking form or spreadsheet that lists all your schools, their deadlines, type of application required, and additional supplements and forms that need to be submitted, such as teacher and counselor forms or secondary school reports. Once you set up your list, you can quickly sort its items by whether they are public institutions that use their own applications or the Common Application, or private schools that have their own forms. I like to have students make a list of supplemental questions they will need to complete so that they have an idea of the required number of essays and short responses and whether any essays can be re-used or tweaked for multiple schools.

Once you are cognizant of your deadlines, you should start with the private schools that require teacher and counselor recommendations. Hopefully, you already have this step behind you, since these folks generally require and deserve a few weeks of advance notice. Obviously, the applications for schools with early deadlines in mid-January and February need to be completed first.

I ask students to have some necessary documents handy before they complete the applications, which makes the process quicker and more efficient. Unless you have committed this information to memory, make sure to have your social security number, driver’s license number, school code, unofficial transcript and resume readily available. The first few pages of any application are demographic data that can be completed quickly. The only difficult part of the application tends to be the multiple-page essay required on the Common Application or by the school itself. The advantage of the Common Application is that one essay can be re-used by each school that subscribes to the Common Application. Most schools do require supplemental essays that usually seek additional information about why you want to go to that particular school, obstacles or hardships you may have faced, or short-answer responses to a myriad of questions ranging from what information might be written about you online to how multiculturalism has played a part in your life.

When colleges ask why you want to go to a particular school, I find that students generally give a vague answer that could be used generically for any institution. You will want to ensure that you have spent enough time researching each school and academic department you might be interested in, so that you can respond in a specific way. Occasionally, some of this information can be gleaned from material found in the view books you might have received from the college. I find that going online and researching everything including specific courses, professors, extracurricular activities and study abroad programs serves you well when you need to convince admission officers that your decision to apply to their specific school was a well thought-out choice.

Many students from Mercer Island struggle with essays that ask them to speak about diversity, as we have a fairly homogenous community. It really requires you to think outside the box and consider diversity in a broader context. You might need to reflect on any opportunities you have had through community service projects or even how you were raised, which may have been different from the norm here on the Island.

After you have completed the application or uploaded your essays, it is imperative that you review it multiple times for errors before mailing it or submitting it online. I like to have another person proof each application at least once, since the Common Application cannot be retrieved after the “send” button is clicked. Many students have been denied an acceptance because of careless errors that are easily avoided. It is so easy to find yourself rushed, exhausted and tired of the whole process by the time you are submitting your materials. While the temptation exists to just send the darn thing, have it ready an extra few weeks before the due date. You will probably want to come back to the application after a few days to look at it again with fresh eyes, making sure that it reflects all the effort and passion you have put into your high school years. You won’t be sorry.

Joan Franklin is the owner of The College Source, an independent college consulting practice ( She is also a certified school counselor in the Issaquah School District. She lives and practices on Mercer Island and can be reached at (206) 232-5626 or

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