As college application season quickly approaches, here is some advice that will help you or your student prepare. It’s never too early to start the college application process!

1. Categorize your schools. Typically, students organize their schools by safety, target, and reach, darting in GPA, test scores, acceptance rates, and other college admissions statistics. Although numbers fail to predict whether or not a student will be accepted, they can provide some insight. Safeties are schools that you are more than likely to get into, usually over a 50% admissions rate. Targets are colleges that are still competitive given your application, so their supplemental questions require additional attention. Reaches are you dream schools that are competitive for your application but are still worth applying to. Try not to prioritize reach schools over matches and safeties since it may harm you in the long run.

2. Identify a unifying theme. Having a cohesive college application can help tell a story to admissions officers. The activities you choose to report can complement each other in a way that unifies what you’ve accomplished and why you decided to do it. Your story is the most crucial factor that will help set you apart from other applicants.

3. Contact teachers for recommendation letters. Once you have contacted them, ask them if they have a form they would like you to fill out. If they don’t have one, create a document with the information you think would help them. Teachers have many students and it can sometimes be difficult to remember specifics about every student. Therefore, sending them highlights from their class, meaningful discussions or takeaways, or your involvement in the school’s community through clubs or sports will help your teachers write a more personalized letter. Also, most schools require one letter from an 11th-grade humanities or social science teacher, an 11th-grade STEM teacher, and a counselor, but also accept an outside letter.

While it may be tempting to get a recommendation from the teachers who gave you the highest grades, the letters should be from teachers who know you best as a student, club participant/leader, and person. If you choose to send an outside letter, ensure that the recommender knows you well. A letter from someone who has seen you grow over the course of a couple of years is more meaningful than one from someone with a high position who does not know you very well. Many students send outside letters from coaches, or internship, volunteer, or work supervisors.

4. Write your college application resume or identify 10 activities to include. While you want to display your curiosity in many different fields, your activities should represent a balance between breadth and depth. If you do choose to include a resume, it should be organized by section with dates and 1-2 sentence summaries about each activity.

5. Order standardized test scores and tell your counselor which schools you are applying to. This should be done a few weeks before college applications are due since it may take longer to send and upload scores and transcripts. Try to do this soon since it can sometimes take a couple of weeks for transcripts to be received by colleges.

6. Start on a rough draft of your main common app essay, your personal essay for college, so you can have a baseline. Try to start over summer since you have the most time and given that this essay is likely the longest you will write over the course of the application process. When writing your first drafts, try to get down all of your thoughts instead of stressing over vocabulary or word count. Those can be addressed during the revision process.

7. Avoid using cliches or overused sayings. Memorable and creative writing comes from substantial concepts, and not as much from pretty sayings. Attempting to write beautifully can get in the way of trying to express your true self to admissions officers.

8. Unlike the UCs, a lot of private schools have a supplement asking why you decided to apply. To save time, create a template that allows space for clubs, classes, and volunteer organizations. Depending on what major you hope to apply under, try to showcase your strength in that area.