First, narrow down the number of schools you want to apply to for convenience. While applying to as many schools as possible may sound like a good idea to widen your options, the reality is it likely will create unnecessary work during one of the most challenging years of your life so far.
Location is always a big question when looking at a school. Consider schools that work with the WUE (Western Undergraduate Exchange) scholarship, which offers close to in-state tuition rates to out-of-state students at over 160 colleges. When considering the problems of student loans, it is best to pay as little as one can. The scholarship is great for students wanting to live in the western United States, where the weather is a bit less harsh and the mountains are unparalleled.
I looked to see if jobs and internships were available, and I researched the food scene and activities. It is difficult right now to actually visit schools, which makes research even more critical. Although they are a bit less revealing of a school’s actual nature, I highly recommend doing a virtual visit or department tour.
Pay attention to application due dates, then create a Common Application account and start filling it out as soon as possible. It is important to keep in mind that some schools have extra questions and essays on top of the standard application. Do not forget to answer those as well! Some schools do not use Common App, in which case I recommend creating a document where you have a database of information you can use to streamline the process.
Do not procrastinate. Senior year will be very busy, and it is up to you to find time to work on your college applications on top of a ton of papers and assessments. The most common complaint I have heard from my peers is that they were overloaded with work and then didn’t have time to work on their applications, so try and be efficient. Break up the process into manageable pieces by devoting a certain amount of time each week to essays and polishing materials before the deadline.
Lastly, read over the entire application multiple times, and have friends and family give it a once-over. I did not read over one of my applications closely enough and mistakenly told a university I was female; while this was a minor mistake and I still got accepted, it could have been a lot worse.