Though students are just starting in on their summer breaks, the fall will be here sooner than we think. For rising high school seniors, that means it’s time to start thinking seriously about starting college applications. Yes –– right now. Why so early? Consider what the fall will look like: a full course load, the usual homework and projects, sports and other extracurricular activities, and whatever else students find themselves responsible for doing. Now, add college applications to the mix. If that sounds like a recipe for an outrageous (and as we’ll see, unnecessary) amount of stress, that’s because it is. Thus, it turns out that this isn’t particularly early to start thinking about applications at all. For students who want to skip the perfectly avoidable crush in the fall, here are some pointers to follow.

1. Start in with your essays. Many students will apply to colleges and universities that use The Common Application for undergraduate admissions (see 2 below). A key component of the application is the essay; students select their topics from a list of prompts and write a 650-word essay in response. Because the essay requires deliberation and introspection, it can be one of the most time-consuming parts of the application. Thus, rising seniors should view the list of prompts as soon as possible so they can start considering which to respond to. Once that’s been done, a first draft should follow in short order. If you can get through two or three drafts over the summer, you’ll have the essay polished by the time you’re ready to start the rest of the application. Remember that the essay is meant to be revelatory: it should offer insights not otherwise apparent through the standard part of the application. If you’d like to learn more about what makes a great admissions essay, read our blog post, Three Essential Tips for Writing a Great College Essay.

If you’re planning on applying to a college or university that does not use The Common Application, visit that school’s undergraduate admissions website, where details about required essays will be posted. Also keep in mind that many schools that use The Common Application also require one or more supplementary essays specific to their own applications. Once again, the individual admissions websites will tell you everything you need to know. Luckily, many of these schools’ prompts are similar to the prompts on The Common Application, so you may be able to tweak and repurpose essays for multiple applications.

2. Get going on The Common Application. Almost 700 colleges and universities use The Common Application to streamline the admissions process. With the “Common App”, as it's known in the biz, students can fill out one standard form and use it to apply to any of these schools. Typically, The Common App for a given admissions year opens up on August 1st. Mark that date on your calendar, and visit the Application’s website to create your account and begin the process. Before you start, create a list of all activities you’ve been involved in over the past four years, and obtain copies of your transcripts that show the coursework you’ve completed. Having these things at arm’s length will make it much easier to complete the application efficiently.

Of course, if any of the schools to which you’re applying have not adopted The Common Application, visit their respective admissions websites to learn about their individual applications. If you’re not sure which colleges and universities participate, use The Common App’s own school finder to figure it out.

3. Talk to your parents or guardians about financial aid. Students should have early, open conversations with their parents or guardians about the costs of college. Because higher education has grown increasingly expensive, millions of students each year seek some form of financial assistance to pay for their education. If you are planning on applying for financial aid either through the government (FAFSA or other sources of Federal Student Aid) or through private institutions, visit the respective organizations’ websites as soon as possible to initiate those applications. There’s little worse than having to scramble for financial numbers right before a deadline hits, especially when your ability to pay for college is riding on securing aid. Keep in mind that many private institutions and many colleges and universities themselves offer merit-based scholarships: a quick Google search will yield thousands of results. It can all be a bit overwhelming, which is why it’s important to start culling the potential list of financial resources early on.

4. Stay Organized. This should go without saying, but organization is key to maintaining your cool. These days, students regularly find themselves applying to more than 10 schools. Some may be on The Common App, others not; some may require multiple supplemental essays, others one, still others none at all; some may require or “suggest” interviews; others may not care; deadlines vary significantly. The only way to keep this all straight is to stay highly organized. You can use spreadsheets and/or checklists, file folders, and more to keep track of it all. The bottom line: find an organizational system that will allow you to keep track of application deadlines and all necessary materials, and stick to it. You’ll be happy you did.

We hope that this advice helps you get through the college applications process unscathed and unstressed! Did we miss anything? Let us know of your suggestions in the comments below!