Strategizing Your Undergraduate Application Process


This post is for the over-planners among you.

As Alicia elaborated in her post, there are a lot of things that you need to prepare while applying as an undergraduate to US colleges. There are a lot of choices you have to make: how many and which colleges to apply, which tests to take and when, whom to ask for recommendations, what topics you should write on, etc.  Many applicants underestimate the amount of work that they’ll have to do in this process and end up not putting their best efforts in their applications.

This is where being smart can get you ahead in the game.


Building your college list

It’s really important to honestly value yourself and where you stand in the spectrum. If your SAT is 1500 and you’re not near the top of your class, MIT might not be for you. Look at universities’ stats, look at your stats, and realistically see where you might fit.

Ideally, have around eight universities in your college list – 3 reach schools (that are a bit above your credentials), 3 match schools, and 2 safety schools.

Among these universities, there will be some universities that you like more than another in each categories. Here’s my point: among the universities that you like less,

  • choose the ones that have more similar requirements to the universities that you like more. For example, I chose to apply to Cornell instead of Harvard (both are in the iseng category) because Harvard required applicants to take three SAT subject tests, while all my other schools only need two SAT subject tests.
  • choose the ones that use Common Application, or have similar essay prompts as the ones you got from the universities you like more.

Scheduling your deadlines

There are several different undergraduate application types that have different deadlines:

  • Early decision
    You can only apply to one early decision / early action school; if you got accepted, you are required to enroll to this university and withdraw your other applications.
    Example: Carnegie Mellon (two waves of deadlines:  November 1  and December 1, notified December 15 and January 15 respectively)
  • Early action
    You can only apply to one early decision / early action school. This type, however, is nonbinding, i.e. you can still choose other schools if you got accepted.
    Example: Stanford (November 1 deadline, December 15 notification)
  • Priority application
    No restriction as to the number of schools you can apply under priority application. This is completely separate from the “early *” program as well, which means you can apply to two different schools, one with early action and one with priority application.
    Example: University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (November 1 deadline, December 15 notification)
  • Rolling admission
    You can send your application anytime in the application season, and it will be evaluated on a rolling basis. For example, you can send your application in October, and get your result in November. You can also send your application in February, and get your result in May. Basically, you control your own deadline. The huge caveat is there will be less spots available if you apply too late. Similarly, if you apply early (say, October, or November), there is less competition for you. There’s also not that many schools that offer this type of application.
    Example: University of Michigan, (2 years ago) University of Washington, Purdue University
  • Regular admission
    This is the application type that most people know and use. Typically, the deadlines are December 31 or January 1 and you will get your application result by April 1. Some schools have slightly different schedules. University of California schools (Berkeley, UCLA, UC Davis, etc.) notably have a Nov 30 deadline.

Now, how do all these fit in? Here’s how my schedule looks like during the application season:

  • September-October: Concentrate on Stanford (reach school) and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (match school).
  • November 1: Send applications to Stanford (early application) and UIUC (priority application).
  • November: Concentrate on UC Berkeley, spend 1-2 days on University of Washington (safety school).
  • November 30: Send application to UC Berkeley (regular application) and UW (rolling admission).
  • Early December: Send application to Carnegie Mellon (high match) and Cornell (high match), both with Common Application.
  • December 11: Acceptance from Stanford and UIUC.
  • Late December: Send application to MIT (reach).

Notice that after getting acceptance on December 11, I did not have to apply to two more match / safety schools I’ve been planning to apply to. By splitting all these schools into different chunks of deadlines, I can put sufficient time into each of the application (of course, proportional to the school’s priority level), while keeping my work pretty manageable. My initial college list might seem long among my friends, but I actually do think I have an easier time through this process just because I plan things really carefully.


Scheduling your tests

For most of your undergraduate applications, you need to have TOEFL,  SAT I and SAT II scores. Beyond measuring your English or mathematical skills, these tests measure your test-taking ability… So, ideally schedule to do each of the test twice.

Remember that SAT test is only offered once in a month (there are even a couple of months without SAT offering), while TOEFL test is available almost every week. Check, double check, triple check the SAT offerings and schedule your tests well ahead of time. For example, I took my first SAT I and TOEFL the first half of 11th grade, and took my second tests the first half of 12th grade.

At some cases, you can also hide test results that you are not confident about. For example, for Stanford, SAT subject test is recommended, not required. Since I wasn’t that confident with my SAT Physics (unwaranted diffidence – I ended up doing just fine), I took SAT Physics after the Stanford Early Action deadline without sending it to Stanford. I still sent my SAT Subject Math score to the school.


Advanced Placement Test

A lot have been said about SAT and TOEFL test for undergraduates, but Advanced Placement (AP) test is drastically less known among international students who don’t go to international schools.

According to Wikipedia:

The Advanced Placement (AP) program is a curriculum in the United States and Canada sponsored by the College Board which offers standardized courses to high school students that are generally recognized to be equivalent to undergraduate courses in college. Participating colleges grant credit to students who obtained high enough scores on the exams to qualify.

AP is offered in many subjects, such as Calculus, Physics, Chemistry, Psychology, or even Computer Science. The degree of difficulty is definitely higher than SAT Subject Test; in the US, AP classes are reserved for the high performing students in a particular school.

Last time I checked, there are less than five high schools in Indonesia that are authorized to give AP tests and certifications – among them, Jakarta International School (JIS). Note again that usually, students take special courses that lead to taking the tests. However, if you don’t go to JIS or other participating schools, you can actually take the AP tests and learn the materials yourself. What I did a couple of years ago was tracking the contact person who organized the AP test in JIS and registered myself to some AP tests. I just came to the test day, in June, and took the test with other JIS students and some external test-takers.

If you want to try doing AP, you need to prepare and register yourself early (January – March) to take the June test. Of course, the AP curriculum is a little different form the national curriculum, so you need to look for example test materials to prepare yourself.

How is this useful? One of the disadvantages of being international students is that, often times, admission officers might not really understand how to measure your credentials. AP test is a standardized test in the US, so good AP test scores are valuable data points in your application. In addition to that, you will get credits when you enroll to college – which means you can graduate early. After taking only four AP tests in high school, I came to Stanford with 29 credits from my AP tests, which save me about six months of school.



Those are some strategy tips from my application experience.  This might sound a little much, but I hope you’ll find it useful. Extreme caution: a lot of these tips really require you to start early, read the rules carefully, and measure your own capacities realistically. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself by overplanning things that you won’t be able to execute. Good luck!

Photo credit: pshutterbug at Flickr

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Veni Johanna
Veni Johanna is currently a software engineer at Quora. She graduated BS MS in Computer Science from Stanford University, California. In high school, Veni is the first female Indonesian representative at the International Olympiad in Informatics, where she received a silver medal. She can be reached at
  • Adam Hardiman

    Thanks for the article vennn, this will be very helpful to my brother :)

  • Iqbal Malang

    thanks this very helpful

  • dimas almuhtada

    what AP subjects did you take in high school? Thanks :)