It's your year! Make the most of your remaining time before school starts; be sure you take some downtime so that you are energized and refreshed to start the new school year. As you plan for the year ahead, think of your college application process as an extra class worth of homework time each week. The best advice I can give you is to do your best to work steadily on small pieces of the applications and your related tasks to keep it manageable-- and have a goal of finishing the app process by mid-December at the latest. True time off with family and friends over your last winter break from school is invaluable, and it's exciting to start the second half of the year with that "extra class" homework mostly done. It will feel good; trust me.
Senior To Do:
Talk to two teachers about recommendation letters, if you haven't yet. Be sure you are aware of any special procedures at your school for making requests or confirming those letters of support after teachers agree. October is a crunch time for teachers, and many rec letters will need to be completed in that window (if not sooner, depending on school policy), so ask asap, if you haven't. The best letters are from teachers who can speak to your engagement in the classroom, even if (sometimes, especially if) you encountered some challenge but took it on with self-advocacy, communication, and your best effort. Contrary to popular opinion and reddit forums, it doesn't generally matter what subjects your recommenders teach, as long as they are from academic courses, taught you in the last year, and aren't both from the same department.
Folks who know you from community engagement, sports, fine arts, or other extracurriculars can best support you, in most cases, by writing a short paragraph to send to your counselor. The counselor letter can quote those other voices and include them on your behalf. If you're applying somewhere with an art portfolio, then those teachers may be asked to write something specific for you.
The Common Application is up and running. It's a good idea to open your account there, and to complete some of the background information about your education and your family now, so that easy part of the application is done-- and so that you have an idea of how the application works. I've learned over the years that this step goes a long way in helping you feel like you have the process under control. Taking small steps and understanding the process helps it feel manageable-- otherwise it can loom in your imagination as a much bigger task than it really is!
Make sure you understand the process, at your school, to ensure that your school support documents (transcript, secondary school report, letters of recommendation) are sent in a timely fashion with your applications. Talk to your counselor if you are unsure.
Check the schedules for SAT and/ or ACT if you're looking to take a first or additional test before application season. Good news: most students will very naturally see their best test scores from senior year test dates. The October dates will work for most colleges' early application dates in November. November and December dates will be fine for Regular Decision applications in January. Of course, test-optional policies are still in place at most colleges and universities, and the California public universities are test-free. Compass Prep has great resources for understanding testing and test policies on their website.
Prepare for financial aid applications that can be submitted October 1 (talk to your parents!).
Keep diving into research and shaping your list! It's never too late to keep learning and thinking about your plans. Most seniors will have gained maturity and personal insight over the last few months that should be allowed to factor into their continued development of their priorities for college. For most students, an ideal final college application list will be made of 8-12 applications (at most!), with a balance of honestly-assessed likelies (places where you are in the top 25% of students recently admitted), targets (places where you are solidly in the middle-50% of historically admitted students), and some reaches (places where you are below that mid-50% range.) Your odds in the "reach" category do not improve with more applications... and applying to more than a dozen schools can dilute the quality of your applications.
Juniors, get ready for an exciting year ahead. For a lot of 11th graders, the first semester reflects a transition in the depth and challenge of your coursework. Breathe, stay on top of your homework, and assess your habits so that you transition well into the second half of high school. Make sure you have time in your schedule to do the things that energize you and help you feel calm and in control.
You'll likely feel a shift in your extracurricular activities, too. You're moving into leadership and mentoring opportunities. Leadership and deepening your engagement take all kinds of shapes and forms; the important thing is to look for ways to "level up" in your activities, and/ or share your interests and skills with younger students.
The summer after 10th grade is the the earliest time to effectively engage in preparation for SAT or ACT. Generally, December is the earliest test date that 11th graders should look at-- and it's perfectly fine to start in the spring, too. How to prep? Well, studies show that focused practice with a book of real tests (available at any bookstore) and the timer on your phone is as good as any. Khan Academy offers officially endorsed SAT prep online. If you're looking for prep courses, Compass Prep has some of the best individualized online tutoring, and their goal is efficient use of your time. If you're here in the Bay Area, the friendly folks at AJ Tutoring are hard to beat for in-person courses and tutoring.
Your school might offer the PSAT or a practice ACT, often in October. These are good opportunities to practice the testing scenario so you know what it's like-- and those scores are not used in college admission; they're just for practice. Also: colleges and universities purchase names from the testing agencies as part of their recruiting efforts. That might be a reason to opt into taking the test, and/ or to create an email address specifically for your college process, and begin using it on those test forms. Pro tip: the "adult" world prefers email. It's time to get used to checking yours and responding appropriately to messages you receive from colleges of interest!
No matter how you feel about your academic record, every day is a chance to build a new trend. This year, be sure you are figuring out how to put forth your best effort, and get to know your teachers!
Please see (and hey, print and stick on the fridge, while you're at it!) my guide to making the most of the first half of high school.