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College Application Countdown for Seniors

I know the start of senior year is filled with excitement as well as a bit of anxiety about the college application process, but I encourage you to stay focused on your college goals these last seven short weeks before the Early Application deadline of November 1st. Even if you will be sending in your applications after that early application period, here are some tips to help triage all of your college tasks:

1. Finalize your college list. Start by reviewing the list with your parents. Can you articulate why you want to attend each college? If not, do more research and reach out to the colleges’ admissions staff to learn more about programs that interest you. Do you have a nice balance of “likely”, “target”, and “reach” schools? Have you run the Net Price Calculators for each of the schools, and are they financially within your budget?

2. Gather information. Once you have your college list finalized, create a document that lists all the requirements and due dates for each of your colleges. Your document should include: application due date; financial aid forms required (FAFSA only or FAFSA and CSS Profile) and due dates (these are often different than application due dates); number of letters of recommendations required and/or allowed; if an official transcript is required; if test scores and what test scores are required or recommended; if a counselor recommendation/school report is required; and if a mid-year report (1st semester grades) and/or final transcript are required. Organize this list by the earliest due date to the latest.

3. Ask teachers for letters of recommendation. Think of two academic teachers, ideally from your junior year, that you developed strong relationships with and that can offer different insights on the type of student you were in their classrooms. Ask them, “Would you be willing to write a strong letter of recommendation for my college applications?” Using this terminology allows teachers a way out if they feel they could not write you a strong letter, and gives you an opportunity to sense hesitation, which is a sign that you should ask someone else. Some teachers request that students fill out a questionnaire to help them write stronger letters; if they do not, I suggest you email the teacher(s) examples of things you did in and out of their classroom(s) to be a strong student and helpful classmate. Teachers are not required to write letters of recommendations for students, but they do it every year. Please keep this in mind when asking them, and remember to send a thank you note after they do so.

4. Check in with your school counselor. Find out the procedures and timeline to request an official transcript and counselor recommendation/school report from your school counselor, as well as share the names of your teacher recommenders with them. Colleges prefer that you do not see your recommendation letters from counselors or teachers, so your teacher recommendations will likely be sent to your colleges by your counselor. If you have started your Common Application, this is what is allowed to happen when you sign the FERPA waiver. Some teachers might offer to share their letter with you, but that should be their choice, and not your request.

5. Organize your essays by topic. Copy and paste the supplemental essay prompt questions, word limits and due dates for all of your colleges into a Word or Google document titled, “Supplemental Essays”. Review all of the questions carefully to see where you could use similar topics more than once. I recommend grouping similar essay prompts together, and creating a second list titled, “Essay Types”. For example:

-Why this College? (Carnegie Mellon: 500 words; Syracuse U: 250 words; Occidental College: 200 words).  

-Why this Major? (Chapman U: 150 words; Purdue University: 100 words)

-Supporting Diversity/Community essay (University of Oregon: 500 words; UC Boulder: 650 words)

Grouping essays this way helps you strategize topics and not feel overwhelmed.  Within each essay category, start by writing the essay with the largest word count first, then trim the essay down for other schools, as needed. Of course, you cannot use the same, “Why this school?” essay for different schools on your list, as colleges would not view you as very interested or knowledgeable about their school. However, these essays will all have a similar flow. Focus on why the school is a good fit for your goals, as well as what you will bring to the campus community.  

6. Remind your parents to file the FAFSA and CSS Profile (if required) on or shortly after October 1st (check each college for specific due dates) and send to all the colleges on your list. You can send the financial aid applications prior to sending your admissions applications. A file will be created in your name, and documents held, until all required items are received. Once all items have been received, and the deadline has passed, your file will be reviewed. You can read more here about the financial aid process.

7. Send your ACT, SAT and/or SAT Subject Test scores directly from the or College Board to colleges well before the application deadline (I recommend 3 weeks ahead of the due date). A few schools require that you send all test scores, but most allow score choice, where you can choose which test dates to send to each school. Review the requirements for each college before sending (you should already have this information compiled from Tip #2!).

8. Find out when colleges on your list will be traveling to your area. Fall is the time when admissions staff hit the road to visit high schools or conduct regional presentations. Check with your counseling office to see if your colleges are visiting your school. If not, check the college’s website or admissions office to find out if they will be conducting local presentations or attending a college fair. This is a great time to meet with admissions staff, demonstrate interest in the school, and get some of your questions answered before applying.

9. Help your application stand out. Many colleges are offering space on their applications for you to add a resume or ZeeMe profile. This is your chance to highlight things about you that aren’t apparent in your application or need more detail.

10. Map out a plan. I recommend using a monthly calendar to note when items are due, and then backtrack when items should be sent, worked on and requested. Give yourself a buffer, as things can and do happen. Also, make sure to log in regularly to each college account (that is created when you apply) to ensure the college has received your materials after you send them. It is your job to check up on this. It is really important to plan ahead, and remember that the application due date means that is the LAST date all materials should have arrived at the school.

11. Let your parents help you. They are dying to do so but are often afraid of overstepping their bounds, so offer them a job. A great way for parents to help is to research the financial aid requirements at your colleges, review your essays for grammatical errors or ask them to start researching private scholarships you might qualify to apply for AFTER your college applications have been turned in. (Note to parents: give your senior a little extra grace and love these next 7 weeks!)

12. Remember to breathe and build in time for breaks. If your application, essays or materials are not ready for the early deadlines like you had hoped, shift your focus to making your application as strong as it can be for the Regular Admissions deadline. If you are already planning on later application due dates, you might still consider using the above tips to get as much done as possible by November. The sooner you climb this mountain, the sooner you get to enjoy the view!  

Kristen Miller is an independent college counselor in Portland, Oregon. She is the founder and owner of College Bound & Ready and offers free consultations to 8th-11th grade students and parents.

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  • Cathie Ericson

    This is all such great advice but I especially love this!

    Ask them, “Would you be willing to write a strong letter of recommendation for my college applications?”

    Such a great way to make sure you are getting the best type of letter!