Continue being a good high school student. This is a tough line to walk, senior year. On one hand, you really ought to be shifting your focus to next year. You have a lot of big decisions to make, and you need to allocate time and resources to working on strong applications and making informed decisions. Your daily high school homework isn’t quite as compelling as it was a year ago. On the other hand, you also need to be preparing yourself to be a good college student, and the best way to prepare for college is to be a good high school student. As tempting as it is, you can’t just coast through senior year; that never works as well as it seems like it should. So it’s perfectly normal and appropriate for you to be less diligent your senior year than your junior year. The important thing is to ask yourself why. If you’re spending less time and attention on high school because you’re spending more time on college and leadership opportunities, that’s fine. If you’re spending less time and attention on high school because you can see the finish line and you just want to have an easy year, you’re selling yourself short, missing opportunities to prepare for the near future, and annoying pretty much every adult around you. Doing well in your classes is actually easier than dealing with those annoyed adults.
Make sure you’re caught up on what you should have done this summer. Have you already got a solid first draft of a Common Application essay? If not, get on that soon. Have you written and updated your college mission statement? If not, do it immediately. Have you got a preliminary list of 20-25 colleges to take a closer look at? For each of them, have you signed up to be on their mailing list? Looked at their web sites for the admissions department, financial aid office, and departments for your potential major? Found out if and how they conduct interviews? Tried out their net price calculator? If so, that’s wonderful. If not, you still have time—but move quickly!
Take any tests you still need to take. There are still some SAT test dates this fall: October 5, including 9 different subject tests (register by September 6), and another on November 2, including 13 subject tests (register by October 3). If you’re taking the ACT, there’s one on October 22 (register by September 20) and another on December 14 (register by November 8).
You’re going to need some letters of recommendation. You’ll need to decide—soon—who to ask, when to ask them, and how to ask them. Be as polite as possible. This is a personal favor, not part of their job. Don’t do what someone once did to a colleague of mine, cornering her in the bathroom to hand her paperwork without even asking. When my colleague asked if they could do this later, in a more appropriate place, the student left…and waited right outside the bathroom door to re-start the conversation. This is not a good plan to get someone to write nice things about you!
Narrow your college list, from 20-25 down to 3-10. Which ones do you keep on your list? Which ones do you let go of? There’s no single process. It helps to research as much as possible. It helps to meet with representatives at a college fair or at your school. An interview is helpful, and a campus visit is really helpful. Make sure you’re keeping the ones that best fit you mission statement.
And also make sure you cover several categories. Traditionally we talk about “safety” and “reach” schools, but let’s think about it a little differently. Everyone’s list should include at least one in-state, public university. If your state’s flagship state university is also very selective (Virginia, Texas, California, Michigan, and a few others), then make sure you include at least one in-state public university that is more achievable. For most people, most of the time, an in-state public school is going to be the most affordable, most attainable, and have the lowest living expenses—especially if you live at home.
You should also apply to several other schools—whether public or private, in state or out—that you feel pretty confident you’ll be accepted to. Maybe not absolutely, perfectly assured, but pretty confident. Your confidence should also include being confident that you’ll be able to afford it, based on the full price or a net price calculator. If you apply to three or four of these, including at least one in-state public, then you should feel ok.
You may also want to apply to some schools that you’re less confident about your acceptance. Apply to as many of these as you want, within reason. The best-case scenario is that you’re accepted to several, and at least one of them offers you a financial aid package that makes it within your range. A seemingly-good scenario is that you get accepted to many of them, and they all offer you good financial aid. But now you’ve got a stressful spring on your hands figuring out which one to pick. Since you can only choose one, too many similar options isn’t always such a great thing. A worse-case scenario is that you don’t get accepted to any of them. That stings, but if you’re accepted to at least one of your confident schools, then you’re going to be ok. The very worst thing is being accepted to many or all of them, but not getting the aid to make any of them affordable.
Remember that some schools (the most prestigious and famous ones) have such low acceptance rates that absolutely no one should feel confident that they’ll be accepted. Even if you have perfect ACT scores and are top of your class, chances are still that you won’t get accepted to Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, or the other super-selective colleges. Once a school’s overall acceptance rate drops below 20%, it’s not something anyone should feel confident about. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try—thousands of people do get accepted to those schools every year. But nobody can count on it.
If I have a client, no matter how smart and accomplished, with a college list where every school has an acceptance rate below 50%, we have a talk about the risks of their “very aggressive” list (I’ve definitely done this before). If I had a client with a college list that only has schools with acceptance rates below 20%, then I’d tell them to either add some more reasonable schools or consider my money-back guarantee off the table. (Fortunately, I haven’t had to do that yet).
Beginning October 1, you can apply for federal financial aid using FAFSA. Everyone should do this, as soon as possible after October 1. Even if you’re not expecting to be eligible for financial aid, you should still apply as soon as possible. (Why should you apply for financial aid if you’re not expecting to get any? For one, you may be wrong, and it’s worth it to try. Also, some colleges use the ability to pay as a factor in admission. It helps if you provide documentation up front that you have the ability to pay.) Some universities, or programs within universities, may also ask you to use the CSS Profile.
Send your applications. Understand that most schools have multiple deadlines. Early Decision. Early Action. Preferred Application. VIP application. Regular decision. Deadline to be considered for scholarships. Each school has its own vocabulary, and each school has its own deadlines. Understand each one for each school you're considering, and understand which ones are and aren't relevant to you. There’s no great reason to send a regular application much earlier than the due date. But there’s no good reason to wait until the last minute, either. Plan on hitting the “submit” button three to five days before deadline. Early Decision and Early Action deadlines are typically—though not always—in November. Regular decision applications are typically—though not always—due in early January.