How to Apply to College and Stay Organized Too!

Last year, at about this time, we were awaiting the final results for the ACT that my oldest son had just taken. We spent his junior year of high school researching schools and going to college fairs. Once the test results were in, my son could start applying for college. His options were wide open and while he didn't have a laser focus on any one school, he did have it narrowed down to 11 different universities that he wanted to submit a college application to. Most counselors recommend applying to 5-8 different universities. Without really knowing how much financial aid or scholarships he would qualify for, we had not only safety schools {those he knew he had a fairly good chance of getting into} for academics, we also had financial safety schools {those we knew we could afford even if he didn't get any scholarships}.  He also had a few reach schools {those that would be challenging to get into, but were realistic enough that he should apply based on his grades and test scores}. Keeping all of the applications straight was getting to be overwhelming. So, like a true engineer, my husband created a spreadsheet to keep all of the details straight. We have been asked for this spreadsheet a few times from friends, and thought that it may just be helpful to pull it together and offer it up to all of you.

How to Apply to College
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When I was in high school, my parents told me that they would pay for any college of my choice as long as it was a state university. That narrowed my choices down a bit {there are 7 state universities}, though like any good kid living in Indiana, I grew up wanting to go to either Indiana University or Purdue University. My mom did her undergrad and graduate school work at IU and until visiting the Purdue campus my junior year of high school, I was pretty sure I would end up being an Indiana University Hoosier. Those college visits are important {here's how you can plan the perfect college visit for your high school senior}! It wasn't long after I stepped foot on Purdue's campus that it felt like home to me. I applied to Purdue at the end of my junior year in high school and was accepted before I even started my senior year. One application, one acceptance letter.
My husband's college application experience was a little bit different. He wasn't quite sure what career path he wanted to take. In high school he had taken flight lessons and earned his private pilot's license, and was torn between becoming a commercial pilot or an engineer. He eventually decided on engineering, and began a nation-wide search for the right school. He applied and was accepted to four universities, touring three of them, but it was his campus visit to Purdue that sealed the deal.
We were torn as parents with how much involvement to take in our son's college application process. He was about to make an adult decision that would affect the rest of his life, and we wanted him to take ownership of the process. We found out however, that he was a bit overwhelmed by it all, and was having trouble getting started with the entire process, despite our constant {well-meaning} reminders. Our solution was to create a spreadsheet that would lay the application process out in an organized way, so that he had a clear understand of what was expected of him.  That way, we were able to shift the focus away from constantly nagging him and let him to work through the various steps, all the while allowing us to monitor those boxes being checked off and follow up when they weren't. This method helped us as parents ensure that no deadlines were missed and every piece of information required by each school was submitted in a timely manner, while still letting our son be in control of the whole process.  Here's how we did it:

Make a list

After visiting college fairs, we decided to start making a list of the schools our son was interested in. We sat down at the local book store with a coffee in hand and started flipping through a few different college guides. I must say, this was more than overwhelming to me! I never knew how nice it was to only have a few options to pick from for college. He had some specific criteria he was interested in {large university, warmer climate, study abroad program, sports program, Greek life...} so that helped a bit in narrowing the list down. But after we left there were about two dozen schools on the list and he was sent home to do some research and consolidate the list a bit.
Since our son was applying for schools all across the United States, we put any college visit on hold until he had started the application process, with the exception of the few in-state universities that he had some interest in. We do also make it a point as a family to visit college campuses around the country anytime we are in the vicinity. This is something I highly recommend doing. Not only are college campuses some of the most beautiful places to visit, it also gives you a great idea of what you like and what you don't like about a college, even if you aren't really interested in that particular school.

Sort out the deadlines

With a few reach schools in mind, he decided to apply early decision to one university. This decision will affect your application timeline. It could also increase your odds of being accepted at a university since they know you are extremely interested. If he were accepted, he was committed to going to that university {the decision was binding}. There were also a few universities that offered early application options and would waive the application fee if you submitted your application by a certain date. Know if these early applications are binding or non-binding and make note of that. There were a handful of universities that had applications due in December and a few that were accepting applications into the spring.

Know what is expected of you

When I was applying to college, I went to my counselors office and opened up the file cabinet to pull out the paper application. There was no essay, no short answer responses and no letters of recommendations needed. That has all changed. There is now a thing called the common app that is an undergraduate college admission application that applicants can use to apply to any 700 universities and colleges in 48 states. Not all of the schools our son was applying to were part of the common app system. Knowing which of the schools that your child is applying to are part of the common app system will help you be prepared during the application process.

Set aside time to work on the applications

College applications can take a lot of time, especially if you are dependent on teacher recommendation letters. I remember sweating it out days before our son's application was due as he waited for the third and final recommendation letter from one of his teachers.  Essays take more time than short answer responses and every application is different in what they require. Some of the essays are school specific and some could be generic and applied to a few different college applications. Do not wait until the night before the deadline to start working on the college application.

Follow up

Many college applications will require you to set up e-mail accounts or web based accounts so that you can track the application process. This is how the college or university will maintain communication with your child. There are typically timelines set up on these sites letting you know that the information you submitted is being processed or if they are waiting for more information like transcripts that are sent from your child's school counselor. You will also receive information about the application decision and when acceptance letters are being sent out. As parents, we were hands off on this part of the process, since the information came directly to him. 

Make deposits

After you get those applications in, the fun begins! Acceptance letters start to come in and you can make updates to the spreadsheet based on the new information you need to submit. Many universities will want you to make a deposit but generally those deposits are fully refundable if your child decides not to attend that particular university. Again, make sure you know when those deadlines are if you want your money back! We submitted deposits to several of the accepted universities to hold our son's spot. This also allowed us to keep moving in the process and start marking preferences for housing and submit financial aid information so that we had a clearer picture of the financial commitment required for each university. 

Organizing it all 

You can find an example of the spreadsheet we made linked here. This is for your personal use only. I'm sharing it with you in case you find organizing the college application information in this way is helpful to you. In general, all of the information related to each school can be found on the school's website.  However, this can often be difficult to keep track of, especially if your child is applying to multiple schools.   
The first tab labeled "Texas" contains information related to the University of Texas, one of the schools that our son applied to, but ultimately didn't enroll in. This simplified tab is the one to make copies of and use for the initial application to each school on your child's list. The first section is where we listed information like the application type, deadlines, and fees. The second section lists the various application requirements, such as SAT scores, transcripts, and essays, and has an area for you to make notes about each requirement that might be important to you. I have left some of our notes and comments in so that you can get an idea of how you can personalize and use this spreadsheet for your own son or daughter's college application. The third section is essentially a quick-reference area, so that you can easily return to important pages on a school's website without having to search for them each time.
Our son ultimately decide to attend Baylor University this fall {sic 'em bears!}, so when you click on the tab that says "Baylor" you will find additional sections that we added to the Baylor spreadsheet in order to store the extra information that only became necessary when he was accepted to the school. Once he decided to enroll, there were 5 or 6 different logins and passwords that were eventually required and a long list of enrollment steps. All of this information was stored in the spreadsheet, which made it simple to keep track of.  

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I hope you find this information helpful. It's an exciting time for your college bound kids. I would love to hear if you end up using this spread sheet in some way and if it is helpful for you. We still have two more kids coming up we plan on using it on so if you work out any ways to make the spread sheet better I would love to hear them. Best of luck!

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