All the Books in All the World Won't Help
I've been doing a survey of the literature about International Admissions, and it reminded me of that time, early on in my pregnancy with each of my four children, when I read all the books about pregnancy and birth that I could get my hands on, and found them strangely lacking. Ultimately, the question I was looking to the answer for was "how do I do this?" "how will it go?" - I was looking for someone or something to make me feel better about what is and was a highly unique and personal process, that was also intimately related to what the future of MY life would look like. A lot was at stake, and I was looking for advice from a BOOK. I hope the humor of this situation, and its relevance to the college search and application process is not lost on you.
Don't get me wrong - the books are helpful, mostly to outline the major steps and timelines in the process. But if you are looking for WISDOM....no. The same can be said for all the news articles, podcasts and yes, even blog posts by college admissions consultants, test prep agencies, and (ahem!) essay specialists.
Take a deep breath and repeat after me:
You will only know how to do this by doing this.
One step at a time.
Words on the page.
Don't overthink it.
Get a group of friends who are going through the process at the same time as you and do your best to support one another through it - everyone ends up where they belong and it helps to understand that in the United States at least, it is less of an "approval" process than one of matching - matching the student to the institution. If you look at it like that, it's less scary.
So what is a stressed-out Senior to do? How should you spend your time? This is where books can help. The "How to Apply to College" books usually contain a month-by-month calendar that is relatively reliable. Use that calendar and adjust it based on your needs - sports seasons, etc - and move action items UP (never down) if you plan to audition for a play, take extra AP classes, play a sport, or do a lot of community service.
If I had to be pinned down, I feel the two most relevant areas to invest time and effort during the end stages of the application process are:
1) School Selection and RESEARCH - This means choosing a short list (no more than 10) of schools that you can afford, that meet your academic needs, that have programs or extracurriculars you are interested in, and that are located in cities or regions where you would enjoy living. A school should meet all four of those criteria to be in your top 3, and 3 out of 4 to be on the rest of the list. That's it.
Fit is King.
You need to know why you are applying to each school and be able to express it honestly, succinctly, and logically. "I just have a feeling" is not good enough. Nor is "I want to be near the beach." Read the guidebooks, online sources written by students, the website (all of it) and everything else you can find about the school to give you a sense of how that institution perceives itself. What is the intellectual environment they are intentionally creating? What speakers have been invited to campus? What are the most conflictual issues in the community? The student newspaper is a great resource for this and is frequently online. Be careful to determine if there is more than one - with different political leanings. I cannot tell you how many times a student has written an essay that bears no resemblance to the school they are applying to, and it never works. All that tells your reader is you aren't aware of what they are selling, aren't mature enough to know what you want, or in the case of the top 25 schools, are only looking for validation that you have worked hard.
2) If Fit is King, your Essay is the Queen. It's the only non-standardized portion of the application at many schools - the only time they hear your voice, unfiltered - and (given what we know about the short amount of time you have to get a reader's attention) estimate AT LEAST 10-15 hours of writing and revising for your Common Application Personal Statement. Each school that requires supplemental essays should add an additional 7-10 hours of writing. Leave time for this. Solicit readers you trust or who have expertise in this area (Pro Tip: like The Matriculadies) and don't take feedback personally. We are here to help. Some supplemental essays will be versions of the same "theme" - but it always has to be revised and versioned for that particular school. This is where research comes in. Proofread your answers. Cut and paste situations where you leave the name of a different school in the text is a deal-killer for most admissions officers.
That's the sum total of my advice on the mystical process. That doesn't mean it will stop me from continuing to post articles and podcasts from other sources, but once you have read a lot of them, you might get a sense that the advice is all the same. Because it is.
You are the only person who can do this for you, and the things about you that are unique will be what helps you find the best fit. Don't let those fade away trying to do this like everyone else.
Most importantly: you are capable of doing this. Keep believing that.