College Application Crunch Time


If you are lucky enough to be at one of those great private high schools that makes it their mission to step every student through the college application process to completion, go right now and thumb through those cancelled tuition checks with an attitude of gratitude.  If you're the parent of a child enrolled in an exceptionally rare public school with a well-staffed, well-trained guidance office that actually focuses on something other than truancy and getting everyone to graduate, get on your knees and thank whoever your Lord is.  You still have some work to do on the college application front but you are in better shape than most.

Now for the rest of us, supporters of public education in all its permutations, its time to move "college stuff" to the top of our priority list.  You may have made a good effort so far to keep up on ACT test dates, SAT Subject Tests, college nights and all the rest.  But unless you have a 4' x 8' spread sheet on the kitchen wall with a dry erase marker keeping track of due dates, scholarship apps, essay prompts and reference letters, you need to step it up.

College Application Process Got Complicated

When you applied to college just a few short decades ago, it went like this:  Guidance counselor "helps" you pick 3 schools.  You send away for catalog and application.  You fill out application in blue ballpoint, including your 2 SAT scores and a short blurb on why you want to go to their college.  Counselor writes a recommendation. Parent writes a check.  Into the envelope.  Apply stamp.  Mail and wait for your acceptance letter.

Okay.  It's NOTHING like that now.  You've figured out that your kid has taken 16 tests in 6 different sittings which, thankfully, have been auto-sent to the schools your child listed. Make sure you've updated this list at, to reflect the latest short list of schools. You've also used the database at to find out which schools use the Common Application, which require supplemental information and essays, and which have their own application.  You're putting all this on the spreadsheet, right?

Letters of Recommendation and Transcripts

You've noted which schools require Letters of Recommendation and which of those must be from a teacher, from a counselor, from both or from either.  Get these going RIGHT NOW if you haven't already.  They take a minimum of 2 weeks to turn around, longer as the deadlines get closer.  Your child might have a "Brag Sheet" in the bottom of their "bookpurse" which should be filled out and given to the recommender, along with stamped addressed envelopes to every school that requires one. Many schools have a form for the recommender to fill out.  Include that.  Mark on your spreadsheet when you gave the stuff to the teacher and follow up before they are due.

Your student needs to get their official transcripts, including class rank, from your high school registrar.  They will come to you in a sealed envelope and will be sent with each application.

The College Application ESSAY

Finally, the dreaded essay.  I cruised through all 11 applications/supplements and cut and pasted the essay prompts and instructions into a document that we printed out.  With this overview, we'll be able to see where topics overlap and may be able to rework a couple of essays a couple of times to get the job done.  This week, we write them all.

College Application Deadlines

Not entirely sure why the early decision/early action movement came about.  To end the suspense?  Save money on unnecessary applications?  Our college planner likes to avoid the whole "early" business all together, for a very interesting reason:  the awarding of scholarships and aid is really a negotiable process.  Who knew?  I certainly didn't a few years ago when my son was doing all this.  I thought you hope and pray they accept you and then you gratefully accept whatever money they choose to give you.  Not so.  Financial Aid offices regularly negotiate aid to pull in good students who might be courted by other schools.  Early action/decision tells them you are VERY interested and might weaken you just a bit next spring when you are negotiating your financial aid.  Something to consider.

College Applications -- Tips from the Trenches

College applications have a way of taking the fun right out of a holiday week.  It 's a cloud dark enough for a Stormchaser. Nine college essays to write.  Four unique college applications to complete.  Seven different supplements to the Common Application to finish.  Plus a lot of housekeeping regarding transcripts, letters of recommendation, test scores, etc.  But we have nine days of freedom!  WE CAN DO THIS!

So how did our big plan go?  Well.....maybe we were a little over-ambitious.  Week's tally:  We've sent in four applications, have seven left to complete with five essays in various states of completion ranging from topic selected to draft written.  Looks like the Cloud will be over our house through the Christmas holiday.

College Application LESSONS

We learned and relearned a few things over the Thanksgiving break.  Our University of California apps were due Nov. 30 so they were first up.  Two essays done.  Checked, and re-checked and re-re-checked the application and finally hit "SEND" on 11/27.  That took more time than we expected but, hey, it was the first one and the rest are pretty much like it.  We'll fly through the rest.  Won't we?  LESSON:  Things take longer than you think.

The common app went pretty smoothly.  But since it goes to seven of our schools we did a lot of re-checking and tweaking.  The first supplement was clicking along when, after completing the 4th of four 100 word answers, the page closed and deleted it all -- timed out because the site had a 40 minute time limit.   Argh!   Unfortunately, most of the applications won't allow you to save until you have completed a section. LESSON:  Compose all answers in a WORD document and paste into the application! ! Does this seem to be an unnecessarily stressful set-up to you?

Getting all test scores sent to the schools was a bit more involved than I had hoped.  I took over and ended up calling the College Planner for some help on finding records of which schools already had the scores (when your student signed up to take the SAT and ACT, they listed some schools to receive the scores) and how to arrange for the other schools to get them.  LESSON:  Have your credit card in hand because they don't take PAY PAL.

We also realized that one of the schools wants a recommendation from a counselor and, at our high school, those requests must go through the registrar and must be accompanied by the completed application.  Huh?  What if the application isn't due for another month and will be sent digitally?  LESSON:  Anticipate some senseless hoops to jump at the local level before this is over.

College Applications Doghouse

More than one of our friends is in the doghouse with their child.  The crime:  too much meddling on the ESSAY!  Considering we are about to fork over half our life savings for this whole college deal, it is forgivable that you, the parent, might care about your child's college essay more than, say, the paper on Hamlet.  After all, you want to get the biggest bang out of those bucks - the best education your money can buy - and that means you have a stake in that college application essay.

Actually, no.  It is your child's work, their unique expression of who they are and how they think.  Your feedback must be constructive.  That means limited to editing the grammar and suggesting places where their wording could be more clear.  That said, if the damage is done and you've overstepped a bit, console yourself that you are in a pretty big club and your best shot at recovery is to acknowledge your error and offer support.

Then leave the vicinity.  Go out and do errands.  You might bump into some friends.

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