Every year in October, as the days turn chilly, I get a flood of calls and emails from high school seniors and their parents. Each one begins something like this: Tyler or Samantha has written their college essay, and they’d like an expert to read it (and maybe tweak it) before they send it off to the colleges on their list.
Of course, I’m always happy to assist, no matter what the timing. When it comes to teenagers, I don’t believe it’s ever too late to lend a hand. But nine times out of ten, after reading the essay in question, I look at the calendar and sigh. October of senior year is very late in the college admissions process.
It’s rare—extremely rare—for a high school student to produce an effective college essay on the first go-round. That’s even true of students who have straight As in English to their credit. One reason is that few high schools devote much time to teaching the personal essay. It’s a unique form that requires special insight and lots of practice.
But there’s a larger problem: few students understand that an essay must be an integral part of a well-focused admission strategy. That strategy should reflect your accomplishments, strengths and sense of who you are and where you’re going, as well as an understanding of the colleges on your list.
A strategy for the whole process
An admissions strategy isn’t something you can cook up in an hour or two. Think of it as a jigsaw puzzle with many little pieces. Putting them together takes quite a bit of time. You should begin developing your overall admissions strategy long before you start your essay. Ideally, you should start in sophomore or junior year.
A generation ago, most college counseling was confined to the senior year of high school. But, in the last two decades, as admissions has become more competitive, the need for early counseling has increased. In recent years, the popularity of Early Admissions—with November deadlines—has pushed the need for college counseling even earlier.
High schools that can afford it now begin group counseling in junior year. Some even introduce the basics to sophomores through weekly classes. But few high schools, whether public or private, have the resources to offer high-quality, personalized counseling to every student. Almost none offer one-on-one counseling early on, when students can benefit most.
That’s too bad, because good counseling during sophomore and junior year can protect students from stress, confusion and false starts when they’re seniors.
Starting early means starting smarter
I recommend that students start college counseling in sophomore year of high school, or junior year at the latest. When I begin working with students in the early stages, they have time to think carefully about the whole college application process and develop an approach that’s tailored to their own personality, needs and goals.
First we consider the student’s academic record, strengths and special interests. In the beginning, I listen as much as I talk. Then I explain how the application process works and why it’s important to be well informed from the start.
Many students and their families think they know exactly what’s required to gain admission to a good college. But many of those assumptions are out-of-date, while some were never true to begin with. As Mark Twain supposedly said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
To students and parents who believe the best time to start college counseling is in fall of senior year, I’m here to tell you, it just ain’t so. If you’re a rising high school sophomore or junior, the best time to start counseling is now.
For more information contact the College Strategist