The college process is certainly daunting, especially when going through it at a time so much is uncertain, but try not to fret too much. Though the landscape of college applications and admissions seems to be changing on the daily, the general timeline of events has remained the same. We at Garrett Educational Consulting always strive to stay up-to-date in the world of college admissions so that we can be a resource to students like you. As such, we’ve compiled a list of tips for each grade of high school students in hopes that it alleviates some stress and helps motivate and keep you on track.
Rising 9th Graders:
Academics - Whether your school is meeting in-person or virtually,this year will certainly be unique. As you transition into high school, classes will naturally be more intellectually challenging. It’ll be especially important this year to refocus after a potentially unmotivated spring and summer and strive to do your best. Grades “count” now, and realizing this early in high school makes for a more stress-free college application experience.
Getting Involved - Now is the time to try new things! Even if you do have to do it virtually. See what clubs your school offers, look for volunteer opportunities in your community (be sure to check out our article “Volunteer Opportunities During Covid-19”), pursue a hobby you’re interested in, or try to work/intern somewhere that seems cool. Colleges will appreciate the extra effort it took for you to get involved during coronavirus, and activities like these will help keep you happy and motivated. It might be a good idea to make a list on your phone of any extracurriculars you participate in so that you can refer back to it when you are creating a resume and applying to colleges in a few years.
Plan Ahead - Try to learn what you can about the college process, but don’t let it become anxiety-inducing. That said, familiarizing yourself with the general timeline can help greatly down the road with time management and stress levels. Also, do your best to get to know your teachers and counselors (even if you have to do it virtually); they will be valuable resources to have in your court and can often help you in ways you don’t always expect.
Rising 10th Graders:
Balancing Academics and Extracurriculars - With a year of high school under your belt, you’re probably a bit more settled in to a routine. Though things are likely changing for you this year, don’t let it get you down. Do your best to get to know your teachers and counselors over zoom, take classes that interest you and highlight your academic strengths, and try to become more seriously involved in a few extracurricular activities. By doing these things, you are highlighting the things you love to an admissions officer and giving them some insight into who you are.
College Talk - It seems to always happen mid-way through sophomore year that students begin to think and talk about college. If this is the case, try to remain calm - you still have plenty of time! It’s completely normal to not know where you want to apply at this point. If you are starting to stress, it’s never a bad idea to plan ahead a bit to calm your anxieties. If you feel this way, you might consider casually searching online for schools that interest you, familiarizing yourself with the timeline of the college process, visiting colleges in your area to get a feel for what it’s like to be on a campus, or talking to a counselor, parent, or teacher.
Standardized Testing - Though many colleges have adopted test-optional policies since the Covid-19 outbreak, it’s still a good idea to get a head start on testing as many of these schools are likely to switch their policies in the future. Even if the schools you end up applying to are test-optional, submitting a good score can still certainly help your application. It's a good idea to look in to future SAT and ACT test dates and make a potential plan so that you have ample time to prepare for them and know when and how to register. In addition, you may even be ready to take a SAT Subject Test at the end of the year depending on what classes you’re taking.
Rising 11th Graders:
Academics are Ramping Up (but Don’t Forget About Extracurriculars!) - Junior year is notorious for being intense and demanding - more challenging classes, standardized tests and test prep, increased involvement in extracurricular activities, and, of course, the looming stress of the college process. The first step here is to breathe; you will get through it. With so much going on, it’s a good idea to get a physical calendar/planner or use an online one so nothing slips through the cracks. That being said, don’t let school take over your life. It is just as important to practice self care, get on a good sleep schedule, eat well, and (safely!) socialize with friends. In terms of academics, this year is incredibly important. You should continue to do your best in your classes and get to know your teachers and counselors as well as you can (you may end up asking them for letters of recommendation!). At this point in your high school career, you have probably honed in on your academic strengths - consider how you might add to and showcase these strengths. It’s also a great time to delve into your passions and do some reflecting on what it is that drives you. After all, your experience with the college process should be shaped by your interests. As a general rule, colleges these days are looking for depth over breadth in terms of both academics and extracurriculars, so keep that in mind as you navigate your junior year and deepen your commitment to your interests.
The First Steps of the College Process - Taking the first steps in the college process is daunting, but so rewarding. Once you dive in, you often find that each step is not as difficult as it seems, so just take it one at a time. With that in mind, the first steps are as follows: draft a preliminary college list, go on college tours (either in-person or virtually depending on what the school is offering), and demonstrate interest. Now let’s break that down - drafting a college list is a great place to start. First you should ask yourself what kind of school you’re interested in. Guides like the College Board’s “Big Future” portal and the Fiske Guide to Colleges can certainly help you get an idea for what will make you happy. Then you can talk to your college counselor and see what they suggest for you and continue doing research and soul-searching on your own. It’s often helpful to make a document to keep track of your list and to jot down important information about each school such as location, size, acceptance rate, application deadlines, and more. Don’t forget that this list is preliminary, it is certain to change down the line. Next, focus on campus visits. Many schools have increased the number of virtual opportunities available including virtual tours (live and recorded), college fairs, and student-led panels. Admissions officers are also more readily available than ever, so don’t hesitate to email them with questions or ask for a zoom meeting. These sorts of displays of interest will put you on the college’s radar and, depending on the school, can help your application.
Standardized Testing - Many schools have opted to be test-optional this year and will likely also be test-optional for the class of 22’, however, some schools have only adopted these policies for the year. As such, it’s certainly better to be safe and plan to take the SAT and/or ACT when you can. Hop on to the tests’ respective websites and make yourself a schedule of testing dates and when registration opens for those dates - it’ll help you stay organized. It’s also important to consider how you plan to fit test prep into your already busy schedule. Furthermore, AP tests and SAT Subject Tests shouldn’t be neglected. They can be extremely valuable additions to your applications, so don’t forget to plan for them as well.
Rising 12th Graders:
Plan, Plan, Plan - It may sound old-fashioned, but having a physical calendar/planner can really come in handy when tackling the college process. Get organized by writing down application deadlines so that you can better balance your essay writing, school work, and extracurricular activities. It may also be helpful to create an essay writing schedule with interim deadlines for yourself (but this only works if you actually stick to them!). Over the summer and at the beginning of fall, you can also save yourself a lot of future stress and headache by researching colleges, solidifying your college list, demonstrating interest, creating/updating your resume, scheduling any additional standardized tests, and going ahead and writing your common app essay. Finally, try to stay involved in your extracurricular activities and see if you can take on any leadership roles.
Your College List - While it has been more difficult than ever to solidify your college list since you likely haven’t been able to visit the schools you are interested in, take advantage of virtual tours and student-led panels to help you learn more about a college. When crafting your list, make sure to balance the number of reach, target, and safety schools you include. Take note of a school’s most popular majors and be sure to consider this in terms of your own interests and strengths. It’s good to have a solidified list by the end of August so that you can begin working on supplement essays. Also don’t forget that Early Action and Early Decision deadlines can really sneak up on you if you aren't careful!
Essays - Having your 650-word personal statement for the common app written before the school year starts is ideal. We know life is busy, but at least try to do a detailed brainstorm and get a rough draft knocked out before summer ends - you’ll thank us later. Once school begins, your college counselor can help guide you in the right direction with your essay, and you’ll be ready to go in no time. The common app questions as well as most supplemental essays are made available August 1st.
Demonstrate Interest - Though many schools have cancelled in-person tours, there are still many ways to demonstrate interest in a school including participating in any live online events offered (student-led panels, live tours, etc), following schools on social media, and reaching out to admissions counselors. You might even be able to get a one-on-one zoom meeting with them. In addition, many colleges are offering virtual interviews as part of the application process. Check to see if the schools you are interested in offer interviews, and, if so, sign up sooner rather than later. Practice for your interview early and often and you’ll be much less nervous and thoughtful for the real thing!
Academics - It’s very easy to get swept up in the busy world of college admissions, but don’t let your academics slip through the cracks. Grades fall semester are particularly important (especially in light of changes in grading policies in the spring). And, as always, be sure to get to know your teachers and counselors as best you can. Finally, take a good look at your course schedule - Do your classes highlight your interests and academic strengths? Have you balanced the rigor of your courses?
Standardized Testing - We know testing has been a mess. Luckily, over 1.300 colleges and universities have gone test optional for this application cycle. This being said, a good test score (compared to a school’s middle 50% range) is always a positive addition to any application. AP scores can also be a valuable addition. If you still need to test, try not to stress, but keep an eye out for future registration and test dates.
Letters of Recommendation - If you weren’t able to ask for letters of recommendation from your teachers last spring, go ahead and do so either this summer or at the very beginning of the school year. It’s typically best practice to ask a teacher in person and then follow up with an email, however, an email will certainly suffice these days. In addition to teachers, your school counselor will be writing you a recommendation also. Make sure to review the necessary steps to make sure both your counselor and teachers successfully submit their recommendations.
Financial Aid and Scholarships - Talk to your family about whether or not you will be applying for any scholarships or financial aid. It is much better to know this information sooner rather than later, so that you can balance your college list as needed and apply to scholarships on time.
Garrett Educational Consulting, LLC is a full-service, academic consulting firm based in Charlotte, North Carolina. With over twenty years experience in education and counseling, Katie Garrett guides and supports students and families that are navigating important academic decisions. Services include all aspects of academic advising, comprehensive college planning, independent day school consulting, and boarding school application guidance.
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