Finding balance in the college admissions process

Seniors especially need to use strategies for balancing high school and college applications. Younger students should also take note, but ideally you’ll start the college admissions process early to reduce future stress.

How to Balance High School and College Applications

1. Break up the work into small chunks

College applications can seem like a lot of work if you look at them as one big task to complete. Instead, break up the work into small chunks. A typical college application includes the application form itself and at least one essay. Instead of looking at the application as a whole, view it as 2-3 chunks: the first half of the application form, the second half, and the essay. The essay itself can be further broken down: brainstorming, outline, rough draft, revised draft, and polished draft. Visualizing the work as small pieces to complete one at a time makes the process manageable.

2. “Recycle” essays whenever possible

If you’re applying to 7 colleges, and each has one supplement essay, you might think that you have 7 separate essays to write.  Actually, because many of the essay prompts overlap, you can “recycle” one essay to fit other essay prompts.  Recycling requires breaking up and reshaping your essay to fit another prompt.  This approach is usually more time efficient than writing a brand new essay.  In some cases, you can reuse entire paragraphs and add new paragraphs to form a new essay for a different essay prompt.

When working on the “why this college” essay, do not simply reuse an essay by only switching the name of the school.  That’s not recycling; that’s just changing the school name in the essay.

Use this strategy carefully to avoid submitting an essay essay that really isn’t a good fit for a prompt.  Effectively recycling essays will save time that you can put toward your other high school activities.

3. Re-evaluate time commitments

Although you shouldn’t sacrifice your entire high school career for the sake of the college admissions process, when it’s crunch time, re-evaluate your time commitments.

During the most crucial time period (Spring of junior year through Fall of senior year), avoid one-off activities, such as decorating for your school’s Halloween haunted house.  Stay focused on the activities that matter the most to you.

Your College Advisors Guide to A is for Admission

Identify and eliminate activities that you don’t prioritize.  Are there clubs in which you’re a general member, and all you do is show up to the meetings?  Remove those commitments and put those hours toward your college applications instead.

If you’re a high school senior in a leadership position in a club, what can you do to step aside to let the younger students take over?  While saving yourself time, this approach will also set up your club for future success since you’re allowing the new leaders to take over while you’re still around to provide guidance.

4. Work with a group

Your classmates are in the same situation as you.  They’re also balancing high school with college applications.  Help each other out by forming a college applications group.  Meet at a regular time and place for a couple hours a week, with a 5-minute break in the middle.  Everyone in the group needs to agree to bring something related to college applications to work on during the meeting.  It’s best for each member to start with a concrete goal, e.g., write a very rough draft of a particular supplement essay.

Meeting as a group holds the members accountable.  I use this strategy to stay productive in, for example, writing academic articles for publication.

5. Lean on your support network

You’re not alone in this process.  When you need help or when you feel stressed out, reach out to friends, family, teachers, community members, or your school counselor.  We all need to vent to someone.  Make use of your support network to get through the college applications.

6. Sleep

Sleeping probably sounds like a luxury to many students, but sleep is crucial.  You’ll perform better if you get a good night’s sleep than if you try to pull all-nighters.  Go to bed, wake up refreshed and ready to enjoy and tackle the day.

7. Take deep breaths

It’s easy to get caught up in the anxiety and stress of college applications, but don’t forget to take care of yourself. Pause to take deep breaths. Breathe in slowly and deeply, and then breath out slowly.  Focus on your breath as you’re doing this. This small move can lead to a big impact when your stress is at its height.

Final thoughts

I know this process isn’t easy.  I’ve gone through the application process many times: freshman college applications, college transfer applications, master’s programs applications, and PhD programs, plus scholarship applications.  In addition to my personal experience, I’ve also walked students through this process over the past several years.  Though college applications aren’t necessarily easy, they’re definitely manageable.  Follow the above steps for balancing high school and college applications, and you’ll feel like the process will be done in no time!


(Photo: US Department of Education)