The 5 Comprehensive Phases of College Applications

When you start navigating the college application process on your own, you quickly find out how much information is out there. SO MUCH! TOO MUCH!

Think of the college application process as a road trip. Before you even get on the road, you’re stressed out over what to even pack. You’re worried about what weather you might encounter on the trip and if you’ll make good time. You’re currently merging onto that wide-open highway. Some people are zipping past you. You might be moving slowly in the right-hand lane or maybe you’re broken down on the side of the road. Right now, at the beginning (or even middle) of the process, it’s hard to see the end through the mountains and through all of the fog.

You’re nervous or overwhelmed (rightfully so) because you can’t see the end! When do you need to get out and take a stretch break? When do you decide you actually need to get some help with directions? You have no idea what exit you’re getting off on. 

When you see a college application timeline, you may realize the weight of all of the moving pieces and deadlines. I’ve helped thousands of students and families reshape their view of the college application process by breaking down the process into 5 easy-to-understand phases. Name it and claim it as you work through these phases. When you break it down into smaller chunks, this helps funnel the information from firehouse to faucet.

As you think through each of these 5 phases for your family or with your student, use this free worksheet to jot the questions you may have about each topic. Here’s an easy way to break down the college application into 5 manageable phases.

Phases College Applications

Here is some quick information about these 5 phases.

College Application Phase #1: Searching

Start this as early as you want! Start thinking about future careers in order to consider or search for specific majors at schools. Think in broader categories before you start narrowing down… school size, extracurriculars, sports, music/arts programs, internship opportunities, study abroad opportunities, Greek life, etc. Ask your student what is important to them in a college. Take opportunities to visit schools or do some “virtual” visiting by checking out YouTube, Google Expeditions, student blogs, Instagram/Facebook pages.

College Application Phase #2: Testing

Think about a plan for taking tests (especially in Covid times as many testing sites are canceling tests at the last minute). Will your student take the SAT or ACT? When will they take it? Can they take the PSAT for practice in tenth grade at school? You’ll most likely need to register somewhere in your community to take the SAT or ACT. Many colleges are starting to be “test-optional” or are super scoring tests that they haven’t before (like the ACT)!

College Application Phase #3: Applying

You’ll do this at the beginning of senior year. This phase usually happens from August through October of senior year at the earliest. There are a handful of different portals you can fill out applications on like Common App, Coalition, Send EDU, Black Common App, or just the college’s website itself. (So many usernames and passwords to remember– get a good system figured out to remember all of these!)

College Application Phase #4: Getting Financial Aid

There are not very many scholarships to apply to before senior year, but you can always be checking out scholarships ahead of time to see what you might want to apply to during senior year. In my free Starter Scholarship Spreadsheet, I give some tips on getting started… like start looking for scholarships closest to home and then work your way out (at your high school, in your district, in your area of town, in your city, in your region, in your state, etc.). Read more about how to best use this free spreadsheet to keep your family organized through the financial piece of this puzzle. You’ll fill out the FAFSA during your student’s senior year. (You can’t do it any earlier than October 1 of senior year.) Check out these FAFSA Quick Tips so get an idea of what’s coming in this arena.

College Application Phase #5: Staying Mentally Healthy

This one is SO important! Since mental health is just as important as physical health, we have to make this phase a priority throughout the entire college application process. Keep a pulse on your own and your students’ stress and anxiety levels. Keep communication open and work hard to figure out what your student needs from you. Look for ways to celebrate your student throughout the process… even if they are just small victories or mini-milestones. Your student will appreciate it, and it will keep a stressful situation lighter for everyone!

You’re too busy to sort through it all, digest it all, and put it all into action. Don’t worry- I’ll filter all of the information for you and help guide you to the end!

Identify which phase you are currently in and where you have the most questions by using my 5 phases brain dump worksheet! Let’s move from start to finish using these landmark points along the way. Use it to identify where you need more information to keep you organized, on track, and stress-free throughout the college application process!

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