Some high school students start planning their college application strategy in the fall of their senior year. Others hear that the spring of junior year is when they should visit colleges—so they begin planning then. But informed students and their parents know strategic college planning should start long before that—as early as 9th and 10th grade.
I’m not talking about saving money for college or trying to boost your GPA or your standardized test scores. Of course, those issues need attention early on. I’m talking about a part of college planning that’s generally less understood and too often overlooked.
If you’re a rising senior, this summer is the best time to write your college essay. Come September, you’ll be so busy with other parts of the college application process—not to mention schoolwork—that it will be tough to write an essay that’s really great. And make no mistake about it: if you’re hoping to get into one of America’s top colleges, you’ll need more than a passable essay. You’ll need one that makes the admissions officers sit up and take notice, brings a smile to their lips and makes them remember you.
Now is the time to block out your summer writing schedule for this project. Students who tell themselves they can squeeze the writing in between their other activities and don’t reserve the necessary hours usually find they get to September with nothing on paper.
Even students who do schedule the necessary time often run into problems once they sit down to write. Usually that’s because they don’t understand what makes a successful college application essay, or they don’t know how to adapt those perceptions to the narratives of their own lives.
Looking for a way to spend the summer that’s fun, interesting, maybe even challenging and also—you hope—impressive to colleges? If so, you’re on the right track, no matter whether you’re a freshman, sophomore or junior. You should be making plans right now, and I’ll offer a few suggestions. But, first, let me dispel some myths.
Despite what you may have heard, to impress colleges you do not need to do a fund-raising climb up Mt. Everest. Nor do you need to spend your summer in a small African village building huts for starving children. I’d go so far as advising you against these activities—unless you happen to live year-round in that small African village, in which case helping your neighbors might be an excellent plan.
Spring is the season for college fairs. High school sophomores and juniors, I’m talking to you. But freshmen should listen up too—because the timing for the whole college search process has speeded up, so the sooner you begin, the smoother things will go.
Attending a college fair—or two, or even three—might make your life easier. Or it might not. Let’s look at your options.
Fairs can be a great way to get information about colleges you’re interested in and to make connections with them directly. But they can also be a waste of time. It all depends on the fair and your objectives.
If you want to make contact with a college that’s very far from your home, or you want to test out the waters at a school before scheduling an actual visit, attending a college fair may be the way to go. And there can be other benefits. Here’s what you need to know to decide whether college fairs might work for you.
Were you wait-listed at one of your top-choice colleges? Depending on your perspective, you can interpret that as either good or bad news. On the one hand, it’s more encouraging than getting rejected. On the other, being wait-listed prolongs the stress. It also makes it hard to take your other options seriously. Here’s what to do if you’re wait-listed for college.
How you handle the situation should be based on several factors: how appealing you find your alternatives, how badly you really want to attend that top-choice school, and what role financial aid will play in your decision. It’s also important to know yourself and to gauge how much uncertainty you can stand this late in the game.
A student’s chance of getting accepted off a wait list is about one in five, according to research by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling. But that’s a national average that includes many different kinds of colleges. If you’re on the wait list at one of the most selective schools, your chances may be slimmer.
Today, as many colleges fill about half their freshman class through early admissions, high school students are scrambling to keep up with a changed timetable. Your chances of getting into the school of your choice may dwindle if you wait for the regular admissions deadline.
And there’s money at stake, too, because financial aid options may be different for early admissions. I wrote a detailed article about early admission trends last year.
Now I’d like to explain how you can make sure early admissions doesn’t place you at a disadvantage. The key is to recalibrate the whole timeline of your college search and application process. Once a student starts high school, you can take steps to lower everyone’s stress levels and increase the odds of success. But, no matter what year of school a student is in, it may be necessary to pick up the pace.
Not long ago, high school students and their families who began touring colleges during the spring and summer of junior year could be confident that they were on top of things. Now the summer after junior year is late to begin college visits. I advise students who are thinking about early admission to start their college research—and do at least some visits—during sophomore year.
Ever since you can remember, people have been telling you how necessary, how crucial, extracurricular activities are for your college resume. In addition to top grades and stellar test scores, a schedule packed with impressive extracurriculars is an absolute must. At least, that’s what everyone says. But is it true?
The answer depends on how you define “extracurricular” and what you make of it.
The most selective colleges are indeed interested in how you spend your time outside of class. Very interested. They want to know you’re not just another academic grind—that you’re a fully developed person with a range of abilities and interests. If you happen to have a serious talent, or an area of special expertise, they’ll be especially impressed.
But, if you think you need to be the captain of both your high school lacrosse and debating teams, to edit your school newspaper, be chief fundraiser for three afterschool clubs, head of the prom committee, and spend your summers building housing for the poor in Sumatra, you don’t get it. And if your mom or dad is pushing you to spread yourself this thin… ask them to stop.
Welcome to November, seniors. Just when you think things can’t get any busier, they get busier! Just as you’re trying to complete those supplemental essays and keep up with your schoolwork, people tell you that you really ought to be interviewing with reps from all your favorite colleges.
But, since most schools claim these interviews are “optional,” it’s tempting to skip the stress and focus on the essays. Of course it’s tempting! But should you?
In recent years, colleges, admissions counselors, alumni and parents have hotly debated the value of the college interview. Some claim interviews play little role in the admissions decisions at many schools and ought to be phased out. Others argue the interview can give an applicant a leg up and is very important. Who should you believe?
First, it depends on the school. Some schools—even those in the top tier—simply don’t offer interviews. Amherst doesn’t interview. Nor does Berkeley. Nor do most state schools. At those schools it’s not an issue.
When I was a teenager, my friends and I laughed at the phrase “good manners.” We knew there was a famous book by Emily Post on the rules of etiquette that offered instructions on how “polite” people were supposed to act.
The book, we’d heard, was filled with directions on how to select the proper champagne flute and where to place a caviar spoon. That was all we needed to know. Etiquette and manners were for the very rich and the very old. It had nothing to do with us. Obviously.
Despite this irreverent attitude, most of us complied with our parents’ basic instructions on how to behave. We said, “please pass the salt,” at the dinner table (instead of simply reaching), shook hands when introduced to strangers and wrote thank-you notes when friends or relatives sent us birthday gifts. We grudgingly accepted these minimal rules. They were easy enough to follow, and they seemed a small price to pay for our future admission into the adult world.
The new—but surprisingly familiar—etiquette
That was back in the days of embossed stationary and thank you cards—before email, texting and other advancements. Emily Post is long dead, though a revised version of her book lives on. And there is no doubt etiquette will never be the same.
While many high school students opt to do their college visits during the summer, there are good reasons to go during the school year. That’s when you’ll find students and professors on campus and get the most accurate picture of college life.
Guidebooks and websites can provide you with descriptions, ratings and photos. But nothing can take the place of being on a campus, talking with people and observing the social, cultural and academic environment.
Be sure to check each school’s website before planning your visit. You’ll want to attend both a tour and an information session, so it’s important to visit when those are scheduled. You may also want to eat in the dining hall, just to soak up the scene.
High school freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors will naturally have different purposes for their college visits. It’s important to consider your own objectives ahead of time.