Your Early Decision College Application Checklist

The 11/1 deadline for the college admissions Early Decision and Early Action is just days away. If you're like many of my students, you're probably scrambling to figure out whether you've completed all of the necessary paper work.

So, here's a checklist and some helpful advice for completing a powerful set of applications in time.

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Check with your Guidance Counselor

Before you do anything, make sure you've provided the list of where you're applying to your guidance counselor and requested that s/he send in your official transcript. Most counselors will have already done this well before the 11/1 deadline, but it's your responsibility to check in and make sure that they have actually hit send.

Check with your Recommenders

Next, check in with your recommenders. Have they submitted their letters of recommendation? If not, remind them politely that the deadline is almost here, and ask them if they'll be able to submit your recommendation on time.

Your recommenders can either send their recommendations through the Common Application online or by downloading the forms on the Common Application website and sending them directly to the Office of Admission. Each school has its own policy, so be sure to check each website or give the admissions office a call.

Submit your Test Scores

Since most schools require the SAT I and/or ACT and look favorably on at least 2 SAT II tests, you likely have a number of scores to report. Or you may need to report a TOEFL score. Either way, log in to your account and make sure that you've updated the list of colleges where you're applying.

Submit your Fine Arts Supplement

If you want to showcase your talent in art, music, performance, etc., you'll need to submit your materials through SlideRoom or the school's own submission system. Check to see which method your schools request.

Attach your Resume

Most schools rely on the Common App or another online application system to communicate your extracurricular activities, but occasionally you'll be asked to submit your resume. If you are, be sure to use the same advice from the Activity Section above. You want to use strong, active words and vivid description so it's clear to the reader exactly how you've contributed and what you've accomplished.

If you're not sure how to put your resume together, Adventures in Education provides a good sample here.

Fill out the Financial Aid Forms

Remember that if you're planning to apply for financial aid, you'll need submit your FAFSA application and your CSS Profile. Each school and each state has its own deadlines, so be sure to check in with each admissions office to find out the important dates.

Complete Your Online Application

1. Take time to set up your online admissions application

This will be obvious to most of you, but just in case: make sure you've created your online account with the Common Application or with each individual school. While many schools use the Common App, MIT, for example, uses its own application system, as do the University of California schools.

Remember: it can take awhile to fill out all of the information about yourself, so don't wait until 10 pm on 11/1 to start filling it out.

2. Select Early Decision or Early Action and sign the ED agreement

Almost all of the colleges with an Early Decision or a Restricted Early Action option will ask that you sign a form indicating that you are aware that if you are accepted, it is a binding decision, and you are obligated to attend. So make sure you're really jazzed about your ED schools -- because if you'll be spending four years there, you want to make sure you're really happy there.

3. Provide strong details about your Activities

For each of your activities, you want to make sure that you've given enough description of what you did and how much you accomplished. Since you only have 160 characters if you're using the Common App, you'll need to be concise. But you still need to include as many important details as possible.

For example, if you're writing a description of a volunteer position, avoid saying, "Volunteered at The Helping Organization." Instead, focus on how you contributed. You might say, "Created a multilingual brochure on local community's outreach programs and sent to 300 families."

In addition, be sure to mention the most important awards or honors you received for each activity. This is your chance to show the colleges the most important elements of your accomplishments. So, if you've been a part of an organization that awards multiple medals or trophies at numerous levels -- regional, state, nationals, etc. -- mention the highest ranking award(s) first.

4. Use the Additional Information Section to showcase your writing

Not many students are aware that many schools offer the chance to provide additional information about yourself. Without question, use this space. It's impossible to sum up the breadth and depth of who you are in one essay -- or even in the 5 short essays that MIT requires.

Let's say you're applying to UChicago Early Action, along with a couple of other schools, one ED and one EA. Since you had to craft a really interesting essay in response to one of UChicago's prompts, go ahead and attach this essay in the Additional Information section of the Common App's writing section. (If your school doesn't use the Common App, check to see if they offer a similar Additional Information section. MIT does, and very likely you'll want to submit your Common App essay to them, as it can go into much more depth than their short answer questions.)

5. Proofread like mad

Now, everyone knows that you're probably going to reuse multiple parts of your essays from one school's application on another. So, you want to make sure to proofread for errors.

If you're reusing most of the "Why Do You Want to Go Here" essay that you wrote for Cornell, be sure to carefully reread (out loud is best) your recrafted essay. You're looking for any references to the other school that you inadvertently left in there. There's nothing worse than saying, "Without question, Cornell is my top choice school" when you're actually applying to Columbia.

6. Reconsider your conclusions

While writing your personal statement is a topic for a whole bunch of other posts, at the very lease I want to mention your conclusions. It's common to write a really strong story and then end on a weak note.

What makes something weak? Clichéd, flat and/or overly generalized writing. Anything that doesn't make the reader think more deeply about your experience.

Take a look at the first draft of this conclusion that one of my students recently wrote:

I understand the work it takes to create a winning team of Freshmen. Like recruiting players for a championship team, admission directors are charged with selecting students who strive for excellence; who will develop their skills and talents, and support each other on their way to making a positive impact on the world. I know that I would make a valuable member of that team!

Now, this is well-written prose, but talking about striving for excellence or making a positive impact on the world is the kind of language that many, many students are going to use.

So I urged this student to go deeper and to really think about the lessons he learned from the story he'd just finished telling. Take a look at the final version:

As I think ahead to the future, I know I will carry with me the remembrance of our coach's lessons. I will remember his utter commitment to ethical conduct. The way he cross-trained us, teaching us a nimble flexibility and the cultivation of skills outside our natural strengths. The way we carried ourselves with a new dignity after our captain was disgraced. The way we welcomed a higher level of commitment to our team. The way we embraced our responsibility as young men of character to uphold the highest level of excellence.

These are lessons I will carry with me -- into my role as a college student pursuing the deepest level of knowledge through my college education; later as a business man facing the high stakes of every decision I must make; and always as a son, a neighbor and a friend.

Can you see how much more specific and interesting this ending is? Instead of relying on the broad term, "excellence," he uses more specific references to learning about ethics, flexibility, dignity, and commitment.

And because the language is more specific, the reader ends up feeling that this student is much more self-aware and clear about what he's bringing to the college.

Remember, you have a unique blend of talents and interests and wonderful personal qualities that you're bringing to the campus. So, challenge yourself to go deep into these aspects of yourself. The college admissions officers will thank you -- and more likely offer you a place at their college!