Are you interested in applying to college? If so, you may be wondering what the process looks like. Here’s how to successfully navigate college applications in seven easy steps.

1) Do your research

Where to start? Many begin with a sense of dread and despair, followed by college research. Start broad, such as reviewing the over 4,000 higher-education institutions in the United States. Are you looking for a two-year college? Four-year? Community college? Vocational school? Don’t forget about the thousands more outside the country! For a truly thorough search, you may consider exploring nearby galaxies.

Then, narrow it down. Consider looking at only a few factors: academics, research opportunities, campus geography, facilities, clubs and organizations, school population, faculty-to-student ratio, school culture, student life, meal services, residences, weather, school safety, school values, school location and number of water fountains. Good luck!

2) Drown in mail

In life, we do the best to prepare ourselves for any hardships we anticipate. However, nothing will prepare you to face the onslaught of college mail you’ll receive. If you took the PSAT or filled out the Paly athletic clearance form, colleges will get their hands on your information, and somewhere among the vast data centers of the world your name will be added to a mailing list.

The result is instantaneous: immediately, several thousand trees will be chopped down and sent to your doorstep. “Visit us,” they’ll say. “Learn more about our great facilities,” they’ll say. “Apply today, succeed tomorrow.” Just like Harry Potter and the Dursleys, you too will want to flee to a wooden shack off the coast of England to escape the letters.

Lucky for you, it’s not just mail. Search one college on Google, and you’ll start seeing colleges all around you. In social media ads. On YouTube. In recommended news. You’ll hear college names whispered in the wind. They’ll wash up in bottles on the beach. The stars themselves will crawl across the sky, urging you to apply now. It’s all very magical.

3) Make a list

Now that you’ve acquired enough reading material to rival those Schoology notification emails, start building a list of colleges you’d like to attend. A good list will have anywhere between one and 431,897.3 schools.

Try to find the perfect match. The school must be a fit for you. You must be a fit for the school. Together, the two of you should form a bond stronger than milk and cereal, stronger than hydrogen and oxygen, stronger than Zoom and “your internet connection is unstable.” The two of you must be destiny. Make sure to articulate this special sentiment to every school you apply to, later in step 5.

Found a college that you like? Write it down on a spreadsheet or other list. Make sure to include notes on every single thought that enters your brain. You’ll love how confusing it gets: navigating your spreadsheet will be almost as hard as navigating the application process itself.

4) Begin applications

If you’re all settled on your college list, then let’s start applying! There are several admission tracks that are typically available: Early Decision, Early Action, Early Premonition, Early Decision II, Early Bird Gets the Worm and Regular Decision. These correspond to different deadlines, so make sure to keep track of the date, time and moon phase that your applications are due by.

While applications vary, each includes a main application form: similar to a multiple choice test, but you shouldn’t be guessing. Tip: when creating an account for your applications, make a new password that you’ll never have to use again. Best to avoid reliving any trauma.

5) Write your youth away

Many schools require a personal essay and supplemental essay(s). You’ll come to love these essays: nourish them with your tears and frustrations.

Personal essay: show the school who you are! Be prepared to pour your heart, soul, and remaining sanity into a Google Doc. You’ll be sending this to complete strangers, so keep things as personal and private as possible.

Need some ideas? Take a stroll down memory lane, then viciously exploit your childhood. Or condense your entire sense of self into one moment in time. When you’re done, you’ll have read your personal essay so many times that you’ll be able to recite all 650 words from memory, with accompanying hand gestures and interpretive dance.


Your head full of new gray hairs might qualify you for a senior citizen discount the next time you visit a museum or theater.


Supplemental essay(s): “Open up, I want to come in, open open open open, ooo-pen up,” the Little Einsteins sing in one episode as a request for access to an Egyptian pyramid. Colleges will be chanting the same tune as they see how many supplemental essays they can squeeze into your applications. Look carefully! For your convenience, supplements are hidden throughout the application form. This is a great time to sharpen your “I Spy” skills.

Overall, writing essays is the most time-consuming step. You’ll use a list of recurring words that you’ll never want to see again, including but not limited to: “community,” “passions,” “explore” and “diverse.” Luckily, your head full of new gray hairs might qualify you for a senior citizen discount the next time you visit a museum or theater.

At this time, you may see schools mysteriously disappear from your college list, especially schools with an abundance of required essays. How strange.

6) Delete your hard work

Finished writing and think you’re done? Think again. Each essay will come with its very own word count, a phrase that will haunt you for the rest of your life.

Whether the limit is 350 words or 900 characters or 247 stanzas, rest assured that whatever you write will never be long or short enough. Wrote a beautiful declaration of your identity? Crafted a profound reflection on society? Too bad. With every sentence cut out (which ruins the flow) and every word combined (that shouldn’t be), a small piece of your soul will wither away. But this loss of humanity is necessary to proceed: soon, you’ll be chopping paragraphs with reckless abandon. Consider it a superpower.

7) Empty your bank account

Great, now it’s time to submit your applications! Whenever you’re ready, review the CVS Pharmacy receipt-length PDF, quintuple checking that everything is the way you want.

Time to pay up! Your fee consists of your life savings + any coins you find on the ground + your left femur + one mid-size gold artifact or the equivalent in silver. With that money, you could cure cancer, solve global warming and buy one of those 12-foot skeletons with a bit left over. But why do that when you can pay schools you might not even attend?

You’re done!

Congratulations, you’re done with your applications! Now you can sit back, relax and watch in terror as decisions trickle in. But don’t relax too much: colleges still expect you to maintain an unrealistic GPA and exhaust yourself with extracurriculars.

To those who have recently made it across the finish line, nice job! Never look back. To the juniors and those entering the college application process, sorry. Just remember that a bumper crop of resources, advising and support is available to you. And with perseverance, determination and just a bit of the impossible, you’ll be all set for several more years of math tests and socratic seminars. May the odds be ever in your favor.