By Alyse Levine, Founder & CEO of Premium Prep College Counseling
Planning for college can feel like a daunting project that’s easy to put off. Where should I begin and how? What do I need to consider now to make sure I’m in a good position later? How has the admissions landscape changed, and how will it likely change over the next few years? Do I need help navigating this process and, if so, how do I find the right guidance and when do I start?
Questions tend to start swirling as early as eighth grade as students think ahead to high school and start planning their course selections and extracurricular activities. As students then progress through high school, more questions emerge about standardized testing, academic rigor, and yet more extracurriculars. Before you know it, you’re a junior in high school, time has slipped away, and you’re scrambling to figure out where and how to navigate the increasingly complex and competitive college admissions process.
Are your teeth clenched? Palms sweaty? Fear not!
Undoubtedly this process is stressful, but by starting early and engaging with each part of the process in a mindful way, this stress can be greatly reduced. In fact, dare I say, the process can be fun and exciting, involving healthy doses of enlightenment and self-exploration. Preparing for this next phase of life can be incredibly rewarding. College is a unique time with the first taste of independence and the freedom to try new things—all without the great responsibilities of being a full adult. If approached with the right amount of rigor, strategy, and organization, the college admission process can set you up for great success!
Planning for College: What’s the Magic Window?
So how do you get to that happy place of navigating the ins and outs of college admissions without all the stress? The key is to start earlier than you might think. No, it won’t cramp the high school experience. In fact, it can greatly enhance that experience, encouraging you to challenge yourself, explore your interests, think about your goals, and strive for achievement. Starting somewhere between the end of ninth and the middle of tenth grade enables you to break down the college process into a well-planned series of small steps—and, equally important, to pace yourself. Some students find it helpful to start even earlier, but for most that is too soon, since you’ve barely had a chance to adjust to high school. And without at least a year’s worth of high school experience and grades under your belt, it’s harder to make realistic plans.
By starting in tenth grade, students can begin to reflect on what courses they like, possible interests, and what intangibles they may want in a future college. Again, this also gives you the time and space to think without the stress of a time-crunch, and to continue to dabble without the need to really begin to focus. At this stage, students may also have friends that are juniors and seniors who are deep in the application process, giving them a peer perspective. This is the ideal time to engage with a good college counselor who can help you find authentic ways to develop your interests through coursework and extracurricular activities. This is the time to begin paving your road–even though you may not be sure where exactly that road may lead! Taking action now means you won’t look back with regrets about what could, should, or might have been. Starting early has so many benefits—emotional, academic, and strategic.
The First Steps in Planning for College: Research and Visits
The college process begins with some basic research. You should use the full spectrum of options that are available during this research stage. Talking to friends, families and teachers? Check. Reading college websites and crowdsourcing sites? Check. Looking through guidebooks and top school lists to make sure you haven’t missed anything? Check! Leave no stone unturned as you start thinking about college. Students should be developing a preliminary target college list by the end of their sophomore year, but for now don’t worry about making decisions; just take a swim. Get a feel for the college landscape and for factors like location, size, environment, student body, programs of study, etc.
After that, and especially once you have a preliminary list of schools, start thinking about college visits. Start locally and begin to get a feel for what characteristics of each campus appeal to you. If you happen to be traveling or near a school you want to consider, walking the campus (even without a formal tour) can help you evaluate if it should stay on your list. Don’t underestimate the importance of actually physically experiencing a campus and school. Seeing, feeling, and touching a place can really help you picture yourself there (or not!), and that’s a huge part of the process. On the school’s side, “demonstrating interest” will be a key component of your application process, and an official visit is a great place to start. And, as with all other parts of this process, earlier is better. High school can be stressful enough without the anxiety of being late to the game!
I encourage you to cast a wide net during this first step and explore a variety of different college types to better understand the options and start identifying what resonates with you. For example, open your computer and check out a big public school in a city, a small private school in a bucolic setting, and a medium-sized school outside a city–all without leaving your room! Even done virtually, this will give you a feel for the different college environments.
The College Process in Full-Swing: Refining the List, Applications, and Essays
If you’ve set the stage as a sophomore, your junior and senior years become a series of manageable steps. Eleventh grade is time to authentically deepen and focus your interests further. It’s also time to use the data points of evolving grades and eventual test scores to refine your college list. By the end of junior year, students should begin thinking about the various Early Decision and Early Action options available at their target schools. Early Decision offers a competitive advantage, but it is also a big commitment. This is not a decision to take lightly. Once again, planning ahead enables informed, well-considered decisions.
As soon as eleventh grade ends, it’s time to dive into those applications and essays head first. This is yet another area where starting early alleviates a lot of the stress that swirls around writing “the college essay.” Yes, it’s the summer before senior year. But unless you want to spend your first semester sweating, writing, editing, and re-writing, it behooves you to put in a fair amount of work over the summer. This, too, can be a valuable time of self-reflection, a time to think about who you are and how you want to showcase your personality, interests, and talents.
This is also when personalized guidance from a professional counselor will be incredibly valuable–and why we like to start working with you in your sophomore year. The more your counselor knows you, and the better established your rapport, the more helpful they can be. I know I’m a bit of a broken record here, but the earlier the better! I cannot fully express how much more effective we can be as your partner–and how much stress we can relieve–when we start early.
In the end, one of the most daunting parts of the college application process can be the timeline. By pacing yourself and planning ahead, you can have a less anxious, smoother, more enjoyable, and successful process. And by taking all of these steps in a thoughtful, methodical way, your last year of high school will be more than just a college preparation frenzy. This is really the goal: be in the moment, enjoy high school, but prepare for college along the way, so it doesn’t feel like a mad dash. You’ll also be much more likely to find, and gain admission to, the schools that are the best fit for you, which is ultimately what constitutes a successful college process.