Step 3: Applications Hell

I believe most of you have read Dante’s Inferno for an English class or just for fun. If you haven’t, here’s the briefest summary possible: Dante is lost, Virgil the poet shows him Inferno (Hell) and it’s nine circles, Dante eventually reaches Paradiso (Paradise). Guess where you are going to be at step 3? You guessed it, hell. This is honestly the worst part of the whole process, probably because of all the little things you might miss and the whole, tedious, aggravating and stressful process. The worst part? You can’t really escape, if you wanna get into a college (unless you’re so special colleges are actively trying to recruit you) you’ll have to go through this applications hell. But don’t worry, whether you believe in hell or not, you’ll live through it at this step. So let me (Virgil), guide you (Dante) to Paradiso by applying and getting accepted to your ideal college.

At this point you should have chosen a few colleges that you really liked during your research and by following steps 1 and 2. If you haven’t, QUIT SKIPPING STEPS. For some of you, a few may mean a handful, 5 or 6 finely selected colleges based on all the factors your have considered. Others might come close to 10 to 15, and a good amount of you are probably stuck at 20+. On the other end of the spectrum, you could just be dead set on one college. The optimum range to be is around 5-10 colleges. It may seem that colleges are just dying to accept you and get you enrolled. The truth is, colleges aren’t just going to come looking for you, unless you are a genius, great athlete, or have some sort of inside connection. In the general case, most of you will not fall in that rare category. So for most of you, you’ll have to suffer through this hell in order to find your perfect college. Why should you keep it at around 5-10 college? Remember my ice cream analogy I made in step 1? (Step 1: To College or Not to College) Not only is choosing 10+ colleges going to make your overall decision harder, (because unlike the ice cream analogy, you can’t go to two colleges, just one) and it will get really expensive. Most application fees can range anywhere between $50-$80+. I guess if you are on free and reduced lunch, you can usually get the application fees waived and go crazy? But then again, filling out 10+ applications is going to take A LOT of time and will still make your decision process difficult. It’s extremely important at this step to be somewhat decisive, but you don’t need to devote yourself to one college yet. Being indecisive at this point can be very costly. So start narrowing down those colleges to your top 10 or so and start nitpicking. Here’s a good breakdown on how to choose your colleges. Pick 1 or 2 “reach” or “dream” schools. Those are the ones that you have a very slim chance getting into, but is your dream school. You can place Ivy Leagues or top 20’s in there. Your next and largest category should be the ones that you are fairly certain you will not only get accepted, but ENROLL because of the affordability and opportunities they will offer. The last should be around 1 or 2 fallback schools that you are 100% going to get in if all else fails. This way when the time comes and you start hearing back from colleges, you will actually have options to choose from.

Hell is Real, it’s Called Common App

The Common Application or Common App. This is going to be a term you are going to hear a lot from your counselors. You’ll also end up hating this “Common App” for the rest of your life due to the misery it will cause you. Although it doesn’t have to. Here is what I really wished I would’ve known about the Common App before I ripped my hair apart trying to figure it out and not miss deadlines: if you’re not planning to apply to a private school, skip the Common App. Residing in the Common App are the Ivy League Schools (Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Princeton etc.) and many other top colleges. Of the 625 schools listed on there, only about 100 of them are public. So if you don’t plan on applying to a private school, save yourself the trouble and find out how to apply to your school. It won’t hurt to check if your school is on the list though. The good thing about the Common App is that once you fill out the basics, you can use that for all the schools listed in the Common App, but be careful, many colleges require separate supplements such as essays or answering their own questions. Before applying, make sure you check all the college’s requirements such as GPA and standardized test scores (some of the higher ranking schools require you to take SAT Subject Tests), if you don’t meet them, don’t bother applying and save that $70 for a college you actually have a shot at. Once misconception I know I had was the application fee. I thought the $70 would cover all the colleges I chose on the Common App, that is not the case. Each college requires a separate fee, so applying to 5 colleges will cost you about $350 (some are cheaper or more expensive than others). Just keep this in mind before you go crazy and think you just got a deal by applying to 10 colleges for $70. Similarly, a lot of school corporations like the University of California schools all have one portal where you can have one application that can be sent to all the schools. However, each school will have a separate application fee. For the most part though, you can find out how to apply to your school by going to Google and typing in “college name” + “application” and it should be the first hit. And always, always, ALWAYS, read the instructions before submitting. Some will have you send your SAT/ACT scores directly to them or let you report your own. Some will want letters of recommendation, some won’t, some will ask you to send your works and achievements etc. Just read. One of the first steps to becoming a responsible student is knowing the requirements are and fulfilling them.


Many of you will probably be confused by some of the deadline options: early decision, early action, regular decision and rolling admissions. Let me give you a rough run down on each of these and give you my firm advice on which one to pick. Early decision is a binding contract between you and another college that you will attend if you are admitted. Like the name suggests, you will get to know your decision before most people and might be open to some scholarship opportunities that are not available to regular students. Early action entails many of the same opportunities as early decision, but it is generally non-binding. Regular decision, like the name suggests is when you’ll hear from colleges with everyone else usually around mid-March to April. Rolling admissions is something many public universities do. Instead of having deadlines, they examine your application as soon as it is received and you generally get your decision within a month.

Here’s my sound advice: DON’T go early decision. Like I mentioned, early decision is binding and you HAVE to go after you get accepted, even if you decide that you don’t want to later. Ok I kinda lied, the colleges can’t take you to court for it or take other legal action, but you can be sure they will contact your high school and all the other colleges you applied to that you flaked and they will almost without fail blacklist you and withdraw your applications. On top of that, you can only apply to one school early decision and most of them will not allow you to apply to other schools early action or at all. Basically you’re putting all your eggs in one basket. Obviously with that logic, no one would apply early decision, but there are a few exceptions. If you have thoroughly reviewed and researched the school, have all your financials in line and have little to no doubt about attending, it is a fantastic option. You get to have the first dip in the honey jar for any of their scholarship moneys and most of all, throw away all the college search anxiety behind you because you’re in! But for most of us, all our ducks are still out of line so please, please be careful on choosing the type of deadline you want to meet.

On to Paradise (Kinda)

To wrap up I want to give just a few more important tips that will make your hell, well, less hellish:

Most deadlines for early decision/action is November 1st. So if you’re really committed to a college, this is very important. Remember, with this decision you should have no doubt in your mind this is the perfect college for you and have the means to pay for it.

Be sure to start building good relations with your teacher(s). This doesn’t just apply in high school, but when you start college and your first job as well. The key to success isn’t so much what you know anymore, but who you know. You never know what talking to a particular teacher or being nice to a certain employer can land you with opportunities. Don’t forget to thank them afterwards.

Your teachers and recommenders have lives too believe it or not. Please let them know at least a month or two ahead of time so they can properly prepare and submit your letters of recommendation on time. Remember that you are not their only student and they might have prior commitments. Don’t be afraid to let them know the urgency, but also don’t give it to them last minute. They’re not really the ones to blame if you get it to them the day before it’s due.

Save all your essays and questions into a Word document or equivalent. DON’T ever write your essays in the box provided online. I do not know how many times I’ve made that mistake, but the sites will just time me out. And the two hours I spent writing all those essays? Gone. So if you need to know anything, know this. It will save you a lot of time and needless stress. The best part? You can copy and paste parts of what you wrote or even the whole essay into another one. You’ll be a pro at applications in no time!

Most of all, this is pretty much mandatory. As awful and dreadful as it is, it’s basically the gateway to your collegiate experience. It’s really a true test to see who can get through it. Stay strong. Don’t do too many applications at once. Finish a few sections at a time and build on from there. Give yourself one or two goals to complete so you will feel accomplished. My College Adventures will soon offer services that will help you decide and apply to colleges, so be on the lookout for that!

Good luck Dante (reader),

Virgil (Steven)

If you want to read this series, here’s the links to them:

Step 1: To College or Not to College

Step 2: The Search

Step 3: Applications Hell

Step 4: Waiting. Waiting. Wai…

Steven Lin

Founder - CEO at Vicero Designs LLC
IU Kelley School of Business 2020. Entrepreneur.

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2 thoughts on “Step 3: Applications Hell”

  1. Pingback: Step 1: To College or Not to College — My College Adventures
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