How to Apply to College: A Step-by-Step Guide

How to apply to college

Co-written by Luci Jones (Brown University CO ‘23) and Ethan Sawyer (College Essay Guy)

So you’re applying to college. At any moment, you could be deftly fending off questions from all the adults in your life, asking you where you want to go and what you want to major in. You’re probably having moments when you feel overwhelmed by the sheer breadth of possible paths your life could take. And, if you’re like me, this constant pressure to think about the future and what it means for you can feel extremely stressful. 

But wait. Pause for a second. Take a deep breath.

I want to tell you that I’ve been there. I’ve dealt with adults asking big, open-ended questions about the future at many a potluck party. I’ve spent many hours staring blankly at the Common App essay prompts, paralyzed by the number of potential topics I could talk about while being simultaneously unsure if I had any stories worth telling. I’ve had the stress that comes with not quite knowing how to apply to college and being scared by all the what-ifs. 

That being said, I also want to tell you that I made it. I’m alive and still very much a healthy, functioning human being (on most days). And you’ll come out of this alive too. In fact, with the strategies I’ve learned from College Essay Guy’s resources, I enjoyed this process and came to see it as an incredible outlet for self-reflection and self-discovery. This gradual shift in my mindset from “OH MY GOD COLLEGE I’M SO STRESSED” to “Hey, I’ve got this, I’m worthy of going to the schools I’m interested in” was by no means an instant transformation. But hopefully the resources below will help you break down this huge process into something more bite-sized and easily digestible. (In fact, here’s a College Application Timeline to give you a sense of where we’re headed). And don’t worry--we’ve got you. Better yet: you’ve got you. 

1) Figure Out Where You Want to Apply
(AKA Create a Customized College List)

Think of this stage as the pre-research to researching colleges. Before you can find a college that is right for you, you have to know who you are. Not everyone wants the same thing out of their college experience and you should know yourself and your values before you start your search.

Step 1: Figure Out What You’re Looking for in a College

The Short Version: If you want a really quick way to sort through your college must-haves and deal breakers, a great resource to check out is www.corsava.com. Corsava offers the most efficient, interactive, and complete resource for this part of the process and is free to use. I’d suggest doing the card sort to get a sense of what you’re looking for in colleges before you start diving into research. 

The Slightly Longer Version: Here are some important factors to consider as you look into potential schools:

  1. Climate: Ask yourself: To be happy, do you need warm weather, easy access to skiing, four seasons, lots of sunshine, low humidity? Be honest with yourself and your body.

  2. Setting: Do you want to be near a city, or do you not care? 

  3. Socio-Political Spectrum: Do you want your style, values, opinions to be the norm, or are you okay being on the fringe? 

  4. Activities: What are your must-haves in terms of sports, theater/dance/film, etc.?

  5. Distance from Home. How far from home are you willing to travel? 

  6. School Spirit: Do you love the idea of cheering at football games or not care if you ever see another football game in your life? 

  7. Parental Priorities: Talk through your preferences with your parents early and often. They’ll likely have some strong opinions. Ask them. Then listen. 

  8. Institutional Type: Do you want to attend a public or a private institution? A faith-based institution? What about a school that embraces your racial and cultural identity such as a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) or a tribal college? Have you thought about a women’s college ?

  9. College vs. University: Universities offer graduate degrees, whereas colleges primarily serve undergraduates. Universities are usually larger and they often employ Master’s and Doctoral students to teach first- and second-year undergraduate courses. On the flip side, universities may also offer an abundance of undergraduate research opportunities. Do you care?

  10. Colleges’ Unique Values: We know that all colleges value education, challenges, and self-knowledge, but each college was founded on a unique set of values, and just like you, different institutions have specific priorities. For example, if you find that you and a school both value justice or creativity, then it might just be one you want to add to your list.

If you’re wondering how to figure out the unique values of a college, start by Googling the name of the college online. One quick search can tell you a lot about a school’s culture and mission. 

You can also learn from a school’s application requirements. If you only need to submit a GPA and test scores, the college is likely one where you’ll need to be comfortable with independence, advocating for yourself, and being one in a crowd. A college that requires multiple supplemental essays, letters of recommendation, and an interview, on the other hand, is more likely one where you’ll need to be comfortable with participating in class discussion and developing close relationships with faculty and staff.

Graduation requirements (which can differ wildly between schools) offer another look at a school’s values. Generally, schools with less flexible, more standardized course requirements might be a good fit for students who value structure, while those that have few requirements to none at all are good for those who value autonomy and flexibility. Other requirements like community service and studying abroad can indicate that a school values community and helping others, or adventure and curiosity.

But again, www.Corsava.com will help you sort through all these things. In like 10 minutes. For free.

If you’d like to see a big list of all schools’ Common App deadlines, click here.

Step 2: Research Schools (Based on Your Interests and Preferences) 

After getting an idea of what you want in a potential college, you’ll want to create a preliminary list of around 20 schools. How? By using an online platform that matches schools to your preferences. While many online platforms do this, my favorite is www.CollegeXpress.com. This site is the product of many, many hours of research. You can type in anything from “Schools for the Free Spirit” to “Great Private Colleges for the B Student” to generate a list of schools that match each of those descriptions. It’s free too.

Another great aspect of CollegeXpress is that you can click “Lists & Rankings” to see what other lists a school you search is on. Say you type in “Northwestern” because you’re interested in film; as luck would have it, you see a list called “Colleges with Great Programs in Film and Television.” Score. Clicking on that list reveals a few schools whose film programs you’ve heard of--NYU, USC, Chapman. But then maybe you see a few schools you didn’t know had great film programs, like LMU, Emerson, and Columbia College in Chicago. This gives you access to colleges you may not have known about, but that align with your core values or interests. Once you find a few colleges you really like, be sure to add them to your preliminary list so you can begin to keep track of them.

Heads-up: You don’t have to spend 10-15 hrs creating your preliminary list because you’ll do more research later. Maybe spend an hour or two creating this initial list. 

You may be asking yourself where and how you should be keeping track of the colleges you’re interested in as you research. The answer to this is on your customizable (and free!) College List and Essay Tracker, of course.

First, make a copy of my Sample College List and Essay Tracker spreadsheet. Here’s the link to that.

Next, type your preliminary list of schools on that spreadsheet, dividing them into these categories: 

  • Wild Card: less than 10% chance of getting in

  • Reach: low likelihood of acceptance, maybe 10-25% chance

  • Maybe: in range for your profile, maybe 26-74% chance

  • Likely: pretty good shot at getting in, more than 75% chance

It’s a good idea to start from the ground up, building your list from the most likely schools to the ones that are a far reach. Why? I want you to get yourself excited about the colleges you’re more likely to get into. If you’re not totally sure how to determine if a school is a wild card, reach, maybe, or likely, that’s okay. You can ask your counselor, use an online platform (like www.collegedata.com), or Google the name of the school and the words “freshman profile.”

Tip: maybe color code the “Likely” schools with green, the “Maybe” schools with yellow, the “Reach” schools in light red and the “Wild Card” schools in purple.

Step 3: Create Your Finalized and Balanced List of Colleges

Now that you’ve got a somewhat researched list of about 20 schools you might be interested in attending, it’s time to narrow down the playing field.

To do this, you should be doing two main things:

  1. Figuring out what you can afford.

  2. Doing more research.

To figure out if you can afford a school, first estimate your EFC (Expected Family Contribution), which will tell colleges how much your family can theoretically afford to pay. Second, use a Net Price Calculator to provide an estimate of how much money you’d receive from a particular college upon admission. Every school is federally required to have an NPC on its website. Third, if you have in-state schools on your list, find out if you qualify for your state’s aid programs (both merit-based and need-based aid). Lastly, research possible scholarships. Institutional scholarships (i.e., those offered by a school) are a great last resort to make a school affordable.

After you’ve figured out what your financial means look like, start doing more in-depth research into the 20 or so colleges you put on your initial list. A great place to start is just to talk with your college counselor. They’ll be the most likely to know which schools might be a good fit for you. They can also tell you where students from your school and with your profile (scores, grades, extracurriculars, etc.) have been accepted in recent years.

Another one of the best ways to get a feel for colleges is to actually go and visit them. Attending an info session or going on a guided tour can give you a great sense of whether or not you can envision yourself living and studying at a given school. On these visits, don’t be afraid to ask questions! Use it as a chance to learn about what a college has to offer you. It’s not all about what you can give to them. Of course, visiting schools can be expensive. You definitely don’t have to do this. In fact, you can also normally find virtual tours on colleges’ websites that allow you to explore the campus if you don’t have quite enough time (or energy) to visit. If you can’t find anything on a college’s website, simply Google or search YouTube for the name of the school plus “tour,” or use virtual tour sites like www.campusreel.com

For the pro perspective, go to www.CollegeCountdown.com, where you can pay a few bucks for online access to the Fiske Guide to Colleges. For the student perspective, check out www.Niche.com or www.Unigo.com, where you can read real students’ opinions on their schools. And don’t just read 1-2 reviews; read a bunch of them. You’ll get a sense of the school vibe pretty quickly.

After doing more in-depth research, try and narrow down your preliminary list to about 10 schools. Why ten? Because that allows you to divide your list like this:

  • 1 Wild Card (1-10% chance of acceptance)

  • 3 Reach (very low chance of acceptance)

  • 3 Maybe (decent chance of acceptance)

  • 3 Likely (good or very good chance of acceptance)

I can’t emphasize how important it is to list schools that you know you can get into--and that you also like. It will relieve SO MUCH STRESS throughout this process. 

If you want to read more about the nitty gritty details involved in this part of the process, see the blog post here. Once you’ve got a solid list of schools you’d be excited and able to attend, you’re ready to move on to the next step.

2) Get Great Teacher & Counselor Recommendations

Note that this section was written by Alexis Allison and will appear in Ethan’s forthcoming book, College Admission Essentials. We’ve adapted it here, but credit goes to her for the original draft!

So, you’ve got to get another human’s stamp of approval. 

Why bother? Because some colleges consider letters of rec pretty darn important. When colleges are comparing you and another student with the same stats (GPA, class rank, test scores, extracurricular activities), your essay and letters of recommendation can help you stand out.

Basically, they’re really important and you want to make sure you get good ones. Here’s how:

Step 1: Build Relationships With Your Teachers

Before you ask anyone to write a letter of recommendation for you, you want them to know who exactly they’re recommending! To do this, pop in to see them when you know their day hits a lull. Or schedule an appointment. Show curiosity about who your recommenders are as real people. Ask questions about class, work, life. A two-way conversation will give them different insights into who you are. Give them a chance to get to know you and vice versa. Not only will that help them write a much more personalized letter of recommendation, it’ll also create awesome connections that can continue on even after you graduate high school.

Step 2: Ask them!

When you do this, here are a couple things to keep in mind:

  1. Actually ask. Don’t just add the name of your teacher, counselor, or boss to your Common Application. Actually speak to them.

  2. Ask in person. An email ask should be a last resort. If one of you has moved, making an in-person request impossible, then opt for the phone call first, email second, and text never.

  3. Make one-on-one requests. A teacher friend, Alexis, once shared a time when two students who were friends walked up to her together to ask for their letters of recommendation so she felt obligated to tell them both yes — how awkward would it have been if she’d told one yes and one no? In short, maybe ask when it’s just you and the teacher.

  4. Time it right. You know how you wait until your parents are in a good mood before you ask them for something? Do that with your recommenders, too. That means: Don’t ask your teachers during class. Don’t ask your counselors during lunch. (They’re humans. They eat.) Don’t ask your priest on Sunday after mass or your boss on the busiest day of the week. You get the idea.

  5. Handle the print submissions. While this is not the norm, some schools still want you to snail mail your rec letters. If that’s the case, it’s your responsibility to provide your teacher with a stamped envelope addressed to the admission office of the relevant college. Make sure to let your snail mail writers know that your full name and birthdate should be clearly stated at the top of the page, so the letter makes it into your file. You may also do this for Other Recommenders.

Step 3: Follow up in writing. 

Once you’ve asked someone if they’d write you a letter of rec in person, you need to do one more thing the very same day: Write your recommender a follow-up email. The human brain is like a very smart bowl of spaghetti: If you don’t put your conversation down in writing, it might get lost in a thick vat of garlic and marinara.

Also, make sure to follow up after the recommendation has been written. Don’t forget to say thank you. These rec letters — especially the good ones — can take three hours to write. And the thing is, teachers and other recommenders don’t have to write these letters. They don’t get paid for them. They write them because they care about you. At the very least, write a thank-you email or note. 

3) Devote Some Time to Standardized Testing

Note that this section was written by Bruce Reed and Adam Ingersoll from Compass Prep and will appear in Ethan’s forthcoming book, College Admission Essentials. We’ve adapted it here, but credit goes to them for this content!

While standardized testing tends to be a big part of what makes the college process so darn stressful, know that testing is a) important, but not more important than your mental health b) only one part of a much bigger application c) there to serve your specific needs and d) not required at a growing list of colleges (Fairtest.org keeps a running list of US colleges that have gone test-optional).

With that in mind, if you’re planning to take standardized tests, here’s the best and least stress-inducing way to go about it:

Part 1: Map Out Your Full Testing Plan

Good test taking starts with good planning. No matter how far into high school you are now, a good testing plan can take shape by working backwards from the fall of senior year. Frame your testing window and then pencil in what you already have on your plate in that timespan, whether that’s weeks, months, or years. From there you can map out test dates thoughtfully based on realistic timelines that work for you. 

A common game plan looks like this:

  • Take the PSAT (if offered at school) in 10th grade as a no-stakes introduction to testing

  • Take the PreACT (if offered at school) in 10th grade for comparison purposes

  • Retake the PSAT in October of 11th grade, especially if you plan to take the SAT

    (this is also the National Merit qualifying test for juniors)

  • Choose the ACT or SAT and select a date for your first official sitting 

    (most students start official testing in the spring of 11th grade)

  • Consider taking Subject Tests at the end of 11th grade

  • Retake the ACT or SAT at least once to improve in one or more sections 

    (over the summer or early in the fall of 12th grade)

Grab your calendar and make note of the upcoming slate of official test dates published on the respective websites of the two testing agencies. Both offer testing several times a year.

Count the number of weeks (and conflicts) you have leading up to different test dates. Test date selection should be based on academic readiness, test preference, desired preparation timelines, date conflicts, and application deadlines. There’s no such thing as predictably “easier” or “harder” test dates, and whoever else is testing on a given day has no bearing on your score.

It’s smart to complete at least one ACT or SAT before the end of junior year and remain open to retesting in the summer or early fall of senior year. Juniors should consider Subject Tests while the material is freshest. If you’re taking an AP, Honors, or advanced course in a given subject, you’re an especially good candidate for a corresponding Subject Test. 

Part 2: Create Testing Accounts

After plotting a comprehensive testing plan, don’t neglect the critical mechanics. If you take the PSAT, you’ll set up a College Board account, which you’ll use to register for the SAT and Subject Tests, access those results, and eventually submit those scores to colleges. A separate ACT account is required to manage your ACT testing.

Most colleges want official score reports sent via the testing agencies. However, some colleges now allow applicants to initially self-report scores and then provide official reports only after being admitted and prior to enrollment.

Registering early increases your chance of securing a seat at your first-choice venue. Tests are not offered at every high school, so you may need to travel to another school in your region. 

Opt-in for (or opt-out of) the essay during registration and take note of what’s required (and forbidden) on test day. Certain test dates offer you the option of purchasing an expanded score report which gives you a chance to review any questions you missed. Decide if this is something you’ll use, especially if you think you’ll retest. 

Finally, if you require special testing accommodations due to a diagnosed learning, physical or medical disability, be sure to have those approvals in place in advance. The testing organizations have crucial differences in their accommodation policies. Seek assistance from your high school if you’re unsure how to seek those accommodations.

Part 3: Determine a Test Preparation and Practice Plan

We recommend spending 3 to 4 months preparing for the ACT or SAT. This gives you enough room to work test prep into an active teenage life without sacrificing other interests. Proper test preparation will clean up content gaps identified by diagnostic tests, and it will give insight into subtle but predictable patterns in the test as well as any negative testing habits you may not realize you have.

Good test preparation involves a commitment to evaluated practice over a reasonable amount of time, exposure to authentic study material, and some dry runs on full-length exams. Both ACT and College Board offer free or low-cost access to practice material and there is an established commercial test prep industry that delivers resources and instruction.

Test prep comes in different forms. Self-starters can successfully self-study by committing to persistent use of options found online and in bookstores. Other students benefit from the structure and discipline of a regularly scheduled group class. Still others feel that the individualized approach of one-on-one tutoring works best for them and their busy schedules. 

As you explore commercial alternatives, it’s good to be armed with questions to help you determine the best fit. Start by asking yourself a few questions about what matters most to you. Then ask friends and counselors for trusted recommendations.

Some colleges also ask their applicants to submit Subject Test scores. A word of caution: Subject Tests should be used to demonstrate mastery of a subject. So if you haven’t (yet) mastered a subject, don’t demonstrate that. Subject Test scores are only helpful if they enhance your testing portfolio. 

We recommend waiting until March or April of 11th grade before taking a practice test to see where you stand. That’s late enough in the course to get a basic sense of your readiness while leaving enough time to brush up a little more before May or June on gaps identified by the practice test. It’s also a good idea to talk to your teacher about how well the class has prepared students for the corresponding Subject Test in the past.

When colleges receive Subject Test scores, they generally expect to get two scores from you, and they typically consider your two best scores anyway. A competitive STEM program, however, will understandably look for mastery in Math/Science but undeclared majors can submit scores from any subjects -- as long as they’re good scores!

You can retake a Subject Test but first ask yourself why. Your score is unlikely to improve much unless a significant change in your level of mastery occurs.

After you’ve gotten your bearings in terms of standardized testing, it’s time to move onto the step that normally occupies the most time and energy in applying to college, but also has the potential to be the most interesting: yup, writing essays.

4) Write Your College Essays

At the most basic level, there are two types of essays you’ll be writing for college applications: your personal statement and your supplemental essays. The personal statement is the big, 650-word essay you send to many of the schools you apply to, while the supplementals are more college-specific and often times shorter in length (although not always).

There are different techniques for tackling each type of essay that you should know about before you start writing. Let’s start with the biggun’. 

Part 1: Tackling the Personal Statement

Step 1: Brainstorm

It’s important to begin with some juicy brainstorming exercises. These will help you clarify who you are “on paper.” Here are a couple different brainstorming options here for you to choose from:

Option #1: If you really knew me…

Begin by saying the phrase “If you really knew me…” and share something personal with yourself or with a partner. Share something you’ve never told anyone.

Go for it! Surprise yourself.

Option #2: I love…

Set a timer for one minute and finish the phrase “I love...” aloud by naming a series of things that you love. Do this repeatedly until the buzzer beeps. Try and list as many as you can. This is a pretty fun free association game to get your creativity flowing. 

Option #3: Gratitude Check-In

Gratitude helps us identify what we value most. Take turns with a partner sharing something you’re grateful for. Get as specific and as personal as you can. 

Once you’ve spent a bit of time warming up with these brainstorming activities, it’s good to move into a more essay-focused activity we like to call the Essence Objects Exercise. We consider the Essence Objects exercise the most complete exercise for the college essay. It helps describe the world you come from. By the end you should have almost all of the material you need to know how to write a college essay (seriously!). Definitely find a quiet space and dive in. Writing this assignment by hand produces the best results. Here’s how it goes:

Imagine a box.

In this box is a set of objects.

Imagine that each one is one of your essence objects.

What does this mean?

Each object represents one of your fundamental qualities.

Thus, each object is more than just an object.

For instance in my (Luci’s) essence object box, I put my phone case, which is covered pop-art style tiny tin cans that say “Cool Beans” on them. For me, this case is a daily reminder to take life in stride and to focus on happy moments rather than get bogged down in negativity. I also say “cool beans” a lot in real life because it’s just objectively a great go-to expression.

In other words, by picking this object, I’m learning to connect a tangible, physical thing in my life to my core values of happiness, positivity, and being present.

Try making a list of about 20 objects. Afterwards, survey your list and see what values are reflected in the objects you chose. If you feel like there are values you haven’t yet touched on through your list, try brainstorming a few more. This is a great way to start thinking about potential subjects or values you want to incorporate into your personal statement.

Another great brainstorming activity is the Values Exercise. Here’s a link to a description of how it works. This is useful for identifying both your core values and your aspirations. It will help connect your experiences to what you value most and give you ideas for insights and uncommon connections you want to share with your reader.

Once you’ve done some brainstorming, it’s time to move on to thinking about how you want to organize your essay.

Step 2: Structure

There are four possible paths for writing your college essay.

To figure out which path might work best for you, ask yourself two questions:

  1. Have you faced significant challenges? (You define "significant.")

  2. Do you know what you want to study?

Based on these two answers, take a look at this chart and see which essay approach might work for you:

It’s important to remember that these categories are interchangeable and you can move from one to the other upon further brainstorming or reflection. So rather than thinking of these as “types of students,” think of them as “different paths for a personal statement.”

No matter which path you choose, we believe a good college essay should either:

  • Go deep, discussing one moment that fundamentally changed your life, or

  • Go wide, discussing many different elements of your life.

The Narrative Structure will help you go deep while the Montage Structure will help you go wide. We'll discuss both structures in the next two sections.

For a Narrative Essay, a great place to start is by doing the Feelings and Needs Exercise. This will give you a sense of how a specific story in your life connects to your broader needs and values in a college setting.

For the Montage Essay, you want to start developing what’s called a “focusing lens.” This is normally an interest, object, career path, or some other theme that connects several of your interests or values. This focusing lens will eventually become your way of highlighting several seemingly disparate parts of yourself in your final essay. For examples of great montage essays, go here. Essays 3, 4 and 7-0 are Montage; the rest use the Narrative structure.

Step 3: Write and Revise

Once you’ve found a topic you feel personally invested in and a structure that your excited to explore with your topic of choice, you’re ready to start writing!

Don’t be afraid to just start. There’s no right or wrong first draft. Just get your ideas on paper and you can do plenty of revising later on. 

Feeling stuck? Click here for a separate guide on how to begin your college essay.

Once you’ve got a first draft, you want to start combing back through it to see if your essay is doing its job. Here are four qualities of a great personal statement:

  1. Core Values (AKA: information)

    These are the values you would fight for (Ex. family, freedom, empathy). As you read through your essay, ask yourself: which values are kind of there, but could be clearer? Or which values should be coming through but maybe aren’t yet?

  2. Vulnerability

    This is where you can FEEL the writer coming through. Test your essay by reading it aloud to someone who knows you. Ask them two questions: “Do you feel closer to me?” and “What did you learn about me that you didn’t already know?”

  3. Insight (aka “So What?” Moments)

    Try working 4-5 of these moments into your essay. The ends of the paragraphs are a great place to put these. Look at the claims you’re making and ask: what do they say about me? And are these insights obvious or unpredictable?

  4. Craft

    Craft is when you know why each paragraph, each sentence and, yes, each word is there. Make sure all are necessary. Comb through your entire essay with the word “necessary” in mind.

And that, in broad strokes, is how you should go about writing your personal statement. If you want more specific details or some essay examples from previous years that worked, check out this free 1-hour guide.

Now, let’s talk supplementals.

Part 2: Writing Your Supplemental Essays

Ultimately, a lot of the writing you do for these essays is similar to what you do for your personal statement. Here’s a general idea of what the writing process for supplementals should look like:

Step 1: Gather all your topics into one spreadsheet

Research all the essay topics (you’ll find most on the Common App--if not, try the school’s website) for the colleges on your list and put them into one spreadsheet

Then, play the overlapping prompt game: read through all your prompts and decide which might potentially overlap. This will give you a clearer sense of how many essays you need to write from scratch and how many you can just shift around a bit to fit multiple prompts. 

Step 2: Brainstorm topics for a “Super Essay”
One great way to save yourself time is to brainstorm an essay that will work for several prompts. I call this a “Super Essay.” A great way to find one is to consider the activities, projects, or clubs that either a) you’ve spent a lot of time on, or b) are impressive. Make a list of 2-3 of these. To figure out which one may yield more (and better) content, ask yourself these questions:

  • What did I actually do? Make a bullet point list of your responsibilities, with active verbs at the start of each one (Ex: organized meeting notes, facilitated conversations, etc.)

  • What problems have I addressed or solved through this project/activity/club? 

  • What lessons/values/skills did I develop? What am I better at than I was before?

  • What impact did I have--on my self, school, community, or world?

  • How did (or could) I apply this to other areas of my life?

If you read through these and it’s clear that a particular activity, project, or club will yield more content, it might be a sign that it’s a great “Super Essay” candidate.

Once you’ve got a topic you’re satisfied with, go back to all your essay prompts and see how many of them your topic of choice could potentially work for. Sometimes you might have to get a little creative to make it work, but don’t be afraid to think outside of the box a little bit.

Step 3: Structure and write!

Pick a structure: 

  1. Narrative Structure: great for essays in which you overcame or worked towards overcoming a challenge. If you go with this structure, try breaking it down like this: 

    1. Challenge I/we faced

    2. Why it was a big deal

    3. What we did about it

    4. What my particular role was

    5. Results + impact 

  2. Montage Structure: great for everything else. If you go with this structure, use the Values List to brainstorm 4-6 lessons you learned through the project/activity/club. Tip: try to not choose the values that every other student will choose (ex: discipline, hard work, etc.) and instead strive for uncommon connections. 

5) Creating the Rest of Your Application

Once you turn your attention to the rest of you application, you’ll need to do a few more things on the Common App itself. 

First, create a Common App Account and fill out your info. And while we could have created a guide for this, our friends at CollegeWise have already put together this one.

Second, create an activities list that highlights the projects you’ve worked on, clubs you’ve been a part of (or founded), jobs you’ve worked, etc. Here’s our guide to writing a Great Activities List.

Finally, make the most of the 650-word Additional Information Section. This part is often misused or skipped over entirely, but provides some great opportunities for you to share more about yourself. Here’s our guide for the Common App Additional Information Section.

And that’s it! Pretty much a step-by-step guide on how to apply to college. It may feel like a lot but remember to take each part of the process as it comes and to enjoy yourself along the way. Don’t be afraid to take deep breaths when you need them. There’s no harm in taking time for yourself if you’re feeling overwhelmed. We believe in you. You got this.

Onward.

Hi! I’m Luci Jones (Brown Univesity, CO ‘23).  I took Ethan’s How to Write a Personal Statement course last year and absolutely loved it. Ethan asked me to help him compile a few techniques/strategies for applying to college that I learned from his course. He also allowed me to use some material from his forthcoming book! Hopefully this step-by-step guide will give you a good sense of what you should be expecting from the college application process and how to make it as smooth as possible.


WANT HELP NAILING YOUR PERSONAL STATEMENT? CHECK OUT A FREE TRIAL OF MY STEP-BY-STEP VIDEO COURSE HERE!

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