“Coming up on your senior year? What are you thinking for college?” – a common refrain heard from many a Northern Virginia parent. Senior year can be a stressful enough time for any high schooler juggling school, extracurriculars, and time with family and friends. Add college applications to the mix and it can become overwhelming.
I applied to 17 colleges. Perpetually indecisive and with the very millennial mindset that “the more options, the better,” I couldn’t decide which schools to prioritize. I spent hours upon hours of the fall of my senior year writing essays, studying for the SAT, and staying on top of deadlines, creating a system that worked for me to manage this extra workload. And the system I created did work for me: I was blessed with a decision between several schools I loved, and ultimately landed at what became my second home – the University of Virginia, from which I just graduated.
Five years later, I’m turning this system – garnered from advice found online and the people around me – into a series of steps that I hope some will find helpful, whether rising seniors or the mentors guiding them through this process.
Throughout High School:
1. Pursue Your Passions and Questions
This piece of advice comes in two parts: first, don’t merely pursue “resume-builders,” the types of activities you think colleges will view favorably. Rather, pursue the activities and answers to questions about which you are truly passionate and curious. If you choose activities merely to “get ahead,” trust me – that hamster wheel never stops, and I suggest you opt-out earlier rather than later.
Second, pursue these passions and questions with hard work and endurance, whether you’re reading books or articles, volunteering, seeking out mentors, starting an initiative or club, exploring a new place, or organizing an event. Talking about something in which you’re interested (but have never explored or pursued) is far different than being able to talk about the ways in which you have already pursued these interests, but still hope to further pursue.
I wrote my Common App college essay about an exploration that I undertook in my sophomore year of high school, at which time I didn’t have college in the back of my mind even in the slightest – I was merely hoping to grow and learn in the way I was drawn. I firmly believe that, for the most part, the most compelling college applications center around who you genuinely are, and not some contrived version of yourself that you think colleges “want to hear” about.
2. Seek Out Adult Mentorship
If you have a favorite teacher, have a fantastic supervisor at your internship, club, or volunteer activity, or if you admire someone at your place of worship, seek out their mentorship. Not only will this grow you personally and provide you with an example towards which to strive, but if you continue to cultivate this mentor relationship, they will be able to speak the most genuinely about you in a future college letter of recommendation.
Don’t use people as a connection merely for that elusive and far-off letter of recommendation (the disingenuous connotation of the word “network” comes to mind); rather, genuinely seek out their advice and direction – I promise you that you’ll be grateful for it regardless.
Late High School:
3. Study for and Take the SAT or ACT
Everyone’s timeline is different, though I recommend knocking this one out of the way as soon as you can so that it doesn’t add to your workload in your senior year when you’re working on the bulk of your applications. I studied over the summer between my junior and senior year, and took it thrice in my senior year, studying a little bit in between each test. I recommend using ePrep.com if you have the discipline to self-study. For the SAT, they offer 10 practice tests which you can take section-by-section, and they provide a 2-3 minute video explaining each question if you need more help understanding how to reach the correct answer. These videos teach you how to get inside the head of the test makers and think like they do – the most important skill when taking the SAT. Consider taking the SAT Subject Tests – some schools require one or two of these as part of their application process.
4. Make a List
Do your research, ask your mentors and friends who know you well, and sit down to make a list of the schools in which you’re interested. In making this list, don’t think only about what are considered “the best” schools – consider school size, cost, student culture, strong programs, location, and many other factors. It’s wise to have a mix of schools that are your “reach” schools (perhaps more difficult for you to gain admission, but it’s worth a shot to try), “attainable” schools (schools you’re likely to get into but should still work hard on that application), and “safety” schools (schools which you are extremely likely to get into and can serve as a back-up option if all else fails). Also research accompanying scholarships, both offered directly by the schools and outside scholarships. *While you’re making this list, take this time to consider your motivations for applying to college. Consider whether college is the right next step for you. Many people attend trade school, and others take a gap year or two after high school to make money or pursue another passion before going to college.
5. Make a Schedule
Create one centralized list of school, scholarship, and financial aid application deadlines. Include deadlines you make for yourself, such as a reminder to ask your recommenders to write you a letter of recommendation, a reminder to ask your school to send in hard copies of transcripts to the schools that require it, or the deadline by which you should send your SAT scores to each school. This way, you won’t have to constantly check school websites or worry that you may have missed a deadline; all the information you need will be in one document that you can reference throughout the application process.
6. Create a Common App account
The Common App is an online portal through which you can apply to most colleges. They update their questions every year starting in early August. If you want to begin working on your essays before August prior to your senior year, consider making an account in the spring of your junior year in order to copy and paste these questions into a document. The Common App doesn’t generally drastically change their questions year by year, and at very least you can write essays to answer these questions and have this writing material on the back-burner for other essays later.
7. Write a Resume
Use online resources or talk to mentors to build and format your resume.
8. Write a Few “Tell us about yourself” Essays
I recommend picking a few different aspects of yourself that you want to highlight, and writing a different essay draft about each one. Tell a compelling story, draw the reader into who you are and what makes you unique. Everyone has a different writing process, but I prefer to word-vomit a first draft onto the page – regardless of length or style – and then circle back later to pick out the phrases, sentences, imagery, or themes that I want to retain for my second draft. My favorite parts of my final college essay were phrases and themes that came from my first draft, even though I changed most of the rest of the essay by the final draft. Seek out feedback on these essays, and write multiple drafts until you are content with the final version.
9. Write School-Specific Essays
Spend some time browsing the school’s website before you answer their questions, to ensure you can tailor your responses towards their values and priorities. Never sacrifice your integrity in this tailoring process, but rather, choose to highlight different genuine aspects of yourself that will show the school that you care about their values and priorities as much as they do.
10. Gather Letters of Recommendation
It’s generally polite to request these letters at least two weeks prior to the deadline, but I recommend 3-4 weeks prior since other seniors may also be requesting at the same time. The more time your recommender has to write about you, the better this letter is likely to be. Follow-up and remind them if the deadline is approaching and they still haven’t submitted their letter.
Finally, submit these applications in on time and don’t allow yourself to worry about it. I realize this is easier said than done, but if you’ve checked all the necessary application boxes, there’s nothing more you can do than wait. In the meantime, soak up and enjoy your senior year of high school!
Jenna Wichterman is an alumni of Dominion Christian School's Class of 2015, and a recent graduate of The University of Virginia (Honors Program).