Guidance counselors recommend planning ahead
As high school seniors finish up the last pieces of their college applications in January, junior students are beginning the process of putting it all together.
Guidance counselors at local county high schools say that the process of preparing for college apps starts long before a student’s senior year.
“We actually are going into the junior classrooms in the next three weeks to go over what their spring and summer should look like,” said Greg Hess, school counselor at South Butler Area School District for grades 10 to 12. “A lot of that is compiling their list, what are they looking at doing, what kind of schools are the best for them, and then visiting those schools when they get the opportunity.”
Hess encourages students to start looking for schools as early as the spring of their junior year.
“That way when they get to the beginning of senior year, they have a solid list of the schools that they are interested in, and that way, they can get to those applications and get them done and be ready to roll by Christmas break or Thanksgiving break,” he said.
Students usually cannot access the Common App online application program until the end of the summer after their junior year finishes but can begin preparing before that date.
“Over the summer, you can start working on your college essay, or beginning of the school year, before things start to really pick up,” Hess said. “Late summer, early fall, or any time over the summer really, (is a good time) to start working on essays.”
Students also can begin taking their SAT and ACT exams during the spring of their junior year, though some schools have moved to a test-optional model.
“We usually recommend taking one of each and seeing which you do better on,” Hess said. “The good thing with the SAT (being) optional is if you really don’t like your score, there’s a good chance you won’t need to submit it. That all started when COVID hit, and a lot of schools have continued with it, and based off of talking to admissions counselors, that seems to be the trend moving forward, that it may continue to be an optional piece.”
Darla Ramirez-Lightner, coordinator of collegiate and career affairs at Seneca Valley School District, recommends students get out and do college visits even before their junior year.
“Being a sophomore, in the summer, it gives you more time to possibly visit. Even if a student is not quite sure what college that they are looking for or doesn’t have a list yet, to go and visit a large public university, or a small liberal arts college, or a career-technical institute, or a community college, all these different institutions have their own culture and programs,” she said. “Getting a sense of what is out there is so important to start early.”
Many senior students have already submitted their applications, Hess said, as early decision and early action deadlines start in November and December.
The College Board describes early decision plans as binding, in which a student who is accepted as an early decision applicant must attend the college. Early action plans are nonbinding, meaning students receive earlier responses to their applications but do not have to commit to the college immediately.
“There are still actually a bunch to go. The last major deadline is Jan. 15, when a lot of schools have regular decision deadlines,” Hess said. “But a lot of schools are rolling, which means they take applications as they get them, so they don’t necessarily have a deadline.”
Holiday break ends up being a busy time for many senior-year students.
“We encourage everyone to have the majority of their applications in prior to the winter holiday break, but a lot of them do work on them over that break, as they usually have 10 days where they don’t have to be working on schoolwork,” Hess said. “Thanksgiving break, a lot of students will work on them over that point in time too.”
At Moniteau School District, school counselor Laura Kleemook recommends students apply to their fallback or safety schools ahead of time in the fall and winter even if they do have rolling admission. This gives students an option if their financial aid or acceptance packages do not work out, and helps avoid panic situations in the spring.
“Really, if I were them and had the opportunity to wait until I got the financial aid letters from colleges, that’s when I would encourage them to give that response (to a school),” she said. “You really don’t know what packages you’re going to get until that happens. That all is dependent on the college, which is the worst part, because a lot of kids will end up waiting till the latest school gets it back to them. I tell them to apply (to fallback schools) so that when they start getting those financial aid packages in and they’re not helpful at all, they have some options that are affordable to them.”
Grades, recommendation letters, tests, essays, and activities all come together in a college application. Hess advises students not to overload themselves.
“There are some students that will try to join every club and extracurricular just to put it on their resume. Schools can kind of see that, and often times on an application, they’ll say ‘how much time do you spend per week on this?’” Hess said. “We kind of recommend for them to base it off what they really enjoy doing.
“Turn something you’re passionate about into volunteer work, and maybe build upon that volunteer work and do a project based on that. That’s what’s going to make you stick out to a school.”
Students should think about who they want to ask to write their recommendation letters throughout their high school career, Ramirez-Lightner said.
“Start as early as you can, even before the junior year, thinking about working with teachers,” she said. “Who are you going to consider for a letter of recommendation — who knows you well? It really comes down to who knows you best — who did you really get to know over the last three years that you feel comfortable with and have a connection with? Those are the best letters of recommendation, and sometimes students won’t reflect on that till the beginning of the senior year.”
Students sometimes underestimate the time and effort it might take to do a college application, she said.
“It isn’t the way (it was) back then, where you knew the schools you wanted to apply to and threw those apps out there and it was simple,” she said. “The schools are more competitive these days, so you have to work on that personal brand and what will make you stand out as compared to other candidates.
“I think kids have a tendency to think about ‘what do they want to hear in my essay, what do they want to see’ instead of ‘what makes me unique.’”
Outside of just preparing for college applications, activities and extracurriculars are an important component in building a schedule and developing time-management skills, Kleemook said.
“I always try to tell them, the more well-rounded you are as a student, the better you look to a college,” she said. “Right now, what we’re seeing is not students who are not academically prepared for college, it’s students who are not emotionally prepared for college.
“The best thing students can do is make sure that they are not focusing so much on their academics that they are burning themselves out, and make sure they have something to connect themselves to their surroundings.”
COVID-19 and the pandemic, Kleemook said, have caused problems with emotional management and scheduling for many students.
“I think most people function better with a set schedule, and I think COVID has really thrown that for a loop,” she said. “I think a lot of people are struggling to make sense of all that and find a new routine in the lack of routine. We have a lot of kids who, when they are not given a stringent routine, cannot make one for themselves. Helping them navigate that and self-regulate and meet that structural routine that has been a real challenge.”
For senior students getting their acceptances and heading into college this fall, she said, the schedule-setting component also presents a challenge.
“Part of the problem with COVID is not only that schooling and regular jobs changed, but when everything went cyber, college students lost extracurriculars and student jobs,” she said. “A lot of (students) are in an apartment on campus, so there’s not a mom to say, ‘did you do your work this morning?’ For a lot of kids, that was disastrous.
“It’s about helping them understand they are at the point to advocate for themselves, and understand that if there are resources to help, they are the ones who need to find those resources.”
Ramirez-Lightner recommended that students make a point to talk to their school guidance counselor before they’re deep in the application process.
“Your school counselor could be such a wealth of knowledge,” she said. “You don’t want to wait until the senior year. (Counselors) can be a huge advocate for your application materials, and give you suggestions on how to improve things and pull out some of the unique things about who you are.”