Using org-roam to organise college application information

I’ve got to apply for my undergraduate degree 1 year from now, and I thought organizing all the application information to do with the colleges I’m interested in applying to would be a good idea.
I’ve been using Emacs for a couple of years now, and I’ve used Org as a markup format often. However I have not used the “PDA-like” abilities of Org much, and have never used either the Zettelkasten method or org-roam before.

I have 2 main questions I would like to answer:

Is the Zettelkasten method a good fit for the task?

What would be the best way to model or achieve this with the Zettelkasten method and Roam?

Since what I want to do is something that may have a huge impact in my life, I don’t want to do the usual Emacs (or more generally Linux) thing of configuring Emacs for majority of my time, and then scrambling to do my work at the last minute (or not getting any work done). I would like to start immediately without much delay, which is why “How To Request” is so specific and niche.

The Requirements


For each college I want to apply to, I would like to maintain the following:

  1. The College Application Procedure(s)
  2. Documents and certifications which are needed for the applications
  3. College info on dual degrees and minors
  4. College Housing
  5. Fees structure and break up
  6. Financial aid available from the College
  7. Application deadlines
  8. General information about the College
  9. Probably more info

The College Application Procedure(s)

I would maintain my own notes on the steps in the “CAP”. More significantly, a college may have multiple ways of applying, and I necessarily need to track all the procedures and deadlines associated with them because each method may have a different chance of acceptance.

Documents and certs

I need to have a list of the documents I need to apply. More info on how I would like to manage them below.

Dual Degrees

I would primarily like to study Computer Science, but if possible, I would also like to major in Mathematics and potentially minor in Physics. I need to maintain info on the allowed combinations and changes to the CAP and Fees.

College Housing

I would like maintain info on the rules on college housing, whether it is provided, the various options if provided (and their variation in price), and info on alternatives (opting out).

Fees Structure

I would like to know how much studying in a College will cost in total, as well as a break up of that cost, along with a structure on how payments will be made.

Financial Aid

I need to know what financial aid I am eligible for from the college, and what is the grant range, along with its average grant amount.

This may potentially lead to another “class of notes” on Finance, with info on private scholarships and student loans.

Application deadlines

I would like to maintain on which dates applications open and close.

General Info

I need to maintain general info like the country a college is in, medium of teaching (of the degree I opt for), average acceptance rate, as well as some trivia like date of founding and other random things.

More Info

My setup needs to be able to include new information that I choose to include. I would also like to have all the info on a College in one org file, but I am willing to compromise (I may not be able to have my cake and eat it too!).

Documents and Certifications

Additionally, I would like to maintain some notes on specific documents and certifications.
Eg: SAT results, and Language Certifications. For each doc I would like know the following:

  1. Where I’ve got it saved (most likely a path in my computer)
  2. Which colleges and/or countries depend on it
  3. The deadline to procure a document (which is the deadline of the first college to need it)

If my doc depends on an exam, I also need:

  1. Exam application procedure
  2. Exam centres accessible to me (probably a list of hyperlinks)
  3. Exam dates and frequency
  4. Personal notes about the exam
  5. Probably a lot more info

College-Common Information

Some information is common between colleges because they are in the same country or similar. For example to apply to the University of Cambridge, Imperial College London, and University College London, I would have to apply through UCAS, and submit common documents to each College (and if I’m lucky to the British Government). I would like to maintain pages on common application procedures (UCAS) and be able to find documents which are common because of British regulation without explicitly mentioning them in the College information.

Nice to Haves

Note: I will flesh this section out later if this post has good reception

I would like to have 2 general nice to haves:

  1. A good way to present, export and analyze my info (eg: view my deadlines with Org-Agenda or another Calendar, and run scripts on them.)
  2. Templating to make adding new Collges/Docs/Common Info easier and faster.

What I expect

Like I mentioned earlier, I’m unsure whether org-roam would be a good fit. I do know hierarchically organizing this info will be very difficult. I plan to include many colleges, 25 at the very least, even if I don’t finally apply to all of them. So, my setup will have to be able cope with large volumes of data. I have 1.5 yrs before I need to start applying, which is why I am confident I can complete all of this. Of course this info has to be easily editable via Emacs and tracked by git which is why I am checking out roam.

As time progresses I think I will add more complexity and I expect my system to be able to manage that. Like I mentioned, I will also need a good way to present my data, and export them (to college specific checklists in a pdf) because I will need to share this data with other non-Emacs users.


You do not need to take my advice and please do what you think is right for you.

Just as a context, I finished my bachelor degree 20+ ago. I didn’t study in the US. Much later (about 7 years ago) I took a sabbatical from my work, went to London, UK, and got my master’s degree. You didn’t say this specifically, but I am guessing you are mainly aiming to get into a university / college in the US (I’m just saying that I have no idea how universities work in the US). As with many other professionals, I have been managing multiple deadlines for different projects and recurring tasks.

If I were to manage college application as a personal project, I would not use the Zetelkasten method and Org-roam. The reason is simple:

  • You are not used to using the tool for this purpose as you say, and you don’t want to spend much time honing the tool
  • Zetelkasten method is not originally designed for task management or project management
  • Org-roam has been used for task / personal project management, but this would require tuning your workflow (which takes time) – I have written about this from my observation

Instead, I would use a combination of a spreadsheet (e.g. Excel), folder structure, and some note-taking app (any app would do e.g. Org with Emacs, MS Word, Evernote, Notion, etc.). As you say you want to share the document, I would lean toward using an app within the same suite as the spreadsheet app: MS Word for MS Excel, Google Docs for Google Sheets, etc., but it’s really up to you.

I will show an example:

Spreadsheet would provide an overview of each application open & end dates, status, and high-level information that I would like to have at a quick glance. This would make it easy to see different dates for different applications and my status for each. I could also add calculation of fees and other living costs in different sheets if necessary (I think you will want to have some calculation of costs for different universities in different countries).

Folder structure would let me store detail information, research outcome, and notes in an organized way for easy retrieval. This would help me delve into the detail when necessary…

For detail notes, Org with Emacs would be a good app to use. I don’t think it matters much whether I go with a single Org file or a separate Org file for each collage, because the folder structure would help me organize the information. MS Word / Google Docs would be a good choice if you do not have strong desire to use libre software tools

Again, just my view. No need to follow this. Wish you the best of luck; your future is bright :slight_smile:


First of all, kudos on starting thinking about this so early!

As @nobiot said, a spreadsheet-style table would be a good format for organizing this kind of tabular-style data, deadlines, fees, additional requirements and so on.

But that’s only one pat of the application process, the administrative part. There’s also the part where you collect information on what the different courses and options, pros and cons, thoughts and feelings you have about each university are. There’s the part where you start writing your personal statements, and suddenly you’re not sure what you’re supposed to say or which order to write it in, or whether it should be the same for all universities or whether you should tweak it a little for this one and a bit more for that one, and how do you tweak it?

Spreadsheets are great for data that’s highly structured already: every application will have a university name, and a deadline, and a fee, and a contact email for the admissions officers, and a…

While spreadsheets and tables are great for data where each entry has the same “shape”, Zettelkasten or other similar methods based on linking (because Zettelkasten certainly isn’t the only approach to link-based notetaking and thinking) works best with information, thoughts, and ideas that don’t necessarily have an obvious structure straight away, but one where the structure is what you’re looking to discover and develop over time.

It’s exactly the same difference as with notebooks: do you always use grid notebooks, lined notebooks, or blank-page notebooks? Well, it depends: are you sketching out plans for building a shed, are you writing an essay, or are you drawing a mind-map? To each their own.

My suggestion is this: Use spreadsheets for the raw data that needs to be organized in a way that can be easily seen, understood, and browsed at a glance - this will help you navigate the administrative process. Then, use a free-form link-based note taking system (like the one Org Roam provides, but there are other options too) to keep track of your thoughts during the whole process and help you navigate their unstructured connections.

Regarding Emacs and spending all of your time configuring it, that’s not usually as big a problem as people make it to be. If you want to use Emacs for everything, from writing and debugging code in 10+ different programming languages to doing your emails and writing scripts for managing your TODO lists, then yeah you’re going to have to spend some time configuring it, but then again you’d have to spend that time configuring most other tools that you choose - there’s no “one size fits all” when it comes to personal workflows.

Realistically, to work with Org Roam you just need an Emacs setup that has Org Roam installed and the basic key bindings configured. There are plenty of such streamlined configs out there on the internet and you can just copy-paste them into your own and you’re good to go, or I’d be happy to put one together for you if you’d like (I’ve been meaning to do something similar for some of my friends for a while now, just Emacs+Org Roam with simple key bindings, so this could just be the final push I need to finally do it).

Then, over time, if you see the need you can start getting more hands-on; don’t dismiss spending hours tweaking your main tools that you use everyday for your studies and work. Trust me, whether you go with computer science or physics you’re going to have to write and navigate through a lot of code in your life, so what’s spending a couple of hours here and there making sure that your tools work the way you want them to work and help you be more efficient, both with your hands and with your mind and time?

Lastly, learning Emacs teaches you a lot of things about software development itself, because it’s not just a program but a programmable program that’s good for programming - think about that sentence for a moment.

Whatever you choose, remember to make use of the centuries-worth of collective experience and knowledge of everyone else working with these tools; forums, subreddits, discord servers, ask and get help with everything you may get stuck on, but don’t forget to always try at least something to solve the problem yourself before you give up and ask for help!

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I’m actually based in India, so the primary aim is to apply within India (mainly because that’s what I can afford). However I personally feel that I am a “top-tier college worthy” student, so I want to try my luck with that (and also the state of Indian education is sad). Other than India I would like to apply to places in Europe and UK, North America, Singapore, and maybe Australia.

In India, (I’m not clear on the details yet) there are (like I mentioned) multiple ways to apply to college, with varying levels of bureaucracy to sift through. Given how overpopulated India is, competition is very intense, any serious aspirant needs to know every nook and cranny to a college (and this applies to even “good” colleges not just top-tier ones within India). It’s very sad that a student has to put in is so much effort (especially considering the 15hr slogs every Engineering contender calls a “day”). Unfortunately for me, that’s how India works. and I have to cope with it (So, I will have to maintain very text heavy data.)

Since I am going to apply abroad too, I might as well as give my best shot, and have the same attitude to foreign universities as I have to Indian colleges. I’m mainly looking at Europe because it’s cheaper than the US and Canada. However, I’m open to other options which is why I want to investigate this wide range of places.

Is there anything you would recommend (which is preferably text file driven) better suited to project management? I originally didn’t intend to treat this as a “project” but more as a

A spreadsheet sounds like a good way to go and it’s a lot more robust than CSVs or Org files. Unfortunately not track-able with git. Using it in conjunction with some org files seems like a good idea.

So, I don’t need the “non-Emacs Users” (basically my family and maybe friends) to be able to edit. They just need to able view the content. I think a Makefile to build all the pdfs with pandoc will do the trick. (Well my dad could potentially edit, but he uses Vim, so I doubt he would want to touch this.)

I find I’m less productive in word processors (the WYS in WYSIWYG is rather distracting) mainly because it doesn’t give me the freedom that text files and LaTeX give and the dexterity that Emacs provides. I’m generally more comfortable with tools like (and workflows surrounding) Emacs, git, (M|R)ake, bash etc. because those are the tools I have spent more time with and honing. I would ideally like to maintain everything under a git repo or some form of VC (knowing how many times I have done something stupid which I had to immediately undo)

The folder structure seems like a good way to organize University-specific things. How I organize something within a university’s directory seems easy enough - I could make one big org file with everything in it or split the level 1 headers into separate (standard) files.

What I don’t think the dir structure is well suited for is to deal with data that is not easy to classify. Things like notes on UCAS or IELTS or Financing etc. Sure, I could classify this in some manner, but I may end up with a classification that makes certain documents to be 4 directories deep. I have done this in the past, and I find that one I go past 3 levels of nesting, it starts to get difficult to keep everything organized.

Another issue is that sorting things hierarchically makes my system rigid, and difficult to change once I start noting something different. This is another reason why I though something like the Zettelkasten method is suited for the task.

To summarize, I have 3 questions (well really 2):

1.A. Do you know of a more text driven (VC friendly) project management technique?
1.B. Do you know of a way to track my spreadsheets using a VC (like git)
2. How would you manage unstructured (or difficult to structure) data in a spreadsheet and in the folder structure?

Exactly. I also felt notes on the administrative stuff too would be helpful.

I have never had to deal with such unstructured data before, and I also haven’t used link-based note taking before. So, I was unsure if one could help manage the other, since I didn’t have any experience of either. It’s good to know that I was thinking in the right direction.

About other link-based notetaking methods, do you have any suggestions? Is one better suited for certain kinds of unstructured thoughts than the other? Or are most of them trying the solve same problem, but just in different ways?

This seems like what I might finally go with: Spreadsheets in conjunction with link-based notes.

Will do!

A couple of years of FOSS work taught me that.

I think you misunderstood me - I have put my hours into configuring Emacs, multiple window managers, zsh, email clients and more. (Though I haven’t gotten to the point of compiling my own kernels). I have enjoyed the process and learned a lot. However, this process takes time and effort. There are excellent tools out there which deserve the time spent to hone them. But sometimes I need to use a tool before I know it well and I’m not sure if a tool is best suited for my task.

There is a whole segment of people out there who expect you to learn the tool well and are allergic to questions on the lines of “How do I do x in y”. The standard answer to this is “RTFM” or “You can’t expect the community to solve the problem for you” (think StackOverflow). While I do understand their point - you obviously cannot “do x in y” without knowing “how y works” and thinking yourself (I too have been frustrated by such questions in other forums), there are times when I don’t have the time to hone and understand the tool well before I start whatever I need to do.

I was simply trying to justify asking my question before putting in the hours to understand Org Roam.

That’s why any true Emacs user uses Emacs.