1. Write some essay first drafts
Don’t freak out – this doesn’t mean that you should already have all of your essays written. But you also can’t afford to ignore them until your summer after junior year. Many students have their first encounter writing in the personal narrative genre only when they’re asked to write one for their college applications. Even if you’re an amazing writer, it’s good to have a sense of how these essays should be structured and what aspects of your story you should be emphasizing before you have to write one that you’ll be sending off to your colleges of choice.
That’s why you should take the time now to look over college application essays and take a stab at writing a couple. You can choose essays either from the Common Application or Coalition for College application portals, or school-specific essays from universities that you’re interested in. And if, like me, you find it difficult to absorb this kind of material outside of a class structure, feel free to check out one of our three college essay boot camps this summer. What’s important is that you spend some time now getting used to thinking about yourself and your own story. You should also be used to writing about your personal experiences in a way that shows your ability to grow, your self-understanding, and your willingness to reveal vulnerability to others. Doing all of that in as little as 300 words can be very challenging, which is why it’s important to start practicing now.
2. Get ready for your junior packet and talking about yourself!
The term “junior packet” is a little deceiving. Although many high schools hand out these packets during junior year, some will do so later. Similarly, the content can vary from school to school. Generally, junior packets are a collection of information, schedules, forms, and writing prompts designed to help students get ready for their college applications. They include questions to be completed both by the student as well as the parents that are designed to prepare you for your college applications. That includes questions like “In what ways have you grown both personally and academically during high school?” and “If you have decided your major for college, what steps have you taken to prepare?”
Although the timing on when students should complete these vary, you should ask your guidance counselor whether your school supplies a packet like this for students and make sure you get a copy as soon as you can. The information you fill out for this packet will help you organize the information you have about your high school experiences and more easily transfer them to an application. The packet will also often include things like reference requests, which you should be sure to submit as soon as they are requested by the school, so that teachers have enough time to talk with you about your references before submitting them. But who should you choose for your references?
3. Start making the relationships you will use for references
Your high school references are a very important part of your college application. Students can spend a lot of time obsessing over who would make the best reference for them and how they should tailor each reference to each application. The truth is, the title of your recommender or the subject they teach has a lot less of an impact on the strength of their recommendation than something more essential – how well do they know you?
When choosing references, you want to choose someone from your school who can speak about you as a student and as a person. Colleges have seen their share of boiler-plate letters of recommendation and can tell when a recommender doesn’t have a real and deep knowledge of the student, their strengths, and their accomplishments. So the best piece of advice I can give is to choose school employees who know you the best. Oftentimes, that will be your counselor and teachers, but it could also be your security guard, your principal, or your janitor. What’s most important is that they can tell the admissions committee something about you that isn’t in your application. So, right now, think about who those people are and make sure that you take the time to grow those relationships this year as they will likely be the ones writing your recommendation letters.
4. Decide on an SAT test date this year
At this point in your high school career, you should already have a date to take the SAT lined up, ideally by the end of the year. There are two reasons for this – first, taking the SAT test early is a good way to understand what you need to work on in the future. Even the most authentic test practice isn’t going to be quite the same, or have quite the same level of pressure, as an actual SAT test sitting. SAT reading sections are intentionally designed to take students out of their comfort zone by presenting content they may not be familiar with in a very formal, academic English. The math section attempts to cover those sections of math that are most relevant to the majority of college majors, including basic algebra, data analysis, and the manipulation of complex equations. Taking the time now to find out what you still need to work on will pay off in the long run.
Even more important, taking the SAT now gives you a degree of insurance for the future. As a lot of unprepared rising seniors have found this year, sometimes the unexpected can get in the way of your testing plans, which is why it’s good to have a backup. Although College Board has opened up additional testing slots later in the year to make up for the ones that have been canceled this summer, students applying for Early Decision may find it difficult to get scores from this year ready in time to submit their applications. Taking the test beforehand ensures that you have a score to submit, no matter what.