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Published: Oct 29, 2019 9 min read
Illustration by Alexander Glandien

There's no sense sugar-coating it: Applying to college is stressful. Entrance exams and essays are time-consuming, while the forms seem never-ending.

The good news is, despite the headlines you've likely read about shrinking admissions rates, most colleges still accept the majority of applicants. Admissions experts typically recommend students apply to a handful of colleges, and if you have your sights set on the country's elite institutions, you'll likely need fill out between 8 and 12 applications, says Levia Nahary, an independent college counselor in Denver, Colorado.

Regardless of whether you hope to attend a nearby public college or you're trying to get a seat in the Ivy League, you've got plenty of application assignments on your horizon. With any months-long project, it can help to break your to-dos into steps, and the same is true of applying to college. Here’s what you should focus on now and early next year.

(Keep in mind this timeline is mostly for students applying through regular decision. If you want to apply via early decision or early action, some October deadlines have already passed, and you’ll need to scramble to catch up in time for the November deadlines.)

Do These College Application Steps Right Away

Get Organized: Create a spreadsheet or special calendar to track your tasks and progress. Be sure to note the deadlines for admissions and financial aid for all the colleges you're applying to. You can use this checklist from the College Board's Big Future section as a guide.

“You have to be able to look at the bigger picture and break it into little steps,” Nahary says.

Fill Out the FAFSA: The Free Application for Federal Student Aid opened on October 1, and while you have plenty of time before the federal deadline of June 30, 2020 — you’re better off getting it done as soon as possible. In addition to federal grants and loans, the application opens the door to many state and institutional awards. And some of those awards are awarded on first-come, first-served basis. Plus, filing the FAFSA early will tell you what your estimated family contribution will be before admissions deadlines have passed. Before you start, review Money's related guides: 10 most common questions about the FAFSA and how to ace the trickiest questions.

Fill Out the CSS Profile: This is another financial aid application —a few hundred private colleges require it as well as the FAFSA. Most colleges have deadlines between January and March, but it may be easiest to complete it alongside the FAFSA, since you'll need some of the same information about your family's finances. The College Board, which produces the profile, recommends completing it at least two weeks before the first deadline.

Work On Your Essay: Most schools will require that you submit at least one writing example. This is your chance to tell colleges more about yourself than they’ll learn from your grades or resume. If you haven't finalized exactly where you're applying yet, you can still get a start on this. Check out the essay prompts for the Common App, which is accepted by about 800 colleges, and the writing prompts for the Coalition Application, accepted at 90 colleges.

This is the most time consuming part of the applying process, Nahary says, and you want to be sure you have enough time to revise early drafts and solicit input from at least one or two adults. Choose people who will give you an honest critique.

“Seek feedback but keep control over your own piece,” Nahary says. “You don’t have to accept all the feedback everyone gives you.”

Request Recommendation Letters: Find out if the colleges you’re applying to require a recommendation letter—some selective ones will require more than one, while others may not ask for one if your grades or test scores are high enough. If you need one, give your writer as much time as possible, says Chris Reeves, a counselor at Beechwood High School in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky. Like your essay, you want a recommendation letter that will add context beyond the other parts of your application. Try to ask someone who knows you well and can talk about how you behave in class or work on a team or club, Reeves says.

“It’s not necessarily the class you did the best in,” he says. “It could even be your lowest grade. If you struggled or got tutoring and the teacher saw your growth, that’s going to make for a better letter.”

Reeves doesn’t typically recommend students give their letter writers a copy of their resume—the letter shouldn’t simply reiterate what’s on it—but it can be helpful to tell them what you learned and enjoyed about their course or to remind them how you contributed in class.

Register for the SAT/ACT: If needed, you have a couple more chances to increase your entrance test scores. There’s an SAT test on Nov. 2 and Dec. 7 (see here for registration deadlines), and an ACT test on Dec. 14 (register here). Taking the exams once more might be helpful if you're trying to hit certain scores to increase your chances of qualifying for merit aid.

Do These College Application Steps Later On

Submit Your Applications: Most colleges with competitive admissions have regular decision deadlines in January, though some schools require you to apply as early at December 1; others don't have application deadlines until March. Proof read everything once more before you submit it. In addition to the actual application and supplemental materials like your essay, you’ll also need to ask your high school to send your transcripts, as well as request that the College Board or ACT send your test scores, if you haven’t already.

Compare Your Offers: Hopefully you've already taken advantage of net price calculators or other tools, such as Fidelity's College Cost Prep Tool to get an idea what you'll have to pay for college. But you won't know the final cost until you receive aid offers from the places you've been admitted. Even then, it can be hard to make apples-to-apples comparisons here, as colleges use different formatting and language on their aid letters. In fact, in a review of more than 500 financial aid letters last year, the think tank New America found one-third did not include a total cost to compare the actual award against, so it was unclear what a family's out-of-pocket expenses would be. The same report found colleges used more than 100 different terms for a single, specific type of loan.

That's why Nahary recommends reviewing the letters with a college counselor, financial planner, or someone else who's familiar with the structure and jargon.

Visit Your Top Choices: If you're undecided, try to visit your top choices before making a decision where to enroll. Many colleges even offer specific events targeted to admitted students. Because you've (hopefully) already done plenty of research on the colleges where you're admitted, visiting at this point in the year allows you to ask more targeted questions. You may want to visit specific classes or academic departments, for example. If you still have questions about your aid letter, you also can schedule an apportionment to talk through it with a financial aid officer while you're on campus.

Tell Colleges Whether You’ll Attend: Once you make a decision, notify colleges where you're declining the offer of admission and pay the deposit where you plan to enroll. Colleges typically ask students to make a decision by May 1. In the past, colleges were barred by ethics guidelines from continuing to recruit students after they'd put in a deposit elsewhere. But in September, the National Association for College Admissions Counseling voted to change its rules as a result of a Justice Department investigation. The change opens the door to more aggressive recruiting tacticsfrom colleges fighting to fill seats on their campuses. It's unclear how much this will affect college-bound students in 2020, but it is possible some colleges will try to lure students who committed elsewhere with incentives like increased financial aid offers.