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With admissions season just around the corner, it’s time to buckle down and ensure that you’re on top of everything you need to do senior year. Here’s your back-to-school checklist for getting off to the right start for your last year of high school. Check off the items as you complete them.

 

  • Narrow down your college list.
  • Register for the Common App and/or Coalition Application.
  • Develop your essay topic and ideas.
  • Schedule last-minute standardized tests.
  • Talk to members of your admissions team.
  • Start working on financial aid.
  • Make a plan for keeping up with your schoolwork and extracurriculars.

 

1. Narrow down your college list.

Go on any last-minute college tours. Make sure you write down reflections after each visit to accurately remember your first impressions and how you feel about each school.

 

After you’ve finished up any last-minute tours, create a pro/con list for the colleges on your initial list. You ultimately want to hone it down to a list of 7-10 schools. Make sure each one is a place at which you could truly see yourself—where you have a “fit,” meaning your beliefs, values, and attitudes align with those of the college, and you can visualize yourself as part of the student body.

 

To learn more about gauging fit, check out What Does It Mean to ‘Fit’ With A College?.

 

Along with choosing schools where you have a good fit, you should also make sure you solid balance of safety, target, and reach schools: 2-3 safety schools, 3-4 target schools, and 2-3 reach schools. Safety schools are college at which you’re likely to be admitted, where your objective statistics (GPA and test scores) put you in the top 25% of admitted students.

 

A target school is a college where your statistics put you in the middle 50% of admitted students. A reach school is one where you have a lower chance of admission, and your statistics put you in the bottom 25% of admitted students.

 

Most highly selective colleges will be reaches for just about any student, which is why it’s important to include target and safety schools, even for students who are at the top of their classes and have stellar SAT scores.

 

At this point, you should also decide if you’re going to apply anywhere Early Decision or Early Action. ED is binding, mean you are obligated to attend the school if you are admitted and must withdraw your applications from other schools; EA is not binding, meaning you are free to apply to other schools whether or not you are admitted.

 

You should only apply ED if you have a true, obvious first choice. While you may receive a slight admissions advantage by applying ED, there are some downsides to applying under this plan. For instance, you won’t be able to leverage or compare financial aid packages if you are accepted, and, of course, you won’t be able to change your mind about where you matriculate.

 

Read Is Applying Early Decision Right For You? for helping determining whether ED is the best choice for you.

 

 

2. Register for the Common App and/or Coalition Application.

Take a thorough look at both the Common Application and the Coalition Application. It’s a good idea to create an account with both apps, so you can determine which application better fits your needs. For example, if you’ve been storing documents through the Coalition”s Locker tool, you might want to proceed with that application.

 

Look at each school on your list to find out which schools accept which applications. Then add those schools to your Common App or Coalition accounts. Some schools, such as Georgetown, have their own applications. Register for accounts on those schools’ websites as well.

 

Make a schedule of deadlines for all the schools on your list. Many of them will have overlapping deadlines for when you’ll need to submit materials. Include deadlines for supplementary materials and essays in addition to the general application deadlines.

 

Finally, do a walkthrough of each application to make sure you understand all the procedures, deadlines, and materials required.

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3. Develop your essay topic and ideas.

Start working on your essays by making a list of essays you need to complete. (Check our database for school-by-school topics.) The list should include the prompt you choose to address on the Common App or Coalition Application, as well as supplementary essays for individual colleges.

 

It will be helpful to categorize the prompts to help you plan them out and write them. For instance, many schools ask for the “Why us?” essay, in which you should address why you want to attend that particular school.  While you’ll need to write individual essays for each school, especially for a prompt such as “why us?,” it will be helpful to categorize the prompts so you can plan out your ideas and essay structures.

 

For more advice on how to respond, check out “Why This College” Essays: Should You Focus on Yourself or the College?.

 

When choosing your main essay topic, spend some time considering which prompt best enables you to tell a unique story and convey your personality and ambitions. If you don’t like any of the choices, both of the major applications offer a topic of your choice that you can select instead.

 

Just remember that the essay should tell a story that shows who you are and what you will bring to college; it shouldn’t be a list of achievements.

 

If you’re having trouble coming up with a topic, spend some time brainstorming ideas: think about experiences that have challenged you, lessons you’ve learned, anecdotes that have made you question your beliefs, and other events that helped shape you in some way.

 

Also consider whom you’ll ask to read your essay. While it’s always a good idea to get a second (and possible third or fourth) set of eyes, keep in mind that a parent, friend, teacher, or other reader can provide good insight into whether the essay reflects your voice—and possibly catch errors—but doesn’t necessarily know what adcoms want. So if you don’t necessarily agree with some of their advice, go with your gut.

 

For more tips on writing your essay, check out How to Write an Impressive College Essay: A Step-by-Step Guide.

 

 

4. Schedule last-minute standardized tests.

If you’re still not happy with your scores, schedule another sitting. Look at the calendar and find the earliest possible test date in the fall. You should only retake the test if you really think you can improve (because you’ve prepped more, gotten a tutor, or have another legitimate reason). If you’ve taken it three or more times, your scores are unlikely to go up.

 

Review standardized test rules for all schools on your list. Make sure you’ve taken the requisite number of subject tests—and in some cases, the right type. For instance, MIT requires at least one subject test in math and another in a science.

 

If you haven’t had them sent when you took the test, send your scores to the colleges on your list. You can do so via your account on the College Board or ACT website.

 

 

5. Talk to members of your admissions team.

Make a list of all the members of your admissions team: your parents, guidance counselor, teacher, and anyone else who will play a role in the admissions process. Include the various components with which they will be helping you, such as your recommendations or transcripts.

 

Ask your teachers for recommendations, sharing deadlines and other important information. Review your transcript with your guidance counselor, and make sure she’s aware of deadlines as well. Discuss your plans with your parents. You should also have a conversation about financial aid—what you can afford, how much financial aid you’ll need, a plan for pay back loans and getting a job, and so on. If you have older friends, it’s worth asking their advice about any college concerns you may have as well.

 

Remember to write a thank you note to anyone who helped later on—or even get them a gift, if they’ve been especially generous with their time.

 

 

6. Start working on financial aid.

You’re now able to fill out the FAFSA—Free Application for Federal Student Aid—in October. This is the form colleges will use to determine your eligibility for Federal financial aid, which will be broken down into grants, loans, and work-study. Most likely, you will need to fill out College Scholarship Service Profiles (CSS Profile) for individual schools as well, and they will determine your eligibility for institutional aid—aid that comes from the school

 

Start gathering together your paperwork now. You will need your parents’ tax returns and bank statements or other proof of income. You’ll also need any additional paperwork demonstrating your and your parents’ expenses. Having these documents in one place will make the process run much more smoothly later.

 

To learn more about the financial aid process and what you need to do, read FAFSA, CSS Profile, IDOC, Oh My! A Guide to Financial Aid.

 

 

7. Make a plan for keeping up with your schoolwork and extracurriculars.

Other obligations may fall by the wayside while you’re busy with college apps. Don’t let them. It’s important to keep up with your other commitments, not just because they matter for your own achievement, but because colleges will see your grades after admission, and your ability to matriculate is contingent upon maintaining a solid academic performance. (Read Why Would a College Rescind an Acceptance? to make sure this doesn’t happen to you.)

 

Invest in a physical planner or set up an online calendar or app for keeping track of tasks and to-do lists. Get a head start on planning out your semester or year by looking at all syllabi for your courses and adding key dates, such as tests, AP exams, essay due dates, and reading assignments, to your planner or calendar.

 

If you can, make a schedule for extracurricular commitments as well. For instance, if you tutor, discuss coming in on a specific day every week, so you know that you’ll always be tutoring at, say, 4:00-5:00 on Tuesdays. That way you can plan around these sessions. If you’re the leader of a club, create a schedule for meetings and activities upfront.

 

Read Your Ultimate Guide on How to Make a High School Action Plan for more advice on making sure you accomplish everything you need to do this year.

 

This year will be challenging. The key to having a successful application season and senior year is having a plan and following through. While not everything is always going to be under your control, creating at least initial order will make it more manageable.

 

For more advice on setting yourself up for success this year, read:

 

13 Application Goals for This Fall

208 College-Related New Year’s Resolutions

 

Looking for help navigating the road to college as a high school student? Check out the CollegeVine Mentorship Program. Our mentors drive significant personal and professional development for their high school mentees.

 

Combining mentorship with engaging content, insider strategies, and personalized analyses, our program provides students with the tools to succeed. As students learn from successful older peers, they develop confidence, autonomy, and critical thinking skills to help maximize their chances of success in college, business, and life.

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine

Laura Berlinsky-Schine

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in Creative Writing and minored in History. She lives in Brooklyn, New York and works as a freelance writer specializing in education. She dreams of having a dog.
Laura Berlinsky-Schine