The last year of high school. It's finally here. You can look yourself in the mirror and say, "I'm a high school senior." That's the exciting part. However, it starts to get scary when you look yourself in the mirror and think, "So what's next?" For you college-bound seniors, what's next is a list of to-dos to endure the beginning, middle and end of the college application process. However, this checklist does not have to feel like an enduring feat, and can be condensed into a month-by-month breakdown to help conquer your senior year.
Whether senior year began on August 7 or does not begin until September 7, the college application process begins now. Much of the college application process is dependent on the schools you choose to apply to with their various deadlines and requirements. Therefore, the first step is to compile a list of four to seven colleges or universities. Each college or university should include your desired field of study (if you have a major in mind) and a list of requirements that you have met or exceeded. For example, if the school requires a 1200 SAT score, then your SAT score should be a 1200 or higher. Let's say your SAT score does not meet the school's requirement. Well fear not, there is still time to retake the SAT or consider taking the ACT. In fact, I would suggest at least two sets of standardized test scores. Whether that means taking the SATs twice, taking the ACTs twice or taking one of each, it is likely that you will outscore yourself the second time. The great news is that colleges use the best score, and some will even superscore tests, which means that they will combine the highest scores on each section of the SAT or ACT to give you the highest score combination possible.
Step two in the application process is to secure those testing scores. Either register for the next available SAT test date (October 7), ACT test date (October 28), or make sure you have access to your finalized test reports from a prior testing date. Once you have completed these first two steps, you can bounce over to The Common Application site to see if any of the colleges or universities you shortlisted are available through The Common Application (Common App). Fingers crossed that most of the schools you are interested in are on the Common App, because the website saves time in the application process as it allows you to apply to multiple schools and track multiple applications under one student account. If two or more schools on your shortlist are available on Common App, the next step for August is to create an account.
Finally, start looking for scholarships you qualify for, as many of their deadlines coincide with college application deadlines. Additionally, many parts of the college application (i.e. essays, recommendation letters, test scores) are also needed for scholarships, so if you play the game right, you can use your college application to help apply for scholarships.
Welcome to September, where the first order of business is to start reaching out to teachers, former employers, coaches or any other mentor for recommendation letters. From personal experience, I can tell you that some recommenders need ample time to complete their letter. Some recommenders may also request a curriculum vitae, which is essentially a list of your academic and extracurricular accomplishments throughout high school. Go ahead and construct that curriculum vitae now, save it to a flash drive and share it with any recommender who may need it.
Second order of business: Register for the SAT/ACT (if needed) and please, please study. Although the test dates are not until October, the registration deadline is September 8 for the SAT and September 22 for the ACT, and late registration fees are no bueno.
As you consider what colleges or universities you want to apply to, it is also time to consider when you want to apply. There are three options: early decision, early action and regular decision. Early decision and early action both require an earlier (hence the title) application, but you find out your acceptance sooner. However, early decision is non-binding, meaning you do not have to commit to that school if accepted. Early action is best for students who have an ideal school in mind and are OK with committing to a school prior to applying for financial aid through the federal government. Regular decision is also closely related to its title, and often allows students to include a grade report for the first semester of their senior year.
If early action or decision is what your heart desires, then it is time to start drafting a general purpose essay as to why you want to go to college. You can use this general essay for different colleges/universities and scholarships. In fact, Common App requires such an essay and gives a list of prompts to choose from. If you do use Common App, I would suggest using that essay as a basis for your general purpose essay.
Let's talk money, because that is often the most challenging part of the college application process. If one of the barriers for applying to college is the application fee, talk to a school counselor to see if you qualify for a fee waiver. If another barrier is financing college for about four years, then October 1st is an important date for you. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) opens on October 1st of every year to prepare for the following academic year. Create an account, remember your pin and reach out to your parents to help you complete the application. FAFSA is a little tricky to navigate if you do not live with both parents in one household, but it has been done by yours truly and countless others, so do not let this derail your college plans.
Now, if you choose the early action/decision pathway, there is some work to be done, since some schools have early action/decision application deadlines as early as October. First, finish that general purpose essay and make sure it is free of grammar mistakes and clearly conveys your message. Then, track down those recommendation letters and upload them in your college application(s). Finally, send in your (SAT, ACT, and/or AP) test scores.
If regular decision is the route you choose to go, then you have a little more time to get it together. You can start working on your general purpose essay and following up with teachers about their recommendation letters. No need to track down any teachers or coaches yet – they still have time to complete those recommendations. However, October is the ideal time to give your recommenders a friendly reminder to finish your letter.
Whether you choose early action, early decision or regular decision, there are still two commonalities for high school seniors. For one, you still have time to take the SAT (October 7) or ACT (October 28). Even if you have already sent your application (early action/decision), most colleges will still let you send test scores afterwards (especially if they have improved). Now is also a great time to start visiting any in-state colleges and using the resources from your college application to apply for scholarships.
OK, early action/decision applicants. Now is really crunch time. Most early applications are due in November, so now is the time to finish essays, secure recommendation letters and pay application fees or request fee waivers.
For my regular decision applicants, it is time to pick up the pace. Start tying loose ends on that general purpose essay. Ask your teacher, coach, employer or mentor for your recommendation letter. Most importantly, start narrowing down your list of schools. Without the deadline to apply, it is easy to forget prioritizing schools. By the end of November, try to finalize a list of four to seven schools.
Despite your application status, all high school seniors who took a standardized test in October should start to expect score reports in November. After receiving that set of scores, send them off to the schools where you intend to submit an application. Again, these fall months are an ideal time to visit local colleges and seek out scholarships.
Although the regular decision application deadline usually falls in January, it is best to complete the application in early December. This will free up so much time and take away the stress of last minute applications. Essentially, December is the month to finish everything: the general purpose essay, sending off test scores, requesting recommendation letters back and paying application fees or requesting fee waivers. Once this is all over, regular decision applicants can follow the lead of their early action/decision applicants and relax.
Well ... you can relax for maybe two weeks. As the college application process ends, the grind for scholarships truly begins. I have hinted at applying for scholarships, but if procrastination is your favorite game, now is definitely the time to start and complete those scholarships. Many big-dollar scholarships have deadlines in January, and spending the entire winter break hunched over scholarship applications is also no bueno.
For early applicants, acceptance decisions usually release by December and now it becomes time to start weighing your options. Take the month of December to consider the pros and cons of each school that accepts you.
The New Year has a way of refreshing some people. By now, most college applications are due and the stress melts for a few blissful moments. Consider visiting any out-of-state colleges/universities while you still have this momentary peace. College visits can help any high school senior make a decision and they provide a tidy excused absence from school. Also, take this time to unwind a little and relax with friends and family.
However, remain cautious. Senioritis – the lack of motivation to attend school, participate in class and/or do school work – is out for the everyday high school senior. One way to stay focused and avoid senioritis is to remain on the scholarship hunt. Keep looking for scholarships you qualify for, and apply.
Around this time, most high school seniors will know their options for college, as many regular application decisions release by March. While early applicants began the process of weighing the benefits and drawbacks to each school that accepted them back in December, it is now time for everyone to start making those tough decisions. Keep in mind, National Decision Day for college is May 1st. If you decide which school is best for you, then the next step is to pay an enrollment deposit. Depending on the school, the enrollment deposit varies, but is usually about $200. You will also have to pay a security deposit if you choose on-campus housing, and that again is in the $200 range. I have heard cases of students getting their enrollment and/or security deposit fees waived based on financial need after speaking to a financial aid officer, so keep that in mind if money is tight. Scholarships also start announcing semi-finalists and finalists, which helps with finances and college decisions.
By May 1st, it is time to make that final decision and pay your enrollment deposit. The college application process is over and high school is coming to a close. Pat yourself on the back, you made it! If you have not done so already, now is the perfect time to thank the people who wrote your recommendation letters, read over your essays and supported you along this journey to college.
The college application process is more than researching pretty schools and hoping they will let you attend after sending your high school transcript. In fact, it is a pretty lengthy process that requires test scores, grade reports, recommendation letters and essays. However, the application process start to ease up as the months pass. It is also much easier to navigate with a month-by-month breakdown and a certain level of determination. College-bound high school seniors, I will leave you with a few pieces of advice to obtain that determination: Remember why you chose to apply to college, remember how you made it to your last year of high school and avoid senioritis at all costs.
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