If you are a junior (or a sophomore just looking to get ahead of the game), your manner during this time of your life probably resembles that of a chicken running around with its head cut off. Trust me, I’ve been there. School is completely stressful and overwhelming, it seems like you always have a million and one activities at once, and you don’t even want to think about your senior year or college. Sound about right? For those who are new to the college and scholarship application process, it can be hard to find a place to start. As a form of coping with the exorbitant amounts of stress that senior year, college, and scholarships can exhaust, I have crafted a step-by-step guide for all college-bound soon-to-be-seniors. This manual is packed with personal experience, tips, and things I have learned along the way. I hope that this provides you with tools to start your college exploration process. Remember: When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
TIP #1: Strategically forecast for senior year classes.
For most, this means having a healthy balance of enjoyable and rigorous classes. Keep in mind that it is easy to get burned out during your senior year, and plan your schedule accordingly. Most colleges like to see that you are taking a fourth year of math and science and continuing on with I.B., AP, or other advanced classes. Additionally, some schools require that you take classes in high school that are not graduation requirements. Most notably, the University of California schools require that all applicants take a fine or performing arts credit, which is not mandated at Cleveland (a third year of a world language can fulfill this requirement at CHS. This is not sufficient for UC schools). Keep this in mind when planning your senior schedule. You should additionally check with your counselor to make sure that you are on track to graduate and that you are fulfilling all graduation requirements.
TIP #2: Take standardized tests, like the SAT and the ACT early.
This tip was suggested to me when I was a junior, and let me tell you, it paid off. There is one reason why this is so important: You do not want to have to worry about taking standardized tests while you are trying to balance all of your senior year activities. Additionally, you may only have a few opportunities to take the SAT or ACT before college applications are due, especially if you are planning on applying early action (non-binding) or early decision (binding). It may come as a shock to some, but standardized tests are also not available to be taken during the summer, so try to mark these off your list by the end of your junior year. It will help you out in the long run. Don’t be afraid to take the tests multiple times! It took me three tries to get my SAT score where I wanted it to be.
TIP #3: Start looking for colleges during the spring of your junior year.
It is a good practice to start your college process early, as it gives you plenty of time to plan and get organized.
How to: There are several ways in which you can start looking for colleges, but I have found college match services and search engines to be the most effective manner to start your college exploration. Some good options for this include:
-Naviance. This is has a great search engine and was my preference for the process, but be wary of out-of-date information.*
-College Board. The College Board website also has a very useful college match up service. Unlike Naviance, the College Board website has mostly current information and can also save searches much more easily. This is another great option for those looking to start their college search process.*
*To access these databases, you need to have an account with the website.
TIP #4: Start compiling your college list.
A good way to find colleges you like is to evaluate what you want out of a college. The easiest way to do this is by making a list including preferred size, location, major selection and programs, public or private education, activities offered, selective or nonselective enrollment, diversity index, religious affiliation or no religious affiliation, and retention rate. Once you have identified what you prefer, compiling your final college list will become much easier.
TIP #5: Visit.
If it is difficult to determine what you like in a college, visiting local schools can help you decide. Lewis and Clark College, Reed College, Portland State University, University of Portland, Oregon State University, and University of Oregon are all within close proximity and provide a wide variety of options. From here, you can identify what kind of environment you want in a school. What you do and don’t like will say a lot about what you are looking for in a college. This is also a good activity because it is easy on the wallet; you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars touring schools around the country when you have many of options right in your backyard!
TIP #6: Match yourself against colleges.
While compiling a list of colleges of interest, it is important to be realistic. For this, you should identify which schools are “safety” schools, meaning schools that you know you will get into, which schools are “match” schools, meaning that you will most likely get in, and which schools are “reach” schools, meaning that your chances of getting into that school are less likely. It is important to have a few of each type of college on your list.*
How to match yourself: Note your GPA and test scores and search for the averages in those categories of students previously accepted to that college. If your statistics are well above their averages, chances are that school will be a safety school for you. If your statistics are well below their averages, the school is most likely a reach school.
*It is important to note that while this method is a mechanism of being truthful and honest with yourself during the the college exploration process. This should not discourage you from applying to any schools that you interested in. Apply away!
TIP #7: Ask for teacher recommendation letters before the end of the your junior year.
Most colleges require two letters of recommendation from teachers who have taught you during your junior or senior years. Many teachers will not write letters during the fall, so make sure to check in before the year comes to a close.
Additionally, some schools require that recommendation letters be from teachers who taught you in polar subjects. For this, I would suggest asking one English/history teacher and one math/science teacher. Furthermore, ask teachers that know you well and can speak on behalf of your academics, leadership, and character. This is crucial towards a good, hearty letter of recommendation. I emphasize, do not go with the most logical choice. If you carefully select whomever knows you best, I assure you, you will receive a wonderful letter of recommendation.
TIP #8: Make use of the College and Career Center (CCC).
The CCC has parent volunteers working every day to provide students like you with the resources you need. They are there to help answer questions you may have, offer advice, and keep you in the loop. To help steer you on the road for college and scholarships, these kind and generous parent experts are there for you!
TIP #9: Create an activities list.
Many colleges and scholarships will require a list of all the extracurricular activities you have been involved with during high school. Include a summary of your responsibilities for each activity, how long you have been involved, and how many hours you dedicate towards it each week. Additionally, make sure to save your list. It will come in handy more times than you know!
TIP #10: Finalize your college list.
This is an important step in keeping deadlines and required materials organized during the fall. Experts suggest that you should apply to around five to 10 colleges. Additionally, it costs in between $50 and $100 to apply to each college. If you qualify, you should also look into application fee waivers. Additionally, if you are able, visiting the schools you are interested in is always advantageous!
TIP #11: Craft your Common App essay and finish it before summer ends.
Nearly 700 schools use the Common Application, so there’s a good chance that some of the colleges on your list will use it too. It is good practice to get the Common App essay over and done with before the end of the summer, as it will allow you time to craft supplemental essays and focus on deadlines. This endeavor might seem intimidating, but don’t put too much pressure on yourself to make it perfect the first time. Here’s the how to:
-A personal statement should be creative, tell a story, and reflect your personality. If the essay does not scream YOU, it’s not the right essay.
-Avoid cliché topics. College admissions counselors have heard the story of “When I scored the winning goal” or “How my mom is my role model” one million and two times. One of the pillars to getting into a selective school is to stand out. For that reason, pick your topic carefully, and make it dynamic and interesting. It’s also OK to change your topic if it’s not working for you!
-If you’re having a hard time getting started, brainstorm your ideas. Try organizing your thoughts clearly and structuring how you want your essay to flow.
-The hardest part is to start writing. Don’t be afraid to dive right in!
-It’s OK if your essay is not perfect the first time. Most people spend a few months crafting their essays to tailor them to be exactly how they want.
-You should never submit an essay without having someone else read it. This serves as insurance in proofreading for content and grammatical errors. Colleges expect your grammar to be continually top-notch.
TIP #12: Request your high school transcript on Naviance.
All schools (with the exception of some community colleges) will require a copy of your transcript in order to process your application. Make sure to request the document early to check that requirement off of your list.
TIP #13: Create a spreadsheet of all your colleges of interest.
The best way to keep track of college deadlines and required materials is to keep a journal or create a spreadsheet. This tip will help you to stay on top of your stuff, guaranteed.
TIP #14: Start looking for scholarships early.
While most scholarships are not due until spring, there are some you will miss out on if you don’t look early. Keep an eye out for September deadlines; they will come creeping up on you.
-October, November, and December-
TIP #15: Start applying to colleges.
To do this, you will first need to decide how you will apply. Many colleges offer different deadlines to apply different ways, including early action (non-binding), restrictive early action (non-binding, but restrictive to applying to one school), early decision (binding. If you are accepted, you must attend), regular decision, and rolling admission (no deadlines). Once you decide how to apply, prioritize which colleges and essays to finish first. Make sure to save all the essays you write–you may be able to reuse or repurpose them for different colleges and scholarships!
TIP #16: File the FAFSA and CSS Profile.
This one is pretty self-explanatory: File for financial aid early and get it done with. Even if you think you won’t be awarded any money, it is worth the effort to try. You never know what you might get.
-January and February-
TIP #17: File the OSAC.
The OSAC is a scholarship service that allows applicants to apply for many scholarships all at the same time. For this, all I can say is: READ INSTRUCTIONS CAREFULLY. You will thank me later.
-March, April, and May-
TIP #18: Apply for scholarships.
January through May is the prime time to bring in the money. If I can give any advice, it would be to apply to as many scholarships as possible, even if you think you don’t have a chance. Every year, millions of dollars in scholarships go unclaimed. Take advantage of the free money!
College and scholarship applications can be stressful, but it’s important not to forget that you are valuable and worthy of the bright future ahead of you. Don’t get discouraged by deadlines or acceptance rates, always try, and remember that whatever happens is for a reason.
Putting college grunt work aside, your senior year can be very trying. As a last piece of advice, try not to succumb to senioritis (which is extremely real!) and remember to have fun and make memories. Spend time with friends and family, eat lots of tasty, home-cooked food, and savor the good moments. It will all be worth it in the end, I promise.