When I was applying to college I did almost everything wrong, while appearing on the outside to have done everything right. I got started in August before my senior year, as soon as the Common Application opened. I wrote draft after draft of my essays. I applied to a wide range of schools and took not just the SAT, but two SAT subject tests and the ACT as well. All this would have been fine, except I didn’t apply to four or five schools. I applied to eleven of them.
By the time the whole process concluded and I was headed to Western Washington University, I was so done with writing essays and filling out forms that I resolved never to do it again – or at least if I did have to do it again, to do it differently.
In the process of applying (and getting accepted!) to graduate school over the past few months, I did almost everything differently. I only applied to one school, I took no tests, and I applied as late as it’s possible to apply and still have a fighting chance. I wouldn’t say that one way is better than the other.
Instead, I’m going to advocate for the most middling of middle grounds when it comes to applying to college, graduate school, or for jobs of any sort:
Only apply to the places you really want to go.
I was either pressured or pressured myself into applying to almost a dozen schools when I applied to college, and I burnt out scarily fast during the application process. This time around, I only applied to one school, and it was a school I really wanted to attend. I managed to avoid burnout and get accepted. So while you should apply to a handful of schools, make sure all of them are places you’re excited about going to.
Get an early start.
This time around I started my application a month before the deadline, which is not enough time. (They ended up extending the deadline, but still). You don’t necessarily need to start the process in August, but giving yourself a good three months to get everything done is probably a good idea. The goal here is to minimize stress, not to make you feel like you wish you’d never heard of college before.
Set deadlines for yourself.
This applies whether you’re starting early or late. Make actual deadlines and pretend they’re as important as the real-world deadlines you’re up against. Otherwise, you will panic, you will find yourself writing the first draft of your essay the night before it’s due, and you will die. (You probably won’t die, but it’ll be very unpleasant for some time).
Know when to say enough.
I had to call my mom for a pep talk in order to psych myself up enough to submit my graduate school application, and one of the things she told me was that at some point, you just have to do the thing. It’s never going to be as perfect as you want it to be, but it’s definitely going to be good enough. Odds are, you're ‘good enough’ is someone else’s ‘very impressive’.
Once it’s over, relax!
I was still struggling with this right up until I got my acceptance letter. Once you hand in your application, you’ve done everything you can do. The part of the process you can control is over, and if you follow the above steps – or at least some of them – you’ll know you did enough to give yourself a good shot at the college, grad program, or job of your choice.