By Liz Jackson
I often hear from students and parents that they know the college search and application process will be stressful, but they aren’t sure when or where to start. Applying to college and finding the right-fit schools is a process with a lot of moving parts, so I can completely relate to those feelings! But one of best ways to ensure that the process doesn’t become overwhelming is to start planning and taking specific steps early–and by senior fall, you’ll feel confident that you’ve taken care of everything you need to, and you can relax and enjoy the special social events that come with your last year of high school.
So if you’ve got a student in the Classes of 2023 or 2024, here’s what you can be doing now to prepare for a smooth transition to college!
- Practice building relationships with your teachers: If you skip ahead a year, you will notice that a year from now, you will be needing to request letters of recommendation from two of your junior year teachers. But now is a great time to think about how well you know your teachers and what impressions they have of you. It’s a good practice to try to get to know your teachers and talk to them, even outside of class. This spring, try to stop by and talk to teachers–ask a question about something you didn’t understand, or just ask them if they had a nice weekend. It may feel awkward at first, but it will help you get more out of your education in the future, and help you build the types of relationships with your teachers that eventually result in great letters of recommendation!
- Develop cool summer plans and try new things: If you’re a sophomore, then the last time you went to school in-person without the changes wrought by COVID-19 was in middle school! So it’s likely that your extracurricular activities have been limited due to the pandemic. But remember that colleges are looking for students who demonstrate commitment and interests outside the classroom. This summer is a perfect opportunity to try the activity you’ve always wanted, or to take an online class in something not offered at your school. Maybe it’s the first time you’ll have the opportunity to volunteer or be part of a political campaign or have a job as a camp counselor. Whatever you choose to do, make sure you are spending your time intentionally, and remember that great summer plans are developed in the spring!
- Take a diagnostic ACT: You have probably heard that Galin is offering free diagnostic ACT tests in March! A diagnostic test gives you the experience of a full-length ACT but without the pressure of a score that is sent to colleges. Taking a diagnostic test helps you better understand your strengths and weaknesses academically. It gives you a sense of what colleges are realistic matches for you academically, and it assists in putting together a test prep plan. While many colleges are likely to be test-optional when you apply, standardized testing can still be useful for many students, and sustained test prep over time is the best way to score the highest you can!
- Choose senior courses wisely: For many students, senior year presents the opportunity for more choices in your classes than ever before, and lots of students are considering AP or other much more challenging courses than they have taken so far in high school. Colleges place a strong emphasis on a student’s academic rigor in senior year when they evaluate applicants, so it is especially important to take the most challenging courses that are appropriate for you, in the subjects you enjoy, and to show colleges that you are prepared to do college-level work!
- Start filling out your applications: It might sound crazy, but we typically advise students to begin filling out their Common Applications in spring of junior year! Of course, applications won’t get submitted until senior fall, but getting a start early means that students can work on the applications slowly over time and fill out each section carefully without feeling rushed or pressured for time.
- Visit Colleges: Probably the most important thing you can do this spring is to visit colleges! Most schools have resumed in-person tours and information sessions, and visiting campuses in the spring, ideally when classes are still in session and students are on-campus, is the best possible way to get a feel not only for a college’s academic environment but also its location and campus culture. Many families choose to use spring break junior year to visit schools that are further from home, but exposure to any college campuses helps you narrow down what you are looking for in a school, so even if a big trip isn’t in your plans this spring, make it a point to see some schools locally or within a short drive.
- Decide on essay topics: Some colleges change their essay topics each year, while others stay the same. One essay that pretty much every college requires is the personal statement–an essay of ~500 words on a topic of the student’s choosing, to help the college better understand the student’s story and perspective. The personal statement is one of the most important pieces of writing applicants do throughout the process, so take your time deciding on your topic, and maybe even engage in some brainstorming activities before starting the writing process. I often tell students that the mark of a great essay is if you can read it to your best friend and have your friend think it sounds like you!
- Request teacher and counselor letters of recommendation: Many colleges ask for up to two letters of recommendation from teachers who have taught you and from your school counselor. I recommend making a plan for who you will ask for recommendations prior to spring break, and then having conversations with those teachers in May, to formally ask the teachers to write for you. Remember that your teachers write these recommendations as a courtesy to you, and so asking them well in advance of any deadlines, and allowing them the opportunity to write their letters in the summer when they may be less busy, is a good way to show that you respect their time! Your school counselor may be expecting to write a letter of recommendation for you, but it is still good practice to ask! Many teachers and counselors will ask you to please submit information to them that will help them write their letters–of course make sure you adhere to any requests or policies that they have! This will ensure that they mention your politeness in their letters 🙂
- Prepare for college interviews: Interviews are not a required or recommended part of the college application process for too many colleges, but many colleges will offer the opportunity to connect individually with a student or even an admissions counselor in the summer before senior year. These conversations are excellent ways to demonstrate your interest in a college but it’s important to do some preparation before embarking on these interviews. You’ll want to practice an introduction of yourself and your major interests, make sure you can articulate a reason for being interested in the college, and have a few questions ready to ask.
- Take standardized tests : It is ideal to complete your standardized testing in the spring of junior year or summer thereafter. This allows you to begin submitting your college applications right at the beginning of senior year and avoids having to wait for additional test scores to come in before submitting. It also allows you to take your standardized tests at times when you would already be naturally preparing for academic exams, like APs, so your brain is in testing mode :).
Of course, each student’s process is a little different, as each student is a little different! In the end, you’ll want to adjust your approach depending on the colleges you are considering, but starting your research, your test preparation, and your applications early allows you to be the most thoughtful, and least stressed applicant you can be! For support with your student’s timeline, please contact us!