Like many of my peers in our final year of high school, college consumes my thoughts. Not a day has gone by in the past three months when I haven’t thought about it.
College-bound seniors spend every spare moment thinking about their Common Application essay ideas. Or choosing which schools to apply to and under which decision plan. Or figuring out the federal financial aid forms and struggling to think of five words that best describe them for a scholarship application.
That last one seems easy, doesn’t it? But try to think of just five words to describe both who you are as a person and why you would be a good addition to a particular university.
The first three words that come to my mind these days are hungry, tired and stressed — I mean, what college-bound high school senior isn’t?
Free time is a thing of the past. College applications aren’t easy — in fact, it seems as if some schools want to make the process as difficult as possible. Seriously Penn State University; University of California, Los Angeles; University of Texas; Georgetown University, why aren’t you all using the Common Application?
I am in the middle of completing all my applications. Already, I’ve learned a lot about the process, and I’d like to share some of my tips with current juniors.
The best advice I can give to those planning to attend college is to start early. Junior year is the best time to begin thinking about your college plans. You don’t necessarily need to start drafting your essays or creating a spreadsheet (although that’s not a bad idea).
But there are things you can do to avoid the unnecessary pressure senior year.
Begin making a college list
There are resources online that promise to match you with your perfect school. Just like a dating service, you input your interests and they spit out college matches.
When thinking of your perfect college match, considerations include location, cost, available scholarships, student-teacher ratio, student body size and demographics. My college wishlist dots the map, from California to North Carolina, Texas to Illinois, West Virginia to Canada.
Completing 10 applications is time consuming — but I don’t think there is a right number of schools to which to apply. I’ve spent hours researching different universities and their admissions rates, financial aid, academic priorities and student life.
Many schools have virtual tours on their websites, which is a great way to see the campus and save money on expensive college visits.
Many colleges require a written recommendation from a school counselor and one (or two) from a teacher. Junior year is the perfect time to think about these letters because most public school counselors and teachers are fielding numerous requests for recommendations in the fall.
Colleges are looking for recommendations from teachers who know you well, both inside and outside of the classroom. Request your letter at the end of your junior year and provide your recommender with a list of activities and accomplishments to incorporate into the letter.
One of my recommendations is coming from my 11th-grade Honors English teacher. She was a good choice because she knows me well from my assignments in class, through some of my volunteer work and from several of the writing jobs I have had.
My French professor at West Virginia State University wrote my second teacher recommendation. He was able to speak to my passion for the French language and culture as demonstrated by my class performance and extracurricular activities.
Colleges look for a depth of interest, so find and focus on a few things about which you are passionate rather than listing a bunch of activities.
Get ready for exams
Finally, begin studying for (and taking) your college entrance exams. Whether you take the ACT or SAT or both, it is important to do well on these tests. Whether they are an accurate representation of your academic ability is a separate matter.
There are hundreds of published study guides available for free online and study books available for low prices from sites like Amazon. In addition, Khan Academy teamed up with the College Board to provide free and extensive online tutoring for the SAT.
Lots of scholarships are available to students based on how well they score on these tests. One of the better known scholarships in West Virginia is the Promise scholarship, which pays $4,750 toward tuition or cost of attending the West Virginia college of your choice to in-state students with a minimum score of 22 (out of 36) on the ACT and a 3.0 cumulative grade point average.
I took the ACT for the first time my sophomore year and the SAT in June after my junior year. After taking the two, I decided I preferred the format of the ACT, and that’s where I would focus my studying. I retook the test for the last time in September of my senior year.
Almost all college counselors recommend taking these tests no more than three or four times — any more than that will typically prove to be a waste of time and money. It is important, however, to study for these tests before taking them. There are tricks to the questions.
For me, the best way to study is to take practice tests, which are available for free online. This sounds daunting, but you can take one section at a time over multiple days.
Don’t forget to review your answers — understanding your mistakes is key to not repeating them in the future. If test taking isn’t your thing, there is some good news: Test-optional schools — which don’t require you to send in ACT or SAT scores — are becoming more and more popular.
Thinking about life after high school is exhilarating and a bit terrifying. There are so many options for your future, and all the information you need can be found online.
Good luck to all the high school seniors applying to college this fall, and juniors — start working.