Applying to college is kind of like being a baby bird thinking about stepping off a tree branch and hoping against hope that flight kicks in. Looking at the ground, you feel an overwhelming amount of doubt and reluctance. Looking at the nest, you suddenly would really rather take a nap.

But, my friends, the time has come to fly. So let’s take a look at how we make take-off happen.

First off, I have to stress that the best time of year to start your college application process is the summer before your senior year. I cannot stress enough how helpful it is to use this school-free time to really delve into this process. But if you decide to skip the summer, give yourself at least two months before your deadline (which is usually Jan. 1) to get all of the pieces of your application in place.

Now, how to fly and apply?



By now, you probably have a good idea of where you want to apply. (If you don’t, click here.) Your college list should be composed of about 7 schools: 2 reach schools (meaning it will be a stretch for you to get in), 2 safety schools (schools that will almost surely admit you) and 3 on-target schools (schools that are likely to admit you). Know that there is usually a cost to applying to each school (usually between $50 to $70) though some schools don’t charge at all and some have fee wavers.

In addition to using all of the resources available to you online to get to know your schools (don’t forget to tour your campuses using Google Maps!), it’s also time to start visiting the schools you’re considering. Summer is a great time to do this too, though most high schools allow attendance wavers for visiting colleges during the school year.


Next step? See if your chosen schools accept the Common Application by clicking here. More than 770 schools accept this application, which means that you fill it out once and then send it to multiple schools. To see if your schools accept the Common App, simply type in a college’s name or search by state — you’ll see it on the main page.

If your schools do accept the Common App, it’s time to create an account. Note: it’s free. You simply enter a name and password, and you’re on your way.

Start by forming your college list by adding your college choices. Then go to the Common App tab and start filling in your personal information. You’ll see that with each passing page, reassuring green checkmarks appear to indicate your progress.

The Dashboard is also a useful tab. It will show your list of colleges, their application deadlines (which can vary), and their writing requirements. Once you’ve applied and completed your application, you’ll see that your status for that college has changed to green. When that status changes color, that is a good day.



These are similar to the Common App, but for a much smaller number of schools (more than 130 for the Coalition and just over 20 for the Universal). To see if you can apply to your schools using the Universal App, click here. For the Coalition membership, click here.

The principal here is the same as the Common App, in that you fill out one application that can be sent to multiple schools. One big difference is the Coalition App only includes schools that can provide substantial aid to students who are under-represented or have less funds to pay for college.

Many schools that accept the Universal College or Coalition App accept the Common App as well. As for which one to choose? Obviously, the Common App is much, much more widely accepted, and I find it extremely user-friendly. The Coalition App offers more help to under-resourced or -represented students. Because it is smaller, help is easier to get with the Universal App, and you can edit your personal statement after you’ve submitted it.


If your college picks don’t accept either the Common or Universal apps, that’s OK. It’s less efficient, but every application basically needs the same information. You find your application most easily online by typing in the name of your college and the word “application.”

Applications generally consist of these pieces:

  • General information (address, birth date, etc.)
  • Your ACT or SAT scores
  • Your high school transcripts
  • Your senior-year high school transcripts (Note: not all college ask for these)
  • A list of extra-curriculars
  • Letters of recommendations (Note: not all schools require these)
  • Writing supplements (Note: not all schools have an essay component)

Tips for your ACT/SAT scores

In the world of your application, these scores matter — a lot. We recommend you take these tests up to three times), particularly if each successive test shows improvement. Know that some schools require that you send your entire testing record (sending one test to one institution costs $13 — so this can get pricy), while some just need one score.

Also, if you aren’t a great test-taker, study ahead of time. Kaplan and The Princeton Review are two major names in the prep course game. Click here for suggestions on how to pick the right prep courses.

Tips for your high school transcripts

Admissions officers want to see that you challenged yourself your junior year. Choose your classes carefully and take as many AP, IB or advanced-level classes that you feel you can handle.

Also know that some schools want to see how your classes are going your senior year too, so it’s a much better idea to continue challenging yourself in 12th grade instead of taking a break. Again, take as many AP, IB or advanced-level classes you feel you can. This will not only look good on your transcripts, but it will also get you ready for your challenging college course load.

Tips for your extra-curriculars

The point of the college application having so many pieces is so admissions officers can get a good idea of who you are as a student and how you will contribute to their campus. Most importantly, they want to see how you have created value in and contributed to your community.

As such, list extra-curriculars that show your true dedication and interests. It’s better to have a shorter list that shows your investment, than it is to have a long list of one-offs that don’t show a tremendous amount of commitment. For example, if you volunteered at an animal shelter four times but have no intention of doing it again and, really, have an only limited interest in animals, by all means, skip it. Admissions officers only have so much time to look over your application — so make sure it is cohesive.

Also, make sure you indicate if you’ve taken on leadership roles over the years, either on your sports or academic teams or in your community.

Tips for your letters of recommendation

Schools often want letters of recommendation from two teachers, your guidance counselor and a member of the community. Of all the mistakes I see students make, the most are committed when it comes to these letters.  So here are some hard and fast rules:

  • Choose teacher recommenders who know you.
    They’re the ones who pointed out how you used a math formula in a different way or made them see Frankenstein’s monster in a unique light. You’ve gone on class trips together. You’ve helped them in the classroom. You’ve gone to them for extra help. They’ve seen you try, they’ve seen you fail, they’ve seen you succeed.
    Similarly, choose someone who knows you well to write your personal recommendation. If the CEO of the hospital agrees to write your letter, it’s not going to do you much good if she knows nothing about you. You’re much better off asking the mom you’ve babysat for years for — particularly if she is a good writer.
  • Choose teacher recommenders who have taught you in your junior year in core subjects. Schools want to know who you are now, not who you were as a freshman. In fact, many schools will only accept letters of recommendation from teachers who taught you in your junior or senior years.
  • Don’t hesitate to remind them of the experiences you’ve had together. Hand over a “brag sheet” at the same time that you gently ask for a letter of recommendation. The sheet will contain bulleted examples of anecdotes you’ve shared together. It will also tell them about your strengths, interests and who you are as a person. Make sure your brag sheets are somewhat different for each recommender — you won’t want three letters that are nearly identical.
  • Give recommenders ample time to write your letter, at least a month before it’s due. Three weeks in, if they are not yet submitted (the Common App, for example, shows you when your letter has been sent) gently and politely ask your recommenders if they need anything more from you to finish up the letter.
  • Send a thoughtful, well-written thank-you note. After all, writing a good letter of recommendation takes time and effort. So at the very least, tell your recommender what it’s meant to you to have their support.

As for tips for your personal statement/admissions essay, start by clicking here. Until then, work hard and enjoy flight. Because it’s happened: You’ve taken off.