Alyse Levine, Founder & CEO of Premium Prep College Counseling
That collective groan you here? It’s students everywhere realizing that summer is ending. Like clockwork, the emails from school administrators have started to arrive in your inbox and class schedules are being released, signaling that you’ll soon be back to the grind. By all means, do what you can to squeeze out what you can from these remaining vacation days; sleep late, hang out with friends, relax. But, whether you like it or not, it’s time to begin thinking about the academic year ahead. School is right around the corner, and this is a great time to get things in order and prepare for what’s to come. This should absolutely include building in some down time for yourself; it’s so important to take care of your mind and body. Yet, I have found that having a plan and some basic goals can also help mitigate the stress.
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
Crunch time has arrived. Pressure is building, so be sure to find ways to escape the echo-chamber sometimes. Make time for yourself and the things you enjoy, and try to keep it all in perspective. As you’ll see, there are lots of important things to think about at this juncture in your college process. Now is a great time to get ahead of the inevitable stress and take some crucial steps in preparing for your future. Here are some senior year 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 start thinking strategically about what is due when and, if you haven’t yet begun your essay-writing, which essays you want to tackle first. Being organized will make the application process feel less overwhelming and give you a sense of how to pace yourself. Make a plan for yourself that balances college applications with your academics and extracurricular activities.
The College List. Revisit your college list, do some refining, and make sure it’s still balanced. Think hard about whether you want to apply Early Decision and/or Early Action.
Essays. Start writing! If you haven’t started 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. 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. The more you can do now, the more manageable your senior year will be.
Demonstrating Interest. Let colleges know that you’re excited about them. Hopefully, at this point you have a short list of schools to which you’re considering applying. Let them know that you’re interested! Colleges often visit individual high schools, host local information sessions or attend larger college fairs.These are great opportunities to learn about different schools and possibly forge personal connections with admissions officers. And think about college visits. Remember that colleges are tracking your interest. Don’t neglect this.
Mock interviews. Now is a great time to begin practicing for interviews. Like a good resume, a good interview presence requires 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.
A Testing Plan. Should you take the SAT or ACT one last time? Look at mean scores for the schools in which you’re most interested, and try to make informed decisions. SAT Subject Tests are rarely required these days, but they can still be valuable at top schools. Lastly, make sure you know what to send where.
Letters of Recommendation. Pinpoint which teachers you want to write your recommendation letters. Many students ask teachers for letters as early eas 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 recommendation.
Leadership. At this point, you’ve probably found an extracurricular club or activity that’s important to you. 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!
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. 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
The infamous junior year. It is so important to 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. 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. 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. Now is also an ideal time to begin thinking about ACTs or SATs. While some colleges are de-emphasizing standardized tests, many still consider this an important factor. 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 testing sites you like best. 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 are rarely required these days, but they can still be valuable at top schools; if applicable, consider taking them in May or June.
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, The Princeton Review: The Best 384 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. You’ll want to take time to plan your campus visits. And be sure to make reservations well in advance, as college admissions offices have heavy traffic during certain times. (See our blog for more tips on campus visits.) But there are also other ways to demonstrate interest. 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
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. 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. 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. 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. While some colleges are de-emphasizing standardized tests, many still consider this an important factor. 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
You’re about to start your first year of high school, and there are a lot of unknowns. I am 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. 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 realize this when it’s too late.
Explore and Join. Look for opportunities to get involved. 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.