The College Application Process

How to keep you head above the water during college application season

My husband and I recently became empty nesters. We have survived the college application process twice now, and just as our children are different from one another, so were their application processes.

My initial attitude about this entire process was, “if they want to go to college, they need to handle this process themselves. Back in my day, we applied for these things on our own.” That mindset soon changed. To say that the application process has changed significantly since I applied to college would be an understatement.

Technology has become a double-edged sword. The numerous deadlines, accounts to be set up with individual institutions, passwords, financial documents, reference letter requests — all done largely online — has added a layer of challenge to an already challenging process.

Our daughter was our first child to apply to college. The best action she took was to brainstorm a list of universities she was interested in, to eventually limit that list, and then to prioritize the list in order of her preference. For her, she prioritized using her own unique parameters: ranking of engineering program, distance from home, tuition, size of college, distance from beach, part of the SEC (we’re a sports family), etc. This gave all of us a starting point to get organized. For this article, we will assume the colleges your student will apply to have already been chosen.

With our daughter, options for schools were broad. She had excellent credentials, and her chosen field of engineering was available at numerous universities. Enter: lots of opportunities to apply to highly competitive engineering schools and apply for scholarships. This led to juggling numerous moving parts. For our son who has chosen to become an architect, there simply weren’t as many programs available, and even fewer with in-state tuition. This created a different process for him than for our daughter.

In order to get a handle on this process, I did what I always do when feeling overwhelmed: I organized. Using manila folders, I placed each school’s materials inside its folder (see Photo A). Already, if there were any paper duplicates, one could be recycled. Once all the schools had a folder, I began to review each one, making a checklist of tasks to be completed and their respective deadlines (see “College Folder Checklist” below).

Each school’s completed folder was placed inside a hanging file folder, inside the file bin designated for this process & this child (see Photo B). Additional files were created for testing, by grade, activities, etc. That list is included below. The file bin sat right by our computer where we could access it at any given time.

Alas, with organization came more confidence and less anxiety. We went from a tactile paper method to high-tech. We added deadlines to our phones so that all of us were aware of what needed to be done and by when. As schools fell off the potential list, those folders were set aside and recycled.

Eventually, acceptance letters and wait list letters arrived, each filed in its respective folder. And as decisions were made, the number of folders dwindled. By the final decision, it was time to then create the “college freshman binder” (see our blog titled “College Freshman Binder”).

The upside of all this is that at some point, my husband and I should have an amazingly designed and engineered dream home.

And for the record, our daughter attends Clemson University. Which is NOT in the SEC. Go Tigers! And our son attends the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, which is in the SEC. Go Vols!

And so no family members are offended: Go Big Red! Go Wildcats! Anchor Down!


Founder, Professional Organizer, & Empty Nester

Photo A

Photo A

Photo B

Photo B

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Suggested Categories for File Bin


One hanging folder per school


This held various articles we came across (e.g. Campus Visit Checklist, Junior & Senior Meeting Notes, Worksheets for Estimating Financial Contribution (EFC), State University Requirements), pretty much anything that we deemed worthwhile, went in this folder.


TN Promise — This is specific to our state, so use what makes sense to your situation.

Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) — if you haven’t heard this term, you will. This is the application most colleges use; however, some private universities have their own. You’ll need copies of tax returns for multiple years. It’s about as much fun as applying for a mortgage.

College Financial Aid — applications by specific university.


ACT — including testing dates, username/passwords, scores, etc.

SAT — including testing dates, username/passwords, scores, etc.

Other — if your child has a learning disability that may allow for special consideration or allowances on testing, keep those documents handy.


Here we filed relevant information by grade. This included report cards, awards, certificates, records of volunteering, notes regarding specifics of extracurricular activities in which child participated. These will come in handy as it’s easy to forget what was done in 9th grade when the student is a senior. We created folders for each: Senior, Junior, Sophomore, Freshman


These were other files that were relevant to the child & the season, so we added these to the back. It kept information in one place & easily accessible. Tailor the categories to your needs: Mission Trip Information, Car & License Info, Employment, Reference Letters, Essays

Organizing a Toddler

Everyone knows that having a toddler running through the house makes it difficult to stay organized throughout the day.  There’s nothing more frustrating than continuously playing catch up and clean up, but you don’t have to do it alone.  Luckily, organizing doesn’t have an age limit, and I’ve been working with my own daughter to develop habits of cleaning up after herself.  She knows that before going to bed, leaving the house, or starting a new activity, the toys have to be cleaned up.  The Barbies have to be put away before the paints can come out, one game has to be cleaned up before another can be opened.  It’s not impossible, it just takes time, and there are a few things you can do to help your little ones along the way.

1.     Create designated spots for all her toys.  I store the Barbies near the doll house, and the arts and crafts close to the kitchen, because we do our crafts on the kitchen table.

2.     Use bins that have handles, and are small enough to carry.  This makes it easy move categories out of your living spaces when guest arrive.

3.     Labels!  I label everything.  It truly does make it easier for family members, babysitters, and even cleaners to be in the know of where things belong.  I bought my label maker on Amazon for $30, and it’s now lasted over five years.

4.     Come up with a fun way to put toys away.  Sing a song, race to see who can clean up the fastest, bribe with treats.  Whatever works.

5.     Create categories that work for your family.  Specifics can be daunting for a three year old, so I have broad categories in my home.  Dolls and Barbies go together, blocks and building toys share the same bin, all stuffed animals are together, etc.  As kids get older, it will become easier to stay organized with more detailed categories.

Forming these habits take time, but like potty training or weaning off a pacifier, helping your child to understand the ‘why’ behind cleaning up after themselves is key.  Begin by having your child watch you clean, then start having them help you clean up, then turn it into your child cleaning up while you simply helping a little.  In the end, they will eventually learn how to do it themselves.


Professional Organizer & Motherhood Magician

Lighten the Load

Why are some of us so obsessed with organizing?  Does it bring peace of mind?  Yes.  Do some of us have OCD tendencies that are only satisfied by making a room look picture-perfect?  Definitely.  People often ask me why I’d want to clean up after others, but I firmly tell them that what we do isn’t cleaning; organizing is completely different.  

Picture coming home from work and the kids are whining, the dog is barking, notifications are chiming nonstop on your phone, you have emails to send and phone calls to make, dinner to cook, and no time to clean up the mess in the living room before that dinner party this weekend.  Your daughter decides she will only eat apples for a snack, and after opening every single kitchen drawer, you still can’t find the apple slicer.  You’re trying to calm down the lack-of-sliced-apples situation when your boss calls asking about paperwork you can’t seem to recall.  Then your son tosses his sweaty shin guards into the living room, knocks over a drink onto the new carpet, and you spend so long looking for the carpet cleaner that it’s too late, and there’s already a stain.

Now imagine that you knew that the apple slicer is always kept in the second drawer to the right of the sink, and that you can cut that apple while on the phone assuring your boss that you do indeed have the paperwork he needs, because you know exactly which file in your office has that specific paperwork.  And you know that when your son gets home from soccer practice he knows to put his shin guards in the bin in the mudroom labeled ‘shin guards,’ instead of on the middle of the living room floor.

Maybe if life was like that, you’d breathe a little easier.  Maybe it would help you to realize that yes, even amongst chaos, you can have your life together.

Now don’t get me wrong, no one has got it all together.  Not even professional organizers.  We’re all human, just like you.  And eight-year-old boys will not always put their shin guards away, even if they know exactly where to put them.

But do I personally keep my files in order, and know where to find my apple slicer?  Yes.  Does it make me feel more in control in my own home, and less burdened?  You bet.

Organizing helps.

That’s why our tagline is what it is: Lifting burdens.

According to a study from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, clutter in the home can actually affect your hormones.  The study found that women living in more cluttered homes had higher reports of depression, whereas those who lived less cluttered homes were able to better control stress and negative thoughts.

Becoming organized is like discovering something you didn’t realize you were missing out on.  Like hearing music for the first time through Beats headphones, or switching from Converse to Nike Frees.  Or sailing.  Or homemade cheesecake.  Or How I Met Your Mother.

I think you get the point.



Professional Organizer &  Organizing Enthusiast