You’ve made it: the last year of high school is in sight. You can taste freedom and it tastes glorious. I remember that feeling as junior year came to an end. All the seniors seemed so relaxed those last few weeks and they all seemed so sure about where they were going. You can’t wait for that to be you.
Well…sorry to ruin your fantasy, juniors, but senior year is a gauntlet. Those seniors were relaxing because they had survived the most stressful year of their lives so far. Now it’s your turn. As my own senior year comes to a close, here are some tips I wish someone told me this time last year.
Time management with no time to manage
Searching for and applying to colleges and scholarships is going to be a part-time job. You have to dedicate time to it, which might mean taking one less AP class or not joining 20 clubs. Don’t get me wrong, you should take challenging courses and do extracurriculars you enjoy. That said, don’t murder yourself with your commitments. Also, make time for one thing in your life that you truly love. You’ll feel more stress this upcoming year than you ever have before, and you’ll need a way to unwind and calm yourself down or you will have a full-on breakdown. Trust me—I lost it a few times and almost all my friends did too.
Narrow down your college list
Only apply to schools where you’ll be happy and willing to spend four years, and figure out what size town and student body you want before you’re accepted. If you do that, you’re far more likely to match a school to what you truly want, as opposed to matching what you want to a school that might not be right for you. Also, don’t apply “just to see if you can get in.” Some of my friends thought it would be fun to apply to a few Ivy League schools while knowing there was no way they’d be happy on the East Coast. Instead of being the click-and-go application they were expecting, it turned into another deadline that just stressed them out.
I applied to four schools that looked promising, but some people say you should apply to a minimum of 10 schools. This rule should only be followed if eight of those schools are “reach” schools (it seems like a reach for you to get in). If all the schools you are interested in have an average SAT or ACT test score that is right around yours, apply to at least five to seven. If all the schools you are interested in have an average test score noticeably lower than yours, apply to at least three. Remember that more does not equal merrier in this case; more equals stress.
Test early and (if needed) test often
Those test scores are really useful; even if your schools of choice don’t require standardized test scores, they can help you measure yourself against other admitted students and help you judge which of the options above you should choose. Test until you feel like you have a competitive score for your colleges. If your top school has an average SAT of 1100, don’t think you have to retake the test until you get a 1600. Also, if a college is “test optional,” send your nice-looking SAT or ACT scores anyway. It could give your application the edge you need.
Deadlines are demons
You’ll have a lot of deadlines during senior year. There are deadlines for colleges, for scholarships, for the school you’re actually enrolled in now, for that social life you’ll attempt to have when avoiding all the deadlines. They never seem to end! My advice is to get a planner and write down exactly what is due when and to what entity. Plan to spend at least an hour on each college and scholarship application, not counting the time to write any essays required…
Essays. So many essays.
These will take another two hours each. If the requirement is anywhere from 250–700 words, plan to spend at least this much time working on it. Yes, even the short ones take that long.
Now, you may be thinking it takes way less than two hours to write 250 words, and you’re right. It takes an hour to write all you want and then another hour to edit it down to 250 words or fewer. That said, you can cheat the system a bit. Save each essay you write and make the name of the file a summary of the essay prompt. Many prompts for different schools and scholarships are very similar, to the point that you can use the same essay with little to no editing. Just be careful when mentioning the school or organization name in any essay you write. If you get mixed up and use the wrong name, you can kiss your chances goodbye.
The early bird gets the scholarship
Many colleges will require you to apply earlier than the official deadline to be considered for all institutional scholarships. That means apply early. There are two kinds of early applications, and it is imperative that you know the difference between them. Early Action simply means you are applying early and will hear back from the college sooner (usually around late December). Early Decision means you are committed to the school if they admit you. While going with Early Decision does make you statistically more likely to be admitted, you have to go there no matter what their financial package looks like. I would strongly advise that you apply Early Action to all potential schools that offer it. I’d also advise against Early Decision unless you want to marry that college and can afford to pay everything the FAFSA claims you can. Speaking of the FAFSA…
The FAFSA will make you cry
Lots of people seem to think they can get free or almost free college thanks to the fact that many schools will match the FAFSA for need-based aid. Sounds nice, right? Don’t get too excited. No matter how much you can actually afford, FAFSA seems to think you can pay twice as much. Unless you can pay almost full tuition and housing out of pocket, you will need to look for merit-based scholarships. That said, fill your FAFSA out and send it to your schools as soon as you can. This will help you see your financial package more quickly so you can make an informed decision sooner.
Make that final decision sooner
You will second-guess your decision once you have committed to a school. This is unavoidable. I got a full ride to a highly respected college in a picturesque setting and I was worried I made the wrong choice. Know that this is completely natural and everyone I talk to feels it. No matter how perfect a fit it is, you will feel this way. No one knows what they’re doing at this stage in life, so my advice is to just jump into what you think is the best fit for you once you have all the information. Then get ready for another exciting year ahead!
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