Tips to Stay Sane
Starting this month, your college search will begin, ready or not. You'll be bombarded by mail from colleges and universities, all of them trying to get you to sign up to be on their mailing list so that they can send you even more material. The way you sort through all the propaganda can set the tone for the rest of your college search. Don't dismiss an institution just because you have never heard of it or because it's not ranked high in some magazine. Many students find "their" college through an unsolicited mailing. Don't be quick to judge or to categorize schools as "good" or "bad." Every school is "good" and will provide a quality education . . . for the right person.
Before signing up to be on mailing lists, create a new e-mail account for all communication to and from all of the schools. Make it simple, like email@example.com rather than firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
If you're interested in a college, make sure the college knows it. Some selective colleges take your interest into account. So send in those reply cards, call the 800 numbers, or go online and make sure you're on the mailing list of every college that intrigues you. If you don't respond to any of the initial mailings, a college may drop your name from its list.
When planning to visit colleges, don't visit your top choice school first. Explore other colleges with an open mind and figure out what aspects you like and don't like. You may be surprised to fall in love with a school that was not high on your list originally. If you are doing interviews while visiting colleges, visiting other colleges first will provide some practice and experience in interviewing before you interview at your top choice school.
Tired of the winter grind? Spring not coming fast enough? Itching to be outside rather than stuck inside doing school work? By all means, when the warm weather comes and the days get longer, welcome the new season with open arms. But don't let spring fever distract you too much from your studies. A lot happens at the end of junior year that admissions offices consider in the application process, such as standardized tests and Advance Placement exams. If you had a rough transition to high school back in ninth grade but you've improved over the last few years, then it is really important to maintain an upward trend in your classes. Also, keep in mind that next year, when you're a senior, you may well be asking some of your junior-year teachers for letters of recommendation. So stay focused and keep working hard; next year, those teachers will find it easy to lavish praise on you in their letters. Don't let junioritis disrupt your momentum.
Let's say you intend to major in English or theater and figure that in college you'll totally avoid ambitious math and science courses. Does that mean you should avoid such courses now? On the contrary. If you want to get into a selective college, you should take challenging courses in high school, particularly during senior year. The most selective institutions in the country prefer to see four years of the following: English, social sciences, a foreign language, science (biology, chemistry, physics, and another year of a lab science), and math (at least up to precalculus but ideally through calculus). Sure, we have admitted students without calculus or physics or a fourth year of a foreign language, but the most competitive students in our applicant pool are the ones who have a solid academic foundation that includes the five core subjects every year. They've demonstrated that they are ready for college-level work and for the freedom and flexibility of a liberal arts education.
We also want to see if you are taking the most challenging courses offered at your high school—for example, honors courses, Advance Placement (AP) courses, International Baccalaureate (IB) courses, or even courses at a nearby college. Obviously, we do not expect you to take every single high-powered class available, but we hope that you will challenge yourself in several subjects. (And just to be clear, we don't expect you to take AP or IB courses if your school does not offer them.)
In short, senior year is not the time to take a less rigorous course load. If anything, it's the year to step up your game. So, before you choose three history electives for next year, you should figure out how to include another year of science or foreign language into your schedule.
Not going anywhere for spring break? Well, then, go online and visit some college Web sites! Add your name to the mailing lists and request additional information. Explore institutions that you've never heard of and see what they have to offer. Have any college-age friends who are coming home for break? If so, ask them questions about their college and how the transition between high school and college has been. If they had to do the college process over again, what piece of information do they wish someone told them?
Time to get organized. The college search process is full of so many different dates and details that it can become overwhelming to keep track of them all. Therefore, you might want to create a master calendar for your college search, starting now and running through April of your senior year. Plan spring and summer college visits, and don't forget to include possible SAT I and II or ACT test dates and registration deadlines.
Summer is a great time to visit college campuses, but realize that this is when many other families will be touring campuses, too. So, when planning your trips, allot ample time in between colleges, not only for traveling and getting lost, but also for parking. Call in advance or check online for the most up-to-date tour, information session, and interview times. We recommend that you visit, at most, two colleges per day, allowing for time to explore. You may want to check out everything from the library, student center, and athletic facilities to the dining hall, labs, and even the surrounding area. Even without many of the students on campus, can you picture yourself living there for the next four years? While touring, always try to envision campus with students abuzz, because what you see in the summer is usually very different from what happens during the academic year. If you are going on vacation but had not planned to visit any colleges during the trip, we suggest that you try to stop by a college and just walk around or take an official tour. A spontaneous visit may surprisingly help you discover your dream school.
Here's a myth about college admissions: to get into a good school, you have to sign up for high-powered summer programs—the more exotic and expensive, the better. Yes, summer programs or classes on a college campus can be rewarding. Yes, community-service trips that take you overseas can be worthwhile. Yes, a summer internship can be fascinating. But traditional summer jobs—at the local gas station, diner, summer camp, or community pool—can be just as valuable. Ditto with community service in your own hometown. So stay active and productive during the summer. But don't feel obligated to pile up "prestigious" activities just because you think they'll enrich your resume. On the specific question of whether it will help you get into a college if you do a summer program at that school: not necessarily. Participate in the program if it truly interests you. If you do participate, take advantage of your time on campus to learn more about the institution, its resources, its community, its ethos—and then reflect that knowledge on your application.
Finally, use those hours of summer freedom to read! Read while you're at the beach. Read during those long car rides during college visits. Follow your curiosity; follow your passions. Reading is the greatest of pleasures—and it's the best preparation for college. Avid readers tend to be good learners and skilled writers. They tend to be fun, interesting people, too.