By Victoria, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor
When I first meet freshmen, sophomores, or juniors who are just beginning to think about college and the application process, they often say that they are most worried about “getting in somewhere” and “getting all the work done.” Accomplishing these two things seems overwhelming to students – and understandably so. One way that students can get a head start on the process without feeling totally overwhelmed is to set some easy goals for themselves.
The college admissions process is complicated and there are many factors that colleges are considering when thinking about whether to admit a student or not. Students will also put a lot of energy into not only their high school academics and extracurricular activities, but eventually into the applications themselves, which entail some soul searching, research, and lots of writing. With that in mind, here are five easy goals to set for yourself when just starting the college preparation process.
Familiarize Yourself with the Basics of the College Admissions Process
It is easy to feel like the college admissions process is daunting when you aren’t sure of all the things that will be required of you when you eventually apply. Start small and spend some time learning about the basics, like general admission pools and deadlines, usual components of an application, and factors that are evaluated by colleges and universities in their admission decisions. Almost every college or university discusses these subjects on their websites, so students can easily pick a college of their choice and start looking at the basics.
It’s helpful to know that while you can plan for most of your applications to be due by Jan. 1 of your senior year, some applications will be due much earlier than others. Knowing the difference between admissions rounds like Regular Decision, which is usually a deadline in earlier January, versus Early Decision and Early Action which are earlier deadlines at the beginning of November, will help you plan for future application work. Similarly, when looking at standardized testing requirements, you’ll see that for most colleges, students need to submit either SAT or ACT scores. Taking a diagnostic of each early on in the process will help you choose one over the other and researching when they are offered is an important part of creating your test prep plan. It will also allow you time to prepare for the tests ahead of your junior year, when most students take these tests. The more you can plan, the less you’ll need to worry about having enough time to complete items needed for your applications!
Pick Fun Ways to Challenge Yourself Academically
Academic work is going to be a major component of how colleges evaluate you. But colleges don’t just want to see academic robots. They want to see students who are excited to learn, explore, and dive deeper into areas of interest, so it is important to find ways to do this. An easy first goal is to challenge yourself in rigorous courses at school and strive to do well in them. It’s not just about getting As, but about finding a way to be an active learner.
Exploring your academic interests through independent work or programs outside of your high school classes is also a great idea. Set a goal of exploring a new or existing academic interest in this way. Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs, offered through sites like EdX or Coursera, allow students to experience college level classes, online, for free. These courses are done at your own pace, and for your own enrichment—not for a grade—which makes them a great low-risk way to have fun learning about new topics. You can also dive deeper into academic interests through reading. Though many high schoolers say they don’t have time or don’t enjoy reading, reading is a skill that you will need in college. Becoming a better reader takes practice. Plus, once you are reading a book about a topic you are interested in, you would be surprised how quickly you can get through it!
Set Weekly or Monthly Improvement Goals
Early in high school, you want to spend time really honing your presence in the classroom and your reading, writing, problem solving, and study skills. Concentrating on improving all of these at once is a bit overzealous, so evaluate your performance honestly in each class and break it down into weekly or monthly improvement goals.
For instance, if you don’t contribute to class discussion very often in your English class, set a goal of adding to the conversation or asking a question at least three times a week. Once you achieve that goal, raise it to four times a week. Once you are contributing frequently, try pushing yourself to contribute deeper sentiments to the conversation.
Or maybe you are having a tough time in geometry class and aren’t understanding the concepts very well. Set a weekly goal of asking to meet with your teacher to go over some of those problems you got wrong on your homework or a test. After you do this, set a next goal to practice those types of concepts at least three times a week for the next test or final.
Always strive for improvement and deeper understanding in each area of study rather than just achieving a good grade. This will help improve your skills over time and demonstrate to teachers and colleges alike that you are a student who has a true passion for knowledge.
Start a Living Resume
By the time you apply to college, nearly every college will want to see a list and description of the activities you have participated in and the honors you have received throughout high school. After four years of work and involvements it is no surprise that some students forget about certain activities they did or awards they may have won. An easy way to combat this is to start a living resume as early as you can in high school.
Every time you join an activity or win an award, record and describe it. Many students have access to a college counseling database through their schools, called Naviance. You can easily add to the resume feature in Naviance which will put your activities into a resume template. But you can just as easily begin a resume on a Word or Google Document. Choose a format that generally appeals visually and is easy to read. Then record the name of the activity, where you did it, and a brief but descriptive account of what you did in that activity. For college applications they will also want you to estimate the hours per week and weeks per year that you spent on the activity so record that somewhere as well. For awards and honors, list the names and a brief description of the honor as well as when you received it.
This is not meant to be a formal resume that one would use for a job or internship, but rather a record of what you’ve done. However, if you want to make it a formal resume, you can! Just research how to format it in a more professional way and how to categorize and describe your activities for a more professional setting.
Start Researching Colleges
It is never too early to start checking out colleges! Many students wait until their junior year to visit colleges, because they think it is a waste of time to visit schools that they might not apply to. There is still much to be learned from taking a tour or attending an information session for a school to which you may not end up applying! Visiting a school can really change students’ perceptions on what they want in a college both academically and culturally.
Set an early goal of checking out a couple to a few colleges a year. You don’t always have to physically go to a college or university to do this. Many schools offer virtual tours online these days, which is great if time or money would make it difficult to visit. If possible, it is a good idea to physically visit a college, however, since the experience of being on campus is often so different than reading about it online. Start by taking a couple of virtual tours online or visiting local colleges in the early years of high school. Take notes and pay attention to what appeals to you and what doesn’t appeal to you about each school’s offerings. Keep all of these notes in one notebook for later reference. Strive to visit or research more schools each year of high school until you compile a solid, balanced list of colleges that are a good fit for you.
There are many more ways to get ahead on this process, which is why we always recommend getting started early! Breaking the process down into smaller goals can take away some of the stress of this process and set you up for success when applying senior year.