Dates and deadlines:
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.
Update your college mission statement. If you haven't yet made your own college mission statement, do so immediately. If you have, but haven't updated it in a while, go back and update it. I highly recommend giving point values to all the parts of the statement, and then coming up with a score--based on your personal criteria, not that of a magazine or website--to rank the schools you're looking at. Click here to see how to write a mission statement, and click here for an example of how to use it to help your search and applications.
Make an organized list of colleges for applications. Don't just keep it in your head, and don't just kinda write it down somewhere. Make an organized list--some people like spreadsheets, some people like lists with bullets. For easy comparison, have all the same information for each school. At the very least, include the score each school gets on your mission statement scoring, the application deadlines, and notes to yourself about why you're applying there.
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.
Send the best possible application. As you’re working on your applications, remember this one idea: play offense, not defense. Don’t just try to answer questions as they come to you and hope for the best. Mount a campaign. What are the main qualities you’re looking for in a school? What are your main qualities that will be attractive to schools? How can you best present those qualities across several media—application, essay, interview? If you begin with the mindset that you’re going to present your best traits to the people who are best matched with them, you’re going to get through the tedious parts just fine.
As you apply to colleges, you’ll spend a lot of time explaining your interests. In the essays, interviews, and less formal interactions, you’ll be telling strangers about your interests and why they matter. Remember that for this purpose, accomplishment isn’t enough. Maybe you’re the valedictorian. That’s great, but there are literally thousands of valedictorians every year—just saying “I’m the valedictorian” isn’t enough. Nor is saying “I did lots of volunteer work,” “I was captain of the volleyball team,” or “I won the science fair.” What you’ve got to do this fall is explain why those accomplishments matter. What qualities do those accomplishments exemplify? How do those accomplishments make you a good match for whoever it is you’re talking to? Why does your community care about those accomplishments? You’ve spent years working hard at exploring, expanding, and pursuing your interests. Work just as hard this fall at explaining them.