A College Application Checklist | Best Colleges

Cristopher Centers

Prepare for a great high school experience. You’ll be able to grow inside and outside the classroom while making sure you’re ready to apply to college in a few years. Although the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted opportunities for standardized tests and shifted many college visits from campus to online for […]

Prepare for a great high school experience. You’ll be able to grow inside and outside the classroom while making sure you’re ready to apply to college in a few years.

Although the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted opportunities for standardized tests and shifted many college visits from campus to online for now, you can remain curious, investigate virtually and continue to work toward your future goals. Careful planning and good choices over time make for strong options later.

Freshman Year

Faced with more challenging high school class work, you’ll need to pay attention to what your new teachers expect from you and look for ways to work harder and smarter. Grades are important in ninth grade, but seek balance so that you are challenged though not overwhelmed. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it.

Get involved. High school is not a four-year audition for college but rather a critical period to develop yourself. Grades are important, but so are social connections and extracurriculars. Use part-time jobs, community service, arts and music, robotics clubs and other activities to engage with others.

Read voraciously. Dive into books, newspapers, magazines and blogs. Explore subjects that engage you. Additionally, check out TED Talks, YouTube videos and free online courses.

Find mentors. Look for knowledgeable people who can offer helpful advice: teachers, coaches, counselors and friends. These relationships can pay off in other ways, too. People like to help students they know.

Schedule downtime. That means turning off electronic devices. No phones. No screens. We all need time to daydream and think about ourselves and our place in the world.

Identify ways to relieve stress. For high school and college, you’ll need a model for success that is sustainable and that includes finding healthy ways to manage stress and getting enough rest.

Sophomore Year

Focus on better understanding your strengths and interests – and how to develop them.

Challenge yourself wisely. Strive for strong grades and take on new challenges, but ask for help when needed and avoid overtaxing yourself. Balance is your goal.

Speak up in class. Learning at the college level is about an exchange of ideas between professors and peers. Critical thinking and the ability to articulate your thoughts and ideas are skills that contribute to college success.

Sleep. The typical 15-year-old brain needs eight to 10 hours of sleep to function at 100%, so that should be your goal.

Refine your route. Look ahead to the 11th- and 12th-grade courses you might be interested in taking and plan to work any prerequisites into your schedule. Take advantage of special courses, particularly rigorous ones that are in line with your academic interests.

Learn from the masters. As you take inventory of your own interests, find people who work in related areas. Listen to their stories and consider opportunities for gaining firsthand experience. A 20-minute conversation with a professional could even turn into a fruitful internship opportunity.

Put together an activities list. Start keeping track of your hobbies, jobs, extracurricular activities and accomplishments. This will form the basis of your resume and will be essential in preparing for college interviews and applications as well as for possible jobs, internships and summer programs.

Make your summer matter. Work, volunteer, play sports, travel or take a class. Research summer programs and internships to give yourself the chance to move beyond the scope of your regular high school courses. Plunge into an activity that excites you or one that builds on a special interest.

Settle on a testing strategy. Use your PSAT scores and other practice tests to help you identify the right test for you – the SAT vs. ACT. Set up a test-prep plan.

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Junior Year

Your grades, test scores and activities this year form a large part of what colleges consider for admission. Prepare for your exams, do your best in class and stay active and involved.

Plot out your calendar. Talk with your parents and guidance counselor about which exams to take and when. If your 10th-grade PSAT scores put you in reach of a National Merit Scholarship, concentrated prep time might be worth it. Then, take the SAT or ACT. In May or June, the SAT subject tests, required by some colleges, are also an option in areas where you shine. If you’re enrolled in an AP or honors course now, consider taking a College Board practice test.

Immerse yourself in activities. Look for extracurriculars both in and out of school that you enjoy and that show you are dedicated, play well with others and can assume leadership roles. High school is your time to discover what you like, to grow intellectually and socially, and to sharpen skills you’ll use after high school.

Build your college list in the spring. Once you get your test scores, talk to a counselor and assemble a list of target, reach and likely schools. Use tools to aid your research. Explore college websites and other resources such as the Federal Student Aid website and the U.S. News My Fit Custom College Ranking tool. And clean up social media – Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc. – since admissions folks may check it out.

Visit schools if you can. Spring break and summer vacation are ideal times to check out a few campuses.

Connect digitally. Too busy or unable to visit schools? Attend college fairs and information sessions. Grab the admissions rep’s card at an info session and follow up via email with a thank-you note or with questions whose answers aren’t already available on the college website.

Get recommendations. Right after spring break, ask two teachers with different perspectives on your performance if they will write letters for you. Choose teachers who will effectively communicate your academic and personal qualities.

Write. Reflect on your experiences and strengths as you prepare to write your college essay. Procrastination causes stress, so aim to have first drafts done by Labor Day of senior year. Share them with an English teacher, parent or counselor.

Senior Year

Don’t slack off. Colleges look at senior-year transcripts, so keep working hard in your classes.

Finish testing. If necessary, you can retake the SAT, ACT or SAT subject tests in the early fall. Check deadlines and the admissions testing policies of your schools. Are they test-optional or do they require the SAT or ACT? If so, do you also need the optional written essays? What about the SAT subject tests?

Know your deadlines. Many colleges have multiple deadline options. Consider the implications of early action and early, rolling or regular decision – and confirm the rules and deadlines for aid – so you can plan accordingly.

Apply. Craft your essays with a well-thought-out narrative. Fill out applications carefully. Review a copy of your transcript. Have you displayed an upward trend that should be discussed? Does an anomaly need context? Discuss any issues with your counselor. Leave yourself time to reread essays to clean up any errors.

Follow up. Check that your colleges have received records and recommendation letters from your high school and your SAT or ACT scores from the testing organization. A month after you submit your application, call the college and confirm that your file is complete.

Confirm aid rules. Check with each college for specific financial aid application requirements. Dates and forms may vary.

Make a choice. Try to visit or even revisit the colleges where you’ve been accepted before committing. Talk with alumni; attend an accepted-student reception. Then, make your college choice official by sending in your deposit.

This story is excerpted from the U.S. News “Best Colleges 2021” guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.

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