Alyse Levine, Founder & CEO of Premium Prep College Counseling
This summer has been highly unusual, to say the least. I hope you have had some solid down-time and found creative ways to safely socialize with friends. Maybe you’ve even had opportunities to dig into a favorite activity or pastime. A range of high school school plans will be rolled out over the next month, and whereas there are differences between them, it is safe to say that none are “normal.” And there remain a lot of unknowns. That said, we have spent the past four months educating ourselves, speaking to admissions counselors, attending webinars, huddling together as a team, and doing whatever else we can do to stay up-to-date and make sure that we are prepared to properly advise our students and families. This will certainly be a school year like none other. Yet, there are concrete steps you can take to maintain a smooth college process. This blog post contains valuable tips for all high school students.
I’ve divided this blog post into four sections, each addressing a different grade. Feel free to read the whole thing, but it might be helpful to jump to whichever stage is appropriate for you:
Tips for Rising 12th Graders
Now that senior year is approaching, this is a good time to take stock of what really matters to you and approach your final year of high school with greater focus and perspective. Senior year will surely be different than what you imagined not too long ago, but hopefully it will be smoother and more organized than last spring. Try to begin your year with a positive attitude and do some advanced planning to make time for your college process. Remember to also make time for yourself so that you manage the stress and take good care of your mental health. This is paramount! Here are some 12th Grade tips:
Plan. Create a schedule for your fall semester. Getting ahead of the fall season’s mad rush is the single most helpful thing you can do for yourself. Now is the time to organize yourself and take note of what is due when so you can stay on track with your essay progress while balancing the demands of school. Being organized will make the application process feel less overwhelming and give you a sense of how to pace yourself. Make a plan that balances your college applications with your academics and extracurricular activities.
The College List. While refining your college list is hard because you likely haven’t seen all your schools, use virtual tools to visit and research schools. Aim to have a near final list by the end of August so that you can work on these supplemental essays. Remember the importance of balance, so that you have an equal number of reaches, targets and likelies. Choosing an Early Decision school is a bit tougher this year, again because you have probably not seen all your schools. Still, this can be a great option if you feel like you have a clear first choice. Many schools offer Early Action, another terrific option because it gives you an advantage at most schools and allows you to hear earlier but does not require a commitment.
Essays. The summer is the best time to get a head start on your essays. The fall is the time to continue this work, pacing yourself since you are now also juggling school. If you haven’t started your essays already, now is the time to learn about what makes a great college essay and do some brainstorming exercises. Ideally, you want to complete your personal essay (or at least have a solid draft) by the end of the summer. (For tips on the Personal Essay, see my previous post.) Most college applications and supplemental questions were made available on August 1, so you will want to be ready to dive into those as soon as possible if you haven’t already. The more you can do now, the more manageable your senior year will be.
Researching Colleges and Demonstrating Interest. Let colleges know that you’re excited about them. Hopefully, at this point you have a more refined list of schools to which you’re considering applying. Let them know that you’re interested! Colleges have really ramped up their virtual opportunities, so be sure to take advantage of these. The live events are often best, and I think it’s great to hear from current students—student panels, student-led live tours, anything with students! You can also glean a lot about a school’s culture and student body from following it on social media. Admissions counselors are also now more accessible than ever because they are not on the road. If you have questions, consider reaching out directly. They might even offer to hop on a Zoom with you!
Interviews. Many colleges have increased their interview offerings (by video) due to the lack of in-person opportunities to meet admissions counselors on campuses and in your local area. Check out if the schools on your list are offering interviews, and if so, be sure to sign up right away. Now is a great time to begin practicing for interviews. Like a good resume, interviews require preparation. It’s totally normal—expected, really—to be nervous. Practicing your interview skills early and often means that you’ll feel more comfortable when the real ones come around, and you’ll be well versed in discussing the topics and interests that are most important to you. Ask your counselor, a family member, or a friend to practice with you. For more on this, see my precious blog post on interviews, much of which remains relevant.
Academics. One of the most unusual things about the current situation is that many of you who will be learning remotely may not have the opportunity to meet your teachers in person. Do your best to get to know them virtually. Especially in light of the various grading policies last spring, your grades this year are extremely important. Put your best foot forward. Also, take a final look at your course selections. Do you have the right balance of rigor? Do your classes align with your interests and goals? (If they don’t, it may not be too late to switch.) If you do well first quarter or trimester, be sure to communicate these grades to colleges.
Testing. Certainly, testing is one of the biggest wild-cards this year. Over 1,300 four-year colleges have ACT/SAT-optional policies for this coming year. This is unprecedented. Some of you have test scores, some of you don’t, and some of you are still hoping to take a test this fall. Colleges are really trying to be flexible and understanding about the current situation, so not having test scores will not be detrimental at most schools. Whether or not you should send in scores you have should depend on how they compare to a school’s middle 50% range. Subject Tests are really taking a backseat this year, since just trying to take the SAT or ACT is the priority. AP scores can be a valuable addition to show colleges mastery of specific subjects.
Letters of Recommendation. Spring semester made it tricky to think through teacher recommendations. Do your best now to pinpoint which teachers you want to write your recommendation letters. Many students did ask teachers for letters at the end of junior year. If you haven’t done that yet, don’t worry! But, before school starts, decide which teachers know you best and can speak to your academic and character strengths. In addition to asking two teachers, your school counselor will also be writing a recommendation. Make sure you know the steps to ensure your school counselor has the input she or he needs to write that letter. Often a student or parent brag sheet is available to complete. Supplemental recommendations are another consideration. If you do send one, it should provide a truly unique perspective from the required letters and one letter is ample. More than this is typically considered overkill.
Commitment and Leadership. Hopefully there will be opportunities to re-engage in your activities this fall or find new, creative ways to pursue your interests if you need to do so remotely. Maybe you’ve already begun doing this over the summer. Senior year is your chance to solidify your involvement in those activities and demonstrate a concerted investment in the arenas about which you’re most passionate. Narrow down to one or two authentic interests, and find ways to deepen them and possibly take on leadership roles.
Majors and Programs. Researching different college majors and programs is a great way to think about your own interests and where they might fit in once you arrive at college. It’s also important to understand which majors are the most popular at which schools and what particular strengths those programs might be seeking. There may even be fascinating majors that you didn’t realize existed! Lastly, if colleges give you the opportunity to be considered for more than one program or major, this is a great opportunity to widen your options.
Financial Aid and Scholarships. Have a family discussion about whether you’ll be applying for financial aid and/or merit scholarships and if finances are an important factor in your college search. This is critical information, and better to know in advance so you can tailor your research and application decisions accordingly.
Resume. A good resume is always helpful to have on hand, especially once college interviews start rolling around. And, since a good resume tells a story about your accomplishments and experiences, it can also help with your essays. Now is the time to draft it, if you haven’t already. Getting all your activities and interests down on paper can make clear what areas to emphasize throughout your college applications. Some colleges also allow you to upload a resume with your application.
Tips for Rising 11th Graders
Junior year will surely be different than what you imagined not too long ago, but hopefully it will be smoother and more organized than last spring. It is so important to take stock of what really matters to you and find a balance between increasing your focus and finding ways to relieve stress and escape the echo-chamber. Generally, you should begin to think more seriously about your college process, while making sure that you’re taking care of yourself and keeping perspective on what’s important. Junior year has a reputation for being a doozy, with all the demands of testing, tougher courses, more involvement in activities, and the pressure of college on the horizon. Don’t overextend yourself. This will be the year for you to lean into your academic strengths and start focusing your interests in specific areas. A good rule of thumb is to strive for depth rather than breadth, particularly when it comes to extracurriculars. As you look towards your college application process, here are some key steps you can take to prepare:
Academics. This year is important—and intense. One of the most unusual things about the current situation is that many of you who will be learning remotely may not have the opportunity to meet your teachers in person. Do your best to get to know them virtually. Continue to do your best, while making time for rest, relaxation, healthy eating, etc. Be sure that your classes match and develop your interests and goals. (If they don’t, it may not be too late to switch.) By this point, you probably have a good sense of your academic strengths. Think about how you can showcase and build upon those strengths this year. A balanced schedule should demonstrate an appropriate amount of overall rigor, while also highlighting your academic proclivities. You don’t need to force yourself into every AP available. Instead, think about what classes are best suited to you, the ones in which you can really excel. Now that you have two years of high school under your belt, you should be in great shape to do some soul-searching and think hard about your interests and passions. Your college process should extend from those interests and passions (not vice versa).
Extracurriculars. Hopefully, there will be opportunities to re-engage in your activities this fall or find new, creative ways to pursue them if you need to do so remotely. Maybe you’ve already begun doing this over the summer. Ultimately, you’ll want to look for ways to show initiative and commitment, so now is a great time to think ahead about how you might do that. Is there an extracurricular leadership position you might run for now? If not, is there one you can put yourself in a good position to run for next year? Are there other ways for you to deepen your interests a bit further and demonstrate real commitment to the pursuits about which you genuinely care? (For more on this, check out our blog post on Extracurricular Activities and College Admissions.)
Testing. There has certainly been a dramatic shift in testing policies, as over 1,300 four-year colleges have ACT/SAT-optional policies for this coming year. This will likely mean that many schools will also be test-optional for the class of ‘22. However, many schools have made the test-optional shift for just one year, so it is best to plan to take the ACT or SAT to cover your bases. Now is the ideal time to begin thinking about these tests. It’s a good idea to put test preparation and a test schedule in place, so that you have ample time to decide how you want to prepare and to register for the ACT or SAT ASAP to maximize the availability of test sites. We encourage students to decide sooner rather than later whether they’ll be taking the ACT or SAT and to plan out how you will fit test prep into what is likely an already busy calendar. SAT Subject Tests have really taken a backseat this year but have traditionally still been valuable at selective colleges. If applicable, consider taking them in May or June of your junior year.
Preliminary College List. I know that drafting a college list can sound intimidating, but this can be a very fruitful exercise. Of course, your college list will evolve over time, but now is a good time to assess your interests, grades, achievements, and goals and develop a preliminary list of schools based on those criteria. Guides like the Fiske Guide to Colleges and the College Board’s “Big Future” portal can help you assemble a general sense of the types of schools that are out there. Do you want a big state school? A small liberal arts school? Do you already know what subject you want to study so you can research departments at schools accordingly? Start not only doing research, but doing some soul searching. What do you want from college? Remember: a preliminary list is just that—preliminary. But it can be a powerful way for you to begin the process of narrowing down and thinking about your wants, needs, and potential options. And it can also be a great motivator!
Campus Visits and Demonstrating Interest. Colleges have really ramped up their virtual opportunities, so be sure to take advantage of these. The live events are often best, and it’s great to hear from current students—student panels, student-led live tours, anything with students! You can also glean a lot about a school’s culture and student body from following it on social media. Admissions counselors are also now more accessible than ever before since they are not on the road. If you have questions, consider reaching out to an admissions counselor directly. They might even say, let’s hop on a Zoom! Some colleges have begun to open up on a small scale for visitors, but most are still closed to visitors. Hopefully, schools will open up later this year for in-person visits. If/when they do, make reservations in advance, as college admissions offices have heavy traffic during vacation periods. (See our blog for more tips on campus visits.) If college admissions counselors begin traveling again, attend college fairs or other local events, which are great opportunities to learn about different schools and possibly forge personal connections with admissions officers. Even brief conversations can lead to relationships that can pay off later.
Tips for Rising 10th Graders
Sophomore year will surely be different than what you may have imagined just a short time ago, but hopefully it will be smoother and more organized than last spring. You’re now entering the meat of your high school career. Hopefully, you’re settled in and adjusted to the expectations and standards of high school. Things will surely get busy, and the intensity will rise, so be sure you’re taking care of yourself and staying focused on what’s important. As you look towards your college process, here are some key steps you can take to prepare.
The College Process. By the middle of 10th grade, you’ll likely find that your peers are starting to think about and discuss college. Don’t panic! This is a good opportunity to begin learning about the multitude of choices available to you after high school. At this stage, it’s normal to not know which schools you want to apply to. Yet, some students find that learning just the basics about college can assuage their anxieties, while motivating them to aspire, work hard, and plan ahead. If that’s the case for you, then it might be helpful to start exploring college options. Talk to a counselor or a trusted teacher. Do some research on your own. It’s never a bad idea to start educating yourself before things really intensify.
Academics. One of the most unusual things about the current situation is that many of you who will be learning remotely may not have the opportunity to meet your teachers in person. Do your best to get to know them virtually. Begin to think more seriously about your academic strengths. With a year of high school behind you, you still have plenty of time to explore various subjects and activities, but you should also have some sense of what kinds of things are most interesting to you. Also, take a final look at your course selections. Do you have the right balance of rigor? Do your classes align with your interests and goals? (If they don’t, it may not be too late to switch.) Colleges are increasingly focused on students with specific and substantially developed interests, rather than a well-rounded student who dabbles in everything. It’s okay to be undecided about things and still exploring, but once you home in on your particular strengths and interests you can begin to build rigor in those areas.
Extracurriculars. As with your academics, you’ll want to think about what activities you enjoy most and how you want to focus and deepen your interests and experiences for the remainder of high school. Hopefully, there will be opportunities to re-engage in your activities this fall or find new, creative ways to pursue them if you need to do so remotely. Maybe you’ve already begun doing this over the summer. Extracurriculars are a great way to show initiative in pursuing the things you love. (Check out our recent blog post on Extracurricular Activities and College Admissions.)
Testing. Depending on your courses this year, you might be ready to take a SAT Subject Test or two at the end of sophomore year. You’ll also begin thinking about ACTs or SATs later this year. There has certainly been a dramatic shift in testing policies, as over 1,300 four-year colleges have ACT/SAT-optional policies for this coming year. This will likely mean that many schools will also be test-optional for the class of ‘23. However, many schools have made the test-optional shift for just one year, so it is best to plan to take the ACT or SAT to cover your bases. It’s a good idea to develop a test schedule and put test preparation in place by the end of this year, so that you have ample time to decide how you want to prepare and to register for the ACT or SAT testing sites you like best.
Tips for Rising 9th Graders
Wow, many of you are starting a brand new school without being able to physically set foot in the building! There is a patchwork of back-to-school reopening plans across the country, but I am certain, no matter your school’s plan, it will be different than what you once expected the beginning of high school to be. This is hard, and I sympathize. I am also hesitant to inundate you with college process tips this early. Give yourself time to acclimate to the new demands of high school. This is a transition year. Try to start off on the right foot, while also preparing yourself for the inevitable stumbles and rude awakenings. You’re not in middle school anymore! Ease into things. And, for the most part, don’t worry about college! That said, many students and families find it helpful to have some information about the college process and empowering to be able to begin laying the groundwork for success.
Academics. One of the most unusual things about the current situation is that many of you who will be learning remotely may not have the opportunity to meet your teachers in person. Do your best to get to know them virtually. High school can be a time of intellectual discovery and an opportunity to pursue and refine your interests and passions. Expect some struggles—that’s okay!—but also give yourself the leeway to try things out, stretch yourself, and delve in. Also be sure to redouble your focus on your school work. Everything “counts” now—and you don’t want to first realize this when it’s too late.
Explore and Join. Look for opportunities to get involved, even if it has to be remotely. Is there a club that sounds intriguing? Check it out. You need not commit to four years of anything. Now is the time to experiment and dabble. Be open-minded, see what interests you, and try something new.
Learn. It may take some time to get your high school sea-legs—and that’s okay—but many students find it helpful to get an early general introduction to the college admissions process. As long as it’s done in a low-stress way, it’s not a bad idea to become informed when there’s lots of time to think and plan. If you think you’d find this helpful, talk to your guidance counselor, a trusted teacher, or have a brief session with a college counselor. Just a little advanced notice about expectations and schedule can go a long way.