Quick College App Hacks To Save You Time

To your typical stressed senior: Good luck—you got this!

Carolyn Wang
12 min readApr 16, 2023
Photo by Matese Fields on Unsplash
Photo by Matese Fields on Unsplash

I’ll be straightforward here: This is a very niche guide that’s meant to help a very specific target audience. If you’re a senior in the midst of the college application process and know exactly what I mean when I say “Common App” or “UC App” — perfect. If you’re anywhere slightly off from that time frame, the terms in this guide will either (1) make absolutely no sense, or (2) not seem applicable in the remotest way possible.

Still curious? Or fit the intended audience? Well, in that case, read on!

If you’re in the latter group, I’ve made this guide to save you as much time and brain power as possible, and I sure do hope it helps. If you’re not a senior yet or haven’t reached the point where you’re knee-deep in college apps, feel free to bookmark this guide and check in later whenever it suits you.

Disclaimer: I am not an admissions officer nor a college expert; I’m just a senior who went through the process and would love to help. This guide was written during the 2022–2023 admissions process, so it behooves you to check anything that may have changed from the time I’m writing this to the time you’re reading this. Nevertheless, it should be useful as long as the majority of the college application system stays the same. Have fun!

#1: Common App

Let’s start with the most popular one — the Common App.

My assumption is that you’ve created a Common Application account, where you’ve added all your colleges of interest. Great! Here are some helpful things to know:

A) Preview Pdfs

The “Preview” option is pure gold.
The “Preview” option is pure gold.

In every section, there should be a Preview option in the upper right corner. (See picture above.) Use this button to get a full PDF summary of everything you’ve entered in a section. Not only does it show how your writing (aka your text box entries) will appear in the actual submission, it also makes it convenient since you don’t have to keep scrolling up and down to figure out what you’ve entered.

By the way, this Preview feature doesn’t apply just to writing sections; every part of your app, including “profile,” “family”, and “education,” has a Preview button you can use. So use it! I promise—it’s lifesaving.

The “Preview” option is pure gold.
The “Preview” option is pure gold.

B) Reorder Activity Lists? Yes!

You’re allowed to reorder the extracurriculars in your activity list after you enter it in by pressing these state-of-the-art arrow buttons as shown in the picture below! So don’t worry about putting your activities in the exact order the first time in the Common App, or about whether you can change them later on! (Note: I’m bringing this point up explicitly because the opposite is true for the UC application, unfortunately.)

Yaaaay we all love buttons in the top right corner of things!
Yaaaay we all love buttons in the top right corner of things!

C) Nothing Actually Submits Until You Pay

Assuming you don’t have a fee waiver, this is random but actually really important. Once you finish your application for a specific college, you will see an option that asks whether you’re ready to Review & Submit or not. The first time I encountered this, I freaked my head off because I didn’t want to accidentally submit it when I wasn’t ready.

Well, joke’s on me. It turns out that once you press that button, it doesn’t actually submit. Rather, it gives you an opportunity to review your entire application through this beautiful, compiled mega PDF. I know, right! You don’t have to check your sections one by one; you can just look through your entire app for mistakes in this one PDF.

While I’m touting the ultimate awesomeness of this PDF, the next page will ask you to pay. Only after you pay the fee should you be careful about pressing any button remotely similar to the word “submit,” because now it will actually submit. Welp.

My point being: Don’t be afraid to press buttons like Review & Submit when you haven’t paid yet, since it will not submit until you do pay. And doing so actually might bring new resources like that compiled mega pdf!

The tab (2022–2023) where it asks whether you’re ready to review/submit.
The tab (2022–2023) where it asks whether you’re ready to review/submit.

#2: University of California (UC) App

Most people I know apply to schools in the University of California system, which uses a different application portal than other colleges.

The only thing I wanted to mention here was that while it’s been said that the order of activities doesn’t matter for your UC Activity List (yes, it’s a separate one from the Common App Activity List :0) if you like your extracurriculars to be ordered from most to least important, you better enter it right the first time.

Why?

As of the 2022–23 application cycle, the UC app DOES NOT allow you to reorder your activities once you enter them in the application. If you want to, you’ll have to re-enter the whole list. (It’s not the end of the world, but believe me, it will make you physically and mentally exhausted. And I’m saying this as a cross-country runner too.)

#3: Essays & Letter of Recs

A) Essays: Use Google Docs

I’d recommend writing your written responses (whether it be essays, short answers, etc.) in a Google Doc first and then copy-pasting them in the Common App/UC App afterwards. Trying to decipher what you want to write in an unfamiliar interface with a million buttons and a looming college list is often a hassle (and quite pressuring). You’ve been using Google Drive folders and documents since elementary school. Use them to your advantage!

B) Essays: How to Find Complete Lists of Supplemental Prompts

I suggest taking advantage of websites like collegeessayguy.com to find all the supplemental essay prompts each of your individual schools requires.

Why not directly find each school’s supplementary questions through the Common App itself, you’re probably wondering?

Sometimes, certain prompts only appear in the Common App after you enter what major you plan to declare, which can be quite annoying if you think you’re done with a school, only to realize there are three more for your declared major of interest.

I personally stopped looking for prompts directly on the Common App after applying to one or two schools and utilized the College Essay Guy website to its full capacity. Just search “[school name] prompts college essay guy,” and your desired school’s prompts should appear on Google.

College Essay Guy also has some great essay examples that accompany their listings of the prompts, which really helped me out. Maybe they’ll help you out too! Here’s an example of their page for the USC prompts and example essays if you’re curious: https://www.collegeessayguy.com/blog/university-southern-california-usc-supplemental-essays

I have yet to find a school where College Essay Guy doesn’t have a resource for or a page that’s inaccurate in terms of what supplemental prompts a school is asking. There’s no such thing as a free lunch (thanks Econ/AP Govt/Mr. Abe), but in terms of college apps, this comes pretty darn close.

C) Letter of Recs: For Those Who Use Naviance

Typically, the question of “how to ask for Letter of Recs” is pretty well detailed elsewhere on the internet, so I won’t talk about that here. This is primarily intended for students whose schools use the Naviance platform.

If your school (like mine) uses Naviance to send teacher Letter of Recs (LORs), I just wanted to point out:

Even if the names of your teacher LOR writers are displayed in the Common App, DON’T assume your letters have been sent.

You have to manually press the “Add Request” button in Naviance for every school in order to initiate the sending process for your teacher LORs. You may do this by first navigating to the “Letter of Recommendation” tab under the “Apply to College” section, which shows up when you first log into your Naviance account:

Navigate to the “Letter of Recommendation” tab under “Apply to College”
Navigate to the “Letter of Recommendation” tab under “Apply to College”

Afterwards, press the “Add Request” button to send your teacher Letter of Recs.

Press “Add Request” to send your teacher LORs
Press “Add Request” to send your teacher LORs

Be especially wary of this step if you decide to add a college to your list late into the process, because you may forget this essential step of going back to Naviance and manually sending your letters. (I’m speaking from personal experience here.)

TLDR; Even if your Naviance account is linked to the Common App, your teacher LORs don’t get sent automatically. Always make sure you have manually requested your teacher LORs to be sent in Naviance, regardless of what the Common App says.

#4: College Portals (After You Submit)

Photo by Dan Dimmock on Unsplash
Photo by Dan Dimmock on Unsplash

If you have gotten to this point, congrats! For those of you who haven’t or don’t know what this means, here is the general gist: Once you submit your application to a school, within a few days (or a month for some of them — looking at you UCSB!), you’ll receive a college portal where you can log in, submit materials you still need to send, add updates, and… receive your decisions!

There are a few potential pitfalls though.

A) Make Sure You Actually Receive Your Portal

Seems obvious? Yeah, duh. Do I think you might overlook this? Maybe!

Just because you submit your app, it doesn’t mean you’re done. If you don’t receive a college portal after a while, it’s a red flag, unless the college explicitly states that you will receive your portal later.

If you don’t receive your portal within a month and your college hasn’t stated any special circumstances, I’d suggest emailing your regional admissions officer to confirm. It’d suck to only realize that you don’t have your portal in March when all your other decisions are coming out.

B) Create Your Portal Account and Check It Immediately After You Receive Your Login Information

Some colleges like to throw the following curveballs in their college portal, even though you’ve already submitted your application:

Hey, guess what?! Here’s an “optional” video you can do and submit directly in our portal so we can learn more about you!

Want to apply to an honors college? Here are three more essays for ya!

Look! You can press here to request an interview!

Here’s an opportunity to submit a peer recommendation so we can learn more about you!

Yes, these questions may never have appeared in the Common App. Yes, you may have rejoiced in the false belief that you were done. But voila! There they are, cheerfully optimistic, right in your college portal!

So imagine not creating your portal account until two weeks after you receive it, only to realize: Oops. The deadline for these additional, “optional” items in your portal has already passed.

Yikes!

In other words, create your portal account and log in immediately after you receive email instructions from your college of interest. There might be additional materials waiting for you in there.

C) Read Your Entire Decision Letter

Did I mention that the college portal is also where you receive your results? Exciting, I know! If you receive an acceptance, congrats! If you receive a rejection, fine! Onwards and upwards!

But if you receive that dreaded “We have decided to give your application further consideration in the Regular Decision pool,” “We regret to inform you …” or something of the like, it’s easy to go:

Welp. I was deferred/waitlisted/rejected. Bye! *Closes decision letter.*

As tempting as it is, don’t do that. Please don’t.

Oftentimes, your decision letter will give you additional action items, such as clicking a link to confirm that you want your app to be re-considered in the regular application pool (for deferred applicants) or filling out a form to send updates (for waitlisted applicants) that just might tip the scale in your favor.

Some colleges also throw the nasty curveball of declaring “We regret to inform you…” — only to mention waaay later in their decision letter that while there’s not space in the current class, you’ve been put on the waitlist, so here’s XYZ update form to fill in. Oh c’mon. Just be straightforward, man! Any sane applicant would look at the phrase “regret to inform” and think “rejected lol,” would they not?

Anyways, I digress.

Reading decision letters carefully is vital, so don’t miss important to-do’s by glossing over your admissions decision and calling it a day!

#5: Miscellaneous Suggestions & Last Thoughts

Photo by Baim Hanif on Unsplash
Photo by Baim Hanif on Unsplash

A) Organization is Key

You will get emails. Lots of emails. Lots and lots and lots and lots of emails. Oh—and you’ll have to answer lots of supplemental questions that sound the same for every school you’re applying to—to the extent where you’ll likely forget what you wrote for what school. (Ever hear the “Why College” horror stories where people accidentally copy-paste the wrong college name? It’s not a myth.)

Point taken? Okay, okay, I’ll stop. What I really want to say is that:

Organization is key. What system you use doesn’t matter, as long as it works. Some people I know use spreadsheets. Others use Google Calendar. I use an old-fashioned combo of paper and post-it notes. Gmail folders have saved a lot of hassle for many I know. But heck, some people erratically stuff things in their Google Drive and make it work.

Every person is different. Organization methods I’ve recommended to my sister have often gone terribly for her (sorry Kat), so I’ve come to the conclusion that there really is no universal way: Do whatever works for you. If one system doesn’t work, experiment with another. You’ll find a way. Just stay organized in your own mind. That’s probably one of the biggest tests of the college application process.

B) Other Resources

There are a LOT of resources out there. YouTube videos, Reddit, College Confidential, College Essay Guy etc. Life is never perfect though, and neither are online resources, forums, and communities: There are good parts, and there are bad.

For example, Reddit’s r/ApplyingToCollege has some really kind people posting amazing college application tips and awesome folks sharing their college experiences to make the “Why College X” essay easier for struggling seniors. However, there are also people posting their stats and extracurriculars, stirring unnecessary competition, and making life miserable by pushing out a toxic environment for the rest of us who simply want to get through college apps unscathed.

I’ll just say this: I love free lunch, and I assume you do too, so I wouldn’t pass up this kind of opportunity. Use these forums to your advantage—glean the informational aspects, interact with the good people out there, and avoid participating in unnecessary toxicity. It’s not worth your mental health.

And hey—maybe one day, you’ll go back and share something positive of your own to help out the future generation of struggling seniors. *Wink, wink.*

C) Last Thoughts

With that, I conclude this guide with a bit of my own insight:

As you’re going through the application process, you may encounter a lot of obstacles. Missed deadlines. Writer’s block. Mistakes. Existential Crises, where you’ve forgotten what you are doing with your life and why. (lol)

If these don’t apply to you, then whoo—go you! If they do apply, don’t worry; that’s the majority of us.

College apps is no easy process, but you’ve done what you can over the four years of your high school career, and you’re doing your best now. An acceptance or rejection is not going to change anything about you, except perhaps your self-esteem, which is controlled by who, again? Oh right. You!

Rejoice at the colleges who see you for all you’re worth. Yaaaaay! Elegantly acknowledge those colleges who will lose out on an amazing person. Byee! And last but not least, enjoy the process of compiling all your hard work for the world to see. Or at least try to, to the best of your ability. ᕕ( ᐛ )ᕗ

This is a milestone you’re living through, so good luck! Have fun!

— Carolyn W, SHS Class of 2023

Photo by Sydney Rae on Unsplash
Photo by Sydney Rae on Unsplash

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Carolyn Wang

CS + Public Policy @ UC Berkeley. Writer, musician, triathlete, & explorer. Learn more here: carolynwangjy.medium.com/ae3eb5de2324