If you’re a rising senior, you’re likely in panic mode with respect to college applications.  Impending deadlines, horror stories from upperclassmen, and the fact that you still have not yet started that Common App (which you promised to have by now), all work to exacerbate what likely will be the most difficult six months of your life thus far.

While the first semester of senior year can be extremely stressful, proper planning can ensure that you not only maintain your sanity by January, but also that you end up attending your dream school when it’s all over.  This post is designed to help make your college application season as painless as possible while giving you specific tips to maximize your chances of admission.  The post is divided into three parts, which correspond to the three parts of applying to college.

 

Part I: Choosing Schools

Its impossible to begin the college application process without knowing which schools interest you.  Completing tons of essays for schools you’ve never heard of can be extremely discouraging, decreasing the quality of each application as well as burning you out before the process is done.

Alternatively, it’s also not a great idea to blindly throw out applications to every Ivy League or top school without knowing anything about them.  The college admissions process is about matchmaking; colleges are trying to match you to their school and they can easily sift through halfhearted applicants.  This truth especially becomes clear when you complete “Why X School” essays as well as engage with school interviewers, who want to determine if you really would be a good fit for the school.

If you haven’t yet decided on a solid set of schools, do your research now.  If you are unable to visit a school, use the Internet.  The Admissions Hero College Statistics Database is also full of useful information that has been aggregated for your free viewing.  Students should have a decided school list by no later than August 1stThis list should consist of a balanced 8-12 schools: we recommend 1-3 safety schools, 4-5 target schools, and 3-4 reach schools.  For particularly exceptional students that are looking to apply to most of the nation’s top 15 schools (and unequivocally have the stats and extracurricular profile as justification), modify your list to include your state school and maybe one other safety, 2 target schools, and 5-8 reach schools.

Be realistic when determining if a school is a safety, target, or reach.  Look at past acceptances from your high school to that university; how well do you compare to those applicants? If possible, view accepted student profiles; do you have the same academic and extracurricular profiles?

 

Part II: Developing Your Early/Regular Decision Strategy

Once you’ve decided on the full list of the schools to which you are going to apply, it’s important to determine your application strategy.  Almost every school offers various application types.

Early Decision (ED):  Applicants can only apply to 1 school in the early round.  Applications are usually due on November 1st, and students will hear back in mid-December.  Decisions are binding and students must attend the school that accepts them (or at least pay the first year’s tuition).

Restricted Early Action (REA): Applicants can only apply to 1 school in the early round.  Applications are usually due on November 1st, and students will hear back in mid-December.  Decisions are not binding, and students may still engage with other schools in the regular application round.

Early Action (EA): Applicants can apply to any other schools that are also early action in the early round. Applications are usually due on November 1st, and students will hear back in mid-December.  Decisions are not binding, and students may still engage with other schools in the regular application round.

Regular Decision (RD): Applicants can apply to as many schools as they want in the regular round.  Applications are usually due on January 1st, and students will hear back in late March.  Decisions are not binding, and students need to commit to their school in most cases by May 1st.

Because ED, REA, and EA all require applications to be sent in early (and ED and REA require that students apply to only one school), these application types can help boost chances of admission.  If you ED to NYU Stern for example, you are indicating that you unequivocally will attend (in fact, if accepted, you have to), so this shows you are really dedicated to the school and that will give you a leg up in admissions.  Additionally, early applicant pools consist of many fewer students, so it’s easier for your application to stand out.  This awards early applicants fundamentally better odds in the admissions game during the early season.  Last year, for example, the early acceptance rate to Harvard was around 21%, compared to the regular acceptance rate of  under 3%.

Our only caveat to some kids is to make sure that their applications are the best they can be by the time the early deadline rolls around.  Early decision applicants can take the SAT for the last time in November (and subsequently rush their scores), but they cannot take and submit the December SAT before decisions are released.  If you are still prepping to make your application even better, it might be better to wait until the regular round.

Beyond this, however, because of the immensely better odds, we recommend that all students that are ready apply REA/EA to a school – if anything, it can gain you an earlier acceptance that takes some stress off of regular apps.

But how do you choose to which school to early?

The honest answer is to early to your dream school; it gives you the best odds and will save you the stress of always asking yourself “What if?” if you get rejected from that school in the regular round without having applied there early.

For students that are a bit more strategic, the school you early can fundamentally change your application season.  Gaining an early acceptance to either your top school or one of your top schools allows you to eliminate all schools of lower priority from your list.  That acceptance to Penn on December 13th may decrease your 10 pending applications to only 2 for Princeton and Harvard.

To take advantage of this huge boost, its important to be smart about the school to which you apply.  You want to achieve the perfect balance between choosing a school from which you have a high chance of acceptance, and choosing a school that is actually high on your list and will cut down on the number of regular applications you need to complete.  To gauge your ability to get accepted, analyze past trends of your high school from previous years.  If your school has not sent a kid to Stanford in the past 15 years, but has an early acceptance rate to UChicago of 25%, its probably a good idea to throw the app into it if its one of your top schools, rather than wasting the upward boost of the early round on a school that seems to never accept kids from your high school.  Alternatively, if you’re the one Admissions Hero that has come to break the Stanford curse and you have the stats to prove it, throw the app into Stanford and let the early boost give you the best chance possible.

Finally, some combinations of schools can maximize overall admissions.  For example, students can apply REA to UChicago, MIT, and Caltech, which is a great group of schools to hear back from before regular apps are due.  Even an acceptance to one can relieve much of the stress of regular decision.

 

Part III: Developing an Application Schedule

Once you’ve decided your school list and early application strategy, the last thing you need to do to maintain sanity is to develop an essay schedule and stick to it.  The last part is key.  A few things to keep in mind for the schedule:

1)   You want to spend a lot of time on the application for the school to which you early.  This is your chance to really shine amid a smaller applicant pool.

2)   You still want to work on some applications while you wait to hear back from early decision results.  In the worst-case scenario, you get rejected from your early school in mid-December and now have 11 applications to complete (made only more difficult because you’re slightly dejected and unconfident in admissions prospects going forward).

3)   If you are accepted to your early school, be smart about to which schools you still apply in the regular round.  Sure, we all want to be the guy/girl accepted to all the Ivies, but think if the 48 hours of fame is really worth another 8 applications.  Stick to the schools you legitimately would attend over the school to which you were accepted early, and you’ll save yourself a lot of unneeded stress (and save many other deserving applicants spots at their dream schools).

A sample schedule is as follows:

By October 1st: Complete Common App

By November 1st: Complete Early School Supplement (which is likely a reach)

By November 20th: Complete 2 target schools

By December 10th: Complete 2 reach schools

December 15th: Hear back from Early School

————————-IF ACCEPTED————————

By January 1st: Complete application for 2-3 other reach schools

——————IF REJECTED/DEFERRED————–

By January 1st: Complete applications for remaining 3-7 schools

 

Some Closing Thoughts

No matter how stressful college applications can seem, by the end (if you navigate the process correctly), you’ll find that it was all worth it. Good luck!

Zack Perkins

Zack Perkins

Zack was an economics major at Harvard before going on indefinite leave to pursue CollegeVine full-time as a founder. In his spare time, he enjoys closely following politics and binge-watching horror movies. To see Zack's full bio, visit the Team page.
Zack Perkins