There are many resources out there but most of the advice you'll find is general and often something you already know. When I was applying to college, I found the lack of direction and guidance very frustrating. That's why I created College Lead, where I can provide you very actionable steps that are clear and specific.
With that, here are some steps on how to start the college application process, starting from the very beginning. Freshmen and sophomores, read this too. It's always a good idea to have a good picture of what's coming ahead.
I tend think in a very process-focused way, so if that isn't the best planning style for you, do modify these steps to whatever will best fit your needs! That being said, if you tend to procrastinate, this is one area where you should absolutely NOT procrastinate. Plan ahead and start early. You've worked so hard till now and you want to present the very best part of you in college applications. Don't let all your years of work go down the drain just because you missed a deadline or didn't give yourself enough time to prepare well!
Start with a blank Word document or Google doc. If you know what you want to study in college, write that down at the top of your list. Bold and underline it. If you don't know what you want to study, no worries at all. You can write "STEM" or "Humanities" or "Music" or even "Undeclared." Don't worry about being too specific. For instance, you can write "biology." No need to write "Immunology," "Molecular Cellular Biology," or "Integrative Biology." The specific major names will differ from school to school, so just "biology" will suffice.
Now, jump to the next line and start a section titled "College Masterlist." If you have a few colleges in mind, list them out. Don't worry about the order yet or number of schools yet. If you have only five schools in mind, list those five. Same applies if you have fifteen or even thirty schools in mind. If you don't have any schools in mind, you can skip this step.
Now start a new section that you can title "College List - Organized." Make subsections titled "Reach," "Target," and "Safety." You probably know what these mean already, so I won't go into too much detail on what these names mean. If you're unfamiliar with these terms, watch this video. Now I want you to copy and paste schools on your list and sort them into these three categories. Remember to sort colleges into these sections by SAT or ACT scores only. If the school is test-optional, then I'd use GPA. Using a numerical benchmark is often how admission officers first filter out applicants, since it's one of the simplest and easiest methods (especially if your college received tens of thousands of applications!). You can think of getting a high SAT or ACT score as a qualifying round in college admissions. To find the average SAT or ACT score of admitted students of a college, a Google search for "[college name] admission statistics" or "[college name] freshman profile" works in most cases. To get the latest and most accurate information, be sure to reference the college's website and not a secondary platform like College Simply or Top Tier Admissions.
Now is the time to cut out or add more schools. I generally recommend having two safety schools, three to five target schools, and three to five (or more) reach schools. A good range for the number of college you will apply for is 10 to 15. Any more than that, you will likely be overwhelmed. Any less than that, you are probably missing some schools in a category. If you need to add more schools, a quick Google search will bring up a few college search tools by location, major, and more. If your school uses Naviance or a similar platform, there is often a college search tool built into the system.
Now, open a new Excel worksheet or Google Sheets. This will be your comprehensive college reference guide for the next few months. Create a column for college name, application deadline (yes, this differs among colleges), GPA range of admitted students, SAT or ACT range of admitted students, the number of recommendation letters required or allowed, and the URL to where you got all this information. This process will take you a couple of hours, but trust me when I say that this will save you a TON of time in the long run. Ideally, you'll only have to do this process once or twice and can just quickly reference this list whenever you need to.
Next step is to start the essay writing process. I describe that in this video, so be sure to check it out!