When I was a newspaper reporter, I once had an editor named Joe Dill, who minced exactly one word the entire time I knew him. If you wanted the truth and you wanted it fast, he was the guy who was going to give it to you.

When it came to sympathy, though, he had a short supply. And on the day I had to call the county’s school superintendent to ask him how he felt about being fired, Joe Dill was not offering me any at all.

“He’s going to be mad,” I whined to him, collapsing over my messy desk.

“Do it.”

“But I don’t want to,” I said, wishing I had a pot of sand in which I could hide my head.

“I’m going to say this once and I’m not going to say it again. Do it, Kaprowy. Rip it off like a Band-Aid and do it.”

Five minutes later, I did. And the superintendent ended up giving me a pretty candid interview.


Ultimately, Joe Dill taught me an important lesson that day: “Rip it off like a Band-Aid” is actually pretty terrific advice.

So I’m going to give you advice right now that you are not going to want to hear. And it’s going to result in work that you will not want to do. Ready? Braced? Here goes:

You need to start working on your college apps right now. Yes, this summer. Yes, months before they are due.

Ouch, right? Sucks, yes? I know it.

But here is some balm to put over the wound: if you start working on your applications early, you can be sure that, come late fall, you will be submitting the very best part of yourself that you are capable of putting forward.

Other advantages?

  • You will have more fun in your senior year.
  • You will be less stressed and more able to focus on your classes.
  • You won’t have any regrets.

Now. This doesn’t mean that you have to get the entirety of your college apps completed in the next month or two. But it does help if you can get big chunks of them done. So, let’s look at how to start.

1. FORM YOUR COLLEGE LIST THIS SUMMER. Time: 6 to 8 hours, split over two days

Narrowing down which colleges you want to go to is a huge step toward feeling like you have a handle on your college apps. We recommend your list contain seven schools:

  • two reach schools (ones that will be a stretch for you to get into)
  • three on-target schools (ones to which you are likely to be admitted)
  • two safety schools (ones to which you are almost sure to be admitted)

How to find these schools? It’s often just a matter of answering four big questions. Click here for how to answer them, how to find students reviews of your prospect schools, and how to find out lots of useful information about the schools that interest you (including Greek life and study abroad).


Once you have an idea of where you want to apply, you should check if your schools use the Common Application, which is a standard college admission application used by more than 800 colleges and universities. If your schools use the Common App, you will only have to fill in an application once.

Go here and click on Explore Colleges to see if your prospective colleges use the Common App.

If your schools are part of the Common App, set up a free account and start filling in your personal/education/family information. You’ll find this portal extremely user-friendly; it even gives you reassuring green lights and checkmarks when you’ve completed a section of your app.

If your schools don’t use the Common App, you simply have to Google the name of your school along with the word “application.” You will be directed to their application and can begin your process.


This sounds like a lot of work, but this is really just a matter of sitting down for an hour and writing down all the activities you’ve participated in in high school. This should include everything from sports to academic teams to volunteering to internships to part-time jobs.

Know that admissions officers are looking for depth instead of breadth when it comes to your extracurriculars, which means that if you volunteered at an animal shelter exactly twice, it doesn’t need to go on your activities list.

Instead, list activities that show you advancing/movin’ on up over time. Maybe you became co-captain of your team or maybe you become an officer in DECA. If you volunteered, find out how many hours you’ve put in over time (many organizations keep track).

This list should help paint a picture of you. It should show what your true interests are and how you’ve chosen to spend your time. It should also show your level of commitment and leadership.

Once you’ve compiled your list, you can transfer it over to your online applications. The Common App gives you space for 10 activities. Don’t feel you have to list 10. On the Common App, there is also an Additional Information section in the writing section. Fill this out! This is where you can list interests that may not be “official” activities, like if you love to cook or if you love to listen to podcasts.


If you could invest 30 minutes knowing that they will clarify your mind for months to come, would you do it? I’m guessing yes. How to spend the 30 minutes? Get out your day planner or your phone and input your application deadline dates.

While everyone talks about college apps being due Jan. 1, that simply isn’t the case for all schools. You may also want to consider early action or early decision, whose deadlines can be as early as Oct. 15.

So, getting a clear idea of your application deadlines is key.


If you’ve taken your ACT/SAT three times and your score has stayed steady or only marginally improved, there is no need for you to retake the test. If you’ve only taken the test once, definitely take the test again.

If your score is steady but you really want to take the test again, that’s OK (although there is such a thing as taking it too many times), but I strongly recommend the latest you take these tests is in August (SAT) or September (ACT) of your senior year. That means you should register now.

Simply, you don’t want the added stress of worrying whether your schools get your results in time. So, decide what you want to do and, if you do decide to retake the test(s), sign up for one and input the testing dates into your calendar.

6. START WRITING THIS SUMMER. TIME: 3 – 4 hours for a first draft

Good news! If your schools use the Common App, you only have to write one personal statement/admissions essay, which then gets sent to all of your schools. More great news? You can start working on it now because the Common app essay prompts have already been released.

However, some schools require supplemental essays as well. To find out, go to the writing section in the Common App and see what the school requires. Alternatively, read your school’s online application. It will become clear quickly what writing is required (note: some schools don’t require any writing at all).

Now. If supplemental writing is listed as optional, immediately interpret that as required. Remember, you want to give your schools as much reason as possible to accept you, so if there is an opportunity to advance your foot forward by telling them more about you, take it.


The hardest part of your college apps is dealing with the procrastination and nerves that are part of the process. But if you’re proactive, I promise this process will be less painful. So follow the advice of Joe Dill: rip it off like a Band-Aid. Use this summer to get a jump on your applications.

And know that, as always, I’m here for support and advice at [email protected]