11/20/2012 04:38 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2013

Exactly What to do With a College Application From Beginning to End

Over the last year, I have been working with the very forward-looking San Diego Public Library system to provide high quality college admissions resources for under-served students. Eleven libraries in low-income neighborhoods now offer sectioned-off areas stocked with the latest college admissions books, as well as computer access to the most useful admissions websites. The just completed "Admit One College Prep Academy" offered 10 sessions at no cost to 100 students and parents at the Malcolm X Library on testing, writing application essays, financial aid and other aspects of the admissions process.

After a talk at Admit One last week, one student came up to me and said, "Mrs. Shaevitz, when I think about working on a college application, I feel overwhelmed even before I begin. Will you please show me -- A through Z -- exactly what I need to do to complete a college application?"

Of course, I said "Yes," and wrote out a list of 15 steps. Since that young woman is far from being the only student who feels apprehensive about completing college apps, I thought I'd share the list with you.

The 15 Steps to Completing A College Application

1. The first thing you need to do is figure out to which college or university you want to apply.
As I have written before, there are a number of resources to help students find colleges, including the Big Future College Search program and a wonderful new resource, CollegeMapper. Choose one college and go to their website to see what kind of application is used: their own, The Common Application or the Universal College Application (UCA). If your high school uses the Naviance system, you can find that information there.

2. Once you have located the application, look through it to find out which forms must be completed and by when.
Among the forms you might find are the regular application form, a college-specific Supplement, School Report, Teacher Evaluation, Early Decision Agreement, college-specific Financial Aid form and Midyear Report. Note down the date when the application is due on your personal calendar.

3. Completely and accurately, fill in all the forms for which you are responsible.
One of the ways of standing out from other applicants is to do a better job of filling in the application spaces, including paying attention to word and character counts, and especially the specific directions. Also offer detailed information. Remember, the only way colleges can get to know you is by what you write on their applications.

4. Complete the student section for other required forms such as the School Report and Teacher Evaluation.
Make sure that your counselor and teachers who are filling them out these forms know when you have completed your part.

5. Identify the essay questions.
Essay questions range from one word to three sentences, to 250, 500 and 1000 characters, to 250-500 words and unlimited spaces. Subjects vary from describing an extracurricular activity, to writing a letter to your future roommate, to telling why you want to major in a particular subject. Before you start writing an essay, be sure to write down the exact question, including all of its different pieces.

6. Decide on topics for the essay questions and then write, edit and upload the essays onto the online application.
Read each essay prompt and carefully respond to each and every part. Ask yourself, "What do I want the admissions readers to "get" about me from my essay?" Rather than writing a formal "essay" as you might for an English class, try telling a story, using I, the first person pronoun. Once you have a draft, edit it, and then have someone else edit it as well.

7. Gather and send any supplemental materials.
If you are including an activities resume, an art portfolio, a letter describing your learning disabilities or anything else, pull it all together in the best possible way and either put it in your online application or send a hard copy to the college.

8. Proofread, print-preview and/or photocopy each piece of the application and then submit it online.
College applications get lost all the time; so don't skip this very important step. And don't forget to put the photocopy in a safe place where you can get your hands on it, should you need it.

9. Contact the College Board (who offers the SAT and Subject Tests) or ACT to send your test score transcript to the school.

10. Ask your high school to send your transcript to the college.
If you have attended more than one high school or have taken a college course, make sure that you send those transcripts as well.

11. If it is available and you can do it, make arrangements for an admissions interview.
Most admissions people say that it's difficult to "blow" an interview. More importantly, there is a real benefit in getting to know a college admissions representative and having him or her get to know you. If an opportunity for an interview comes up, DO IT!

12. Two weeks after submitting your college application, check with the college to make sure that the admissions office has received everything.
If anything is missing, "get on it" immediately.

13. If you need financial aid, the most important part of receiving it is completing the FAFSA form, available on January 1.
The only way you will be eligible for need-based scholarships, grants, work-study funds and low interest government loans is if you and your parents complete the FAFSA form.

14. After your first semester grades come out, make sure that your school counselor sends in your Mid-year Report.
Some colleges require this form; others don't. Find out whether the different colleges you applied to require such a report.

15. Unless you have applied Early Decision to a college, you have until May 1 to decide which college you're going to say yes to.
After you have turned in your applications, settle down and relax. Congratulate yourself for having gotten through a demanding, often confusing process. Don't forget to get good grades second semester; colleges have been known to rescind acceptances if a student's grades go down last semester.

Go to my website,, if you would like to have a free Master College Admissions Checklist, one page on which you keep track everything you submit to every college on your list. Also at no charge, I offer an Individual College Application Checklist, and also a Master Application Due Dates Grid for all your colleges.