“On your mark! Get set … Go!” With the opening of the school year, the starter’s call has sounded on the marathon that is the next college application season. Ready or not, high school seniors with college aspirations need to step up if they want to compete.
The coming months will establish the pace for each candidate. Good planning, positive energy, and careful execution will move students to the head of the pack. By contrast, inertia can be a killer! Slow starts resulting from a lack of focus and poor organization can be overcome, but rarely without undue amounts of angst that add stress to a process that is already emotionally charged.
The following are tips for students as they approach the “starting line.” While there can be no guarantees with regard to outcomes, knowing what lies ahead—and planning accordingly—can be advantageous as you map out your “race.” These suggestions are intended to put you in a more competitive position while relieving a little stress along the way!
1. Prepare yourself for a busy year.
“Okay, so what’s new!?” you say. Well, being able to anticipate the rush of senior year activity is one thing. Managing it is quite another. The key: take control. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted by things “beyond your control.” Rather, know what you want to accomplish and be prepared to do what it takes to make things happen. Be responsible—no excuses. Take charge of your life and give meaning to the things you do. Success won’t just happen. You will need to make it happen.
2. Invest in yourself.
The college application process will seem like another high-level course or two on top of everything else on your schedule. That doesn’t mean you should stop doing the things you enjoy. Instead, give them everything you’ve got. Expand your involvement. Look for leadership opportunities. Try new roles. Doing so may prove quite challenging and require a difficult balancing act on your part. When you consider the potential short and long-term benefits, though, aren’t you worth the effort?!
3. Stay on top of your grades!
Selective colleges want to see what you will do in the classroom when you think the pressure is off—when no one is looking. Your hard work has gotten you this far academically—now is the time to sprint to the finish!
4. Finalize your college list.
Ideally, your list is already taking shape. By the end of September, it should be set. While there are all kinds of reasons students feel the need to apply to lots of colleges, a good number is eight (8). If you have managed expectations around a good college fit, this list should be dominated by “target” schools—places at which you have a reasonable chance (40%-60% probability) of gaining admission.
5. Research the applications of the colleges to which you will apply.
If you haven’t done so already, there is no time like the present. Create an account with the Common Application. Become familiar with the supplementary information required by the colleges to which you are applying on the Common App’s “member pages” as well as the institutional applications for schools that do not use the Common Application. Do the same with the Universal Application and/or the new Coalition Application if you are so inclined. Create a spreadsheet on which you can note deadlines and requirements.
6. Develop a plan for telling your story.
What are the key messages you want colleges to know about you? How can you use the different elements of the application to convey those messages—to “connect the dots” in revealing a clearer picture of who you are?
7. Start working on your essays!
While you don’t need finished drafts right off the bat, you need to start sometime. Remember, good writing is a process, not an event. It doesn’t happen overnight. Try to have solid drafts of at least three 500-word essays finished by the end of September. Otherwise, the “adrenalin rush” that has served you well in the past might prove to be more elusive than you anticipate later in the fall.
8. Make sure your supporters are ready and able to help you!
By the end of September, you should have met with the individuals who will write letters of recommendation for you and notified your counselor of the colleges to which you may be applying. In addition, familiarize yourself with your high school’s procedures and deadlines for processing application materials including transcripts, mid-year grades, and counselor recommendations.
9. If you are thinking about Early Decision, plan an overnight visit at your first-choice college AND at another of your favorite colleges.
Compare your impressions of each before completing any ED forms. If you are not 100%, unconditionally committed to a school, then ED should not be considered. If you are applying Early Action to schools that offer that option, be respectful of the rules each has regarding the use of EA as some offer it as a restrictive, single-choice opportunity.
10. Take the SAT or ACT at least once between September and December.
11. Give your parents a list of application deadlines.
Presumably, one of them will be paying your application fees. They need to know when and how much.
12. Become familiar with the financial aid forms and process.
In determining your eligibility for need-based financial aid, all schools require the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and many private schools also require the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile. Know the submission deadlines. (Note: you can submit the FAFSA as early as October 1 using your IRS tax return for the second year prior to your student’s entry into college. Consult financial aid professionals at schools where you might be applying if you have questions. If you are considering Early Decision and cost is a factor, many schools will meet with you to provide an “early estimate” of your expected family contribution (EFC). Do not regard information taken from institutional Net Price Calculators as the absolute gospel with regard to your EFC.