When it comes to which schools you’re actually going to apply to come fall, your plans might not be  so concrete. Sure, you’ve got the school you’ve been dreaming about since you were a freshman, and your state flagship school is on your list by default, but what about everything else? Smart safeties that you would actually be happy attending? Target schools that you have a great shot at being admitted to, and will still challenge you academically?

 

A balanced and realistic, yet reasonably ambitious college list will not only make the applications season less stressful, but also maximize your chances at being accepted to schools you’d actually be excited to attend. Here are 3 reasons you should start drafting your college list ASAP!

 

  1. Good research takes time.

 

Just like you wouldn’t move into a house you’ve never seen a picture of, or accept a job without knowing the work you’ll be doing, you shouldn’t apply to a school about which you know little to nothing. Committing to a college will probably be the most high-stakes and long-term commitment of your life thus far – therefore, applying to a college without doing some in-depth research is an irresponsible decision. At best, it’ll be a waste of your time to fill out an application for a school, only to later realize you have absolutely no interest in studying there.

 

However, a 5 minute Google search unfortunately doesn’t count as good research. It’s easy to browse a college statistics website and get a general idea of the GPA and standardized test scores you’ll need for admission, but this information reveals little about the school’s culture, what they’re truly seeking in an applicant, or whether it’s the right place for you to spend the next four years.

 

You can learn about a school in a myriad of ways. Perhaps the most obvious and accessible resource is the school’s website. Websites often have testimonials from current or former students, explanations of the required classes (if any) and academic programs, clubs and extracurriculars, information about the housing system, and more. You can also reach out to an admissions or recruitment officer in person, over telephone or email, and/or at a college fair and speak to them about any questions or concerns you may have. Getting in touch with current students is also a great way to learn what life is actually like at the school in question; no one can provide insight into the student experience better than a student!

 

The advantage of understanding a school’s culture, specific academic programs, and extracurricular offerings is twofold; you’ll have a better idea of whether you’d actually be interested in attending, and you’ll be better equipped to create an effective application that can get you accepted. Many schools’ applications feature an essay on why you want to attend; details are the key to successfully writing these essays, so doing your research early can also make these essays effective and easy to write.  

 

Once the school year starts, you’ll have a fraction of the time you had in the summer to devote to college research and applications. If you set aside time over the summer and at the start of the school year to research schools, you’ll have adequate time to actually educate yourself on the schools you’re considering applying to, rather than making arbitrary decisions based off what you’ve heard about a school’s academic reputation or acceptance rate.

 

  1. You can start applications sooner rather than later.

 

The most important part of crafting a successful college essay isn’t sitting down and putting words to the page; it’s reflecting on the feedback of others and over time developing the best 300-650 word representation of yourself possible.

 

Can you write a college essay in one day? Sure. Should you? Absolutely not. For obvious reasons, the quality of your essays, not to mention the rest of your application, will be vastly inferior if you do them all the day or even the week before the deadline. Finishing first drafts of your application and essay early allows you to seek input from teachers, friends, and family, purge your draft of typos, and maybe even brainstorm new, effective essay concepts.

 

Starting early won’t just help you perfect your applications for the schools you do want to apply to  – it’ll help you weed out the applications for the schools you don’t. Having a preliminary college list when essay prompts for the 2016-2017 application cycle are released will allow you to immediately assess whether you’re interested in completing the applications for the schools on your list. If you decide an application is too lengthy or a question too abstract for you to answer it well, you can make the decision not to apply and focus your energy on the schools you are interested in.

 

Failing to craft a list early on and starting your applications mid-December could turn into a disaster if you realize all your top choice schools have lengthy, confusing application questions that may not allow you to express yourself in the way you hoped or that you don’t have time to complete successfully. Avoid the trouble by having your list ready as soon as applications go live.

 

  1. You can make an informed choice about where to apply EA/ED.

 

The benefits of applying in the Early Action, Early Decision, or Restricted Early Action rounds are myriad. You have the comfort of having a majority of your application materials finalized by November, the statistical advantage that applying early brings, and (if you apply ED and all goes according to plan) the luxury of having your college decision made for you in December.

 

The primary reason many students choose to apply early is that it confers a huge statistical advantage upon an applicant. Harvard’s overall acceptance rate in the 2015-2016 admissions cycle was 5%, while their early action acceptance rate was almost 15%. For students looking to maximize their chances at acceptance to the nation’s most competitive universities, applying early is your best bet.

 

However, applying early is also a big commitment. At schools with early decision (ED) policies, if you are admitted, you’re obligated to attend barring any extenuating financial or personal circumstances. Schools with restricted early action (REA) policies only allow you to apply early to one school, which means you’re demonstrating a certain amount of interest and commitment whichever school you choose to apply early to.

 

Clearly, you should choose the school you choose to apply early to with care. Making a careful and well-informed decision requires – you guessed it – time and research. Drafting your school list early in the school year or over the summer allows you to develop your early application strategy in advance. If you can identify a clear frontrunner among the schools you’re considering applying to, you can begin preparing for your early application far ahead of the November deadline and maximize your chances of getting accepted. Make this decision too hastily, and you may be tied to a school you’re not totally in love with.

 

Drafting your school list early is the first step to a successful applications season. It allows you to research potential schools thoroughly, start your applications early, and craft an effective early application strategy to boost your chances at getting accepted to your dream school. Given how hectic senior year can be, getting a bulk of this research and planning out of the way earlier will take a significant amount of pressure off your shoulders later on. And don’t forget that once you form your college list, we’re here to help you make your applications and essays the best they can be!

 

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Anamaria Lopez

Anamaria Lopez

Managing Editor at CollegeVine Blog
Anamaria is an Economics major at Columbia University who's passionate about sharing her knowledge of admissions with students facing the applications process. When she's not writing for the CollegeVine blog, she's studying Russian literature and testing the limits of how much coffee one single person can consume in a day.
Anamaria Lopez