The College Application Process: 7 Ways to Organize Your College Apps

Our word of the day is higgledy-piggledy. Definition: what the college application process will be like if you’re not organized.

We know you’ve got a ton going on already, and there are probably a lot of things you’d rather be doing than applying to colleges. Hopefully the suggestions below will help you get your applications on track — and keep them that way — so you have more time to enjoy all the other stuff.

1. Figure out which colleges use the Common App or Coalition (and which don’t).

The Common App (which UIUC accepts) and Coalition are general applications that a whole bunch of schools accept. This means you can fill out one online application instead of completing a separate one for each school.

It’s important to note that you’ll still probably have to pay an application fee for each school you apply to with the Common App or Coalition, as you would with most other schools.

2. Create a list of the schools you’re applying to.

First step of applying to school: know where you’re applying. Solidifying your list early on will make it so much easier to get organized. It’s hard to keep up with deadlines and requirements if you’re trying to consider 75 potential schools!

You’ll feel differently about each school on your list, and that’s okay. Since it costs money to apply to each school, though, it’s a good idea to be sure you’re realistically able to go (and are willing to go) to each school on your list.

If you’re having a hard time figuring out how to slim down your list, we have some tips on how to narrow your college search.

A student takes notes as she studies for finals at the Student Dining and Residential Programs Building (SDRP) at the  University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

3. Know what each school needs.

Now that you’ve got your list (what do you mean, you haven’t got your list? Can’t you follow directions?), find out what each school wants you to send over. Usually, it’s some choice of transcripts, standardized test scores, and essays.


The transcripts they’ll want will be your official high school records of the classes you’ve taken and what grades you got on them. (They could also include college transcripts if you’ve already been enrolled as a college student somewhere.) You have to ask your high school administration office to forward your transcripts to the specific colleges you’re applying for. There may be a fee from your high school to do this.

Standardized Test Scores

Standardized test scores will be your ACT/SAT scores. Some schools are test-optional, while others specifically require ACT scores or vice versa. They might also require TOEFL and IELTS scores from international students as well.

You’ll have to ask the testing agency to send your scores directly to the specific colleges you’re applying for. There will be a fee for each score you send, but remember that both the ACT and SAT allow you to send your scores to up to four colleges for free if you request it before taking the test. You may also be eligible for fee waivers. Some schools (like UIUC) will only ask you to send over your official transcripts and any official standardized test scores if you’re admitted.


You might have a different essay prompt for each application, even if you’re applying with the Common App or Coalition, so it’s a good idea to start these early on (more on this later!).

More Requirements

If you’re applying to art, music, or theater programs, you might also have to submit a portfolio of some sort or take part in an audition. Your application will specify this, so be sure to read through the instructions twice!

Keeping Track of Fees

Following is a rough estimate of what you could be charged for each application if you are not eligible for fee waivers:

  • Application fee: $50-$75
  • Official transcript fee from your high school: $5-$10
  • Official test scores fee from ACT/SAT: $12-$13

4. Make a table or a spreadsheet.

All of this is a lot to keep track of! A table like the one below could help you put it all in one place. Once you finish a step in the application, like sending your transcripts, you can check it off on the table.

College/UniversityUniversity of MonkeysElephant CollegeFlamingo School of Fine FlamingosUniversity of Giraffes
Common or Coalition App?  Common    CoalitionNoneBoth
Official Transcripts    Wait to send until admittedSend nowSend nowWait to send until admitted
Official Test Scores    Wait to send until admittedSend nowNot requiredWait to send until admitted
Additional Requirements?      Submit a portfolio: 10 pieces of recent artNoneNoneSend an apple in with application
Essays1 ESSAY: What does monkey business mean to you?  NO ESSAY3 ESSAYS: 1. Why are flamingos fine? 2. What makes a flamingo so perfect? 3. What is a flamingo?1 ESSAY: What makes a flamingo so perfect? Giraffes are better.  
Total Fees (application fee, sending scores, and sending transcripts)  $50  $100    $80$70
Deadline  January 5January 5January 12February 30
An Example Table

5. Be on the lookout for application worksheets.

Some colleges may have an application worksheet to help you keep things straight. If you fill this out ahead of time, you’ll have all the information you’ll need and can breeze through the application.

Now, you might be thinking, “Why the heck would I write all this stuff down if I’ll have to type it all up later?” Good point. You’re admitted!

Just kidding — this worksheet can help if you have limited access to the internet, if you’re bored at the barber’s shop, or if you’re not planning on applying quite yet but want to get some of the legwork out of the way now.

6. Start your college essay early on.

College essays are tricky. Like attaching a keychain with those weird round metal circles, these essays require time, thought, and the right mindset. Also like attaching keychains, you may well pinch your fingers in a painful way if you don’t focus.

The point is, starting your college essays early will make the application process so much easier. Of course, it’s hard to know where to start if you’ve never written one before. Check out our college essay tips if you’re looking for some guidance.

Two friends smiling and laughing together while laying on the Quad

7. Hang in there!

We know this process can be stressful — there’s a lot of time, money, and essay-writing going into this, and since these applications might determine how you spend your next four years, the stakes seem pretty high. But the fact that you’re applying to colleges is impressive already. So keep up the good work; it’ll be worth it in the end!

Even though the college application process can be chaotic, some small steps toward organization can make a huge difference; it’ll turn even the higgledy-piggledyest of tasks into something more manageable (are we using that right?).

In other words, no mess, no stress — or at least a tiny bit less stress. You can do this.

UIUC Admissions

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  • Hi! I’m an Indian student looking forward to applying to UIUC. High schools in India don’t offer AP courses. I self studied for the AP Stats exam and got a 5 (junior year). I’m in my senior year right now and I’m planning to take 3 more AP exams by self studying for them. Do you think 4 AP exams are impressive for a top-tier college? Thanks!

  • Hello and thanks for reaching out! We’re very excited that you’re interested in UIUC. We will note if you are enrolled in an AP course, but we do not use AP scores as a part of our review process. If you choose to self-study for an AP exam, we may be able to award you credit for your scores, but we will not factor your AP scores into making an admission decision. You can find the full list of AP Scores on our website: You can also learn more about how we review students here: Any other questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to us again at or +1 217-333-0302.