For many students and parents, applying to college is a scary prospect. In my years of experience, best antidote to college application anxiety is preparation. The earlier students begin, the better options they have when it’s time to make that final college decision at the end of their senior year. So let’s look at a comprehensive guide to when to apply to college.

To help you with the process, we’ve created a step by step guide to optimizing the college process.

College Prep Starts your Freshman Year

Well before a student actually sits down to apply to college, he’s actually already started to build his application. Colleges look at grades, extra-curricular activities, and leadership experiences. Selective colleges look for a student who has demonstrated excellence in all of these categories, starting from her freshman year.

Let’s take a look at some easy steps a student can take to optimize her college application.

A Good Start .. 9th and 10th Grade

The most important consideration for college admissions for the first two years of high school are GPA and extra-curricular activities.

Not only do a student’s grades matter, but so too do the courses he’s enrolled in. Taking just the basics, when a pre-AP class is also offered, can send the wrong message to selective colleges. If a student can manage it, it’s almost always better to take the more advanced classes.

At a minimum, if a student plans to study math and science, it’s best if she’ on the more advanced STEM track. On the other hand, if he’s more of a humanities student, the same logic applies for English and History classes.

When it comes to extra-curricular activities, consistency and relevancy are key. Staying in, and excelling, in one extra-curricular activity, especially when it corresponds with potential career interests, sends a better message than hopping from one activity to another.

Spending four years in the science club, and eventually becoming the president, shows a certain maturity and accomplishment, especially if your first choice major is engineering.

Standardized Testing: The Infamous SAT and ACT

Just the thought of sitting in a room and taking a test for four hours is enough to give most high schoolers the hee-bee-jeebess.

But, as Sun Tzu said, the best way to succeed in the heat of battle is to know thine enemy. Standardized tests become much easier when students spend many hours familiarizing themselves with what they’ll encounter. A good tutor is a good place to start, and so too is repeatedly taking practice tests.

The Big One: Junior Year

Hopefully a student has logged forty or fifty hours studying for The SAT and ACT, so she’ll be ready to take the test for the first time. Some college coaches say to take the test in the fall of your Junior year, but that’s unnecessary if you’ve taken multiple full length practice tests. Instead, take the tests (The SAT and ACT) the first time they’re offered in the spring of Junior year.

See which test you did better on, and then either focus just on that one (if you’re not planning to apply to top 25 schools) or prepare for both in tandem. The SAT and the ACT have about a 60% overlap in content (which is only going up due to the redesigned SAT.)

We suggest most of our private tutoring clients take the SAT and ACT up to three times. Take the first round of tests in January/February, the next round in March/April, and the third round in May/June. For 90% of clients, three times is plenty to see a 200+ score improvement on the SAT and a 4+ point score improvement on the ACT.

Before Junior year ends, a student should have a preliminary list of schools. We suggest students start at around 20, and whittle it down from there. Some major considerations are geography, academic difficulty, prestige, and cost. Here’s a good link for choosing Goal, Reach, and Safety schools.

Another consideration is grouping these schools by location, so that a student can take a few trips (if feasible) to different regions to visit schools over the summer. If all your schools are in one state, say Texas or California, the job of visiting is that much easier.

The Summer Before…

The summer before your senior year is a critical and stressful time for high school students and their parents. In an ideal world, a student has achieved his top SAT/ACT score, scheduled a few college visits, reached out to admissions officers ahead of time (more on relationship building with admissions advisers coming soon), and is studying for SAT subject tests, if necessary.

Too, we recommend that our clients engage in some sort of impressive activity over the summer before senior year. Some students go on expensive overseas trips to volunteer or participate in a cultural interchange. But a summer experience need not be expensive to be impressive. Great ideas for summer activities are internships related to a student’s intended field of study. If a student wants to study pre-law, he should contact local law firms and see if they’d be interested in an intern. If interested in studying science or medicine, reach out to local hospitals to apply to their volunteer programs. Ideally a student has already done this ahead of time, starting in the fall of junior year, so that his summer is already booked with meaningful extra-curricular experiences.

Writing the essays

The other major piece of the puzzle to a successful college prep plan in your junior summer is starting the application process. For students interested in applying to the increasingly competitive Texas Schools like UT Dallas and Texas A&M, we suggest students get their applications in as close to the august first opening day as possible. To achieve this, students should begin working on their essays as soon as the prompts are released, which is generally around July 1st.

The summer is also a great time to begin working on drafts for your common application essay prompts. While the prompts are generally not released until August 1st, you can start brain storming potential ideas before then.

First Semester Senior Year

For many students, this is the most hectic time of their whole high school career.

By now, you should have a finalized list of the colleges you want to apply to. A good college list is generally between five and fifteen schools, depending on how ambitious a student is in their college application goals.

Since you know where you’re applying, you will know which schools need college recommendation letters. Thanks to better technology on the CommonApp, California Common App, and Apply Texas, along with more and more schools using naviance, asking for rec letters is easier than ever.

By now, you should be closing in on final drafts for your college essays. Be careful of your deadlines. I suggest putting together a master list on a word or excel document that clarifies when every application is due. Beyond that, this is also the time do decide if you will apply to any schools under the Early Action or Early Decision deadlines. Here’s a quick guide to breakdown the advantages to applying early.

After you send out all your apps, it’s time to fill out the FAFSA and also start thinking about the scholarship application process. is the best place to start the scholarship search. Go on and make an account and fill out the preferences and interests relevant to you.

Also make sure to talk to your high school’s guidance counselor to get a list of the local scholarships available through your school and community. These are often the easiest scholarships to win as there’s a smaller pool of competition.

This is the end: Senior Year Spring

By April first (unfortunately, also April Fool’s Day) you should receive the final notifications from all the colleges you’ve applied to.

From here, making a cost-benefit analysis is your best course of action. Again, consider the myriad factors that go into picking the right college. You can also apply for extra financial aid from the schools you have been accepted to, filling out a formal request for more generous scholarships or financial aid. Students often receive an extra five thousand or so, if they can put together a convincing case for themselves.

Contact us today to set up a free consultation to learn more about how to maximize the college admissions process.


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