College Applications: The Ultimate Guide

The Ultimate Guide to College Applications

The world of college applications and admissions is a challenging one, filled with twists, turns, emotional ups and downs, and so many components to consider and organize both in your head and on paper. I’m finishing up my senior year of high school, and recently, I finally decided where I will be spending the next 4 years. Hitting the button to pay the enrollment deposit and finally know that the future is solid is one of the best parts of the whole process, and when you get to that point, it will all have been worth it.

I want to write a series that I wish I would’ve had during the college application process, detailing the steps, some tips, and personal examples, from the beginning of high school on. If this post helps at least one person, I’ll be happy as can be. The biggest thing that the college admissions process has taught me is to realize that everything happens for a reason. Let’s get started with an overview of each year of high school and what you should be doing to prepare for the college application process so it’s as calm and organized as possible down the line.

Freshman Year: 

In your freshman year of high school you probably are, were, or will be a little overwhelmed, hugely excited, and ready to take on the new opportunities and challenges that high school presents. My three biggest tips for freshman year of high school are to focus on your grades, get involved in at least one club or service project, and don’t do anything that you’ll regret later.

Don’t become wrapped up in the new social or athletic scenes, as well as the increased independence. However, contrary to popular belief, your freshman year GPA counts in your senior year GPA. It’s also the year with the easiest classes you’ll take in high school, no matter how it feels otherwise. Take advantage of this and focus on figuring out what study, note-taking, and organizational methods work best for you. Form relationships with your teachers. These relationships benefit you later, trust me! Recommendation letters from long time teachers are so powerful in college applications.

There are three things that happen when you get involved in clubs and service projects.

  • You get involved in nothing, and you’ll absolutely regret it when college application time arrives.
  • You try to do everything and thusly get lost or don’t spark a passion in any of it.
  • You find a couple of things that you really enjoy, are passionate about, and will be able to stick with throughout high school, rising and taking on leadership positions, and making a real impact on the community or school.

Obviously, option 3 is the one you want to go with. If you’ve never explored areas of community service, I recommend either joining a club like Key Club or Best Buddies, looking in the community for volunteer opportunities and projects, or using the website Clubs are also a great way to make friends as well as find another staff member from your school to mentor you and later, write you rec letters.

My final big tip for freshman year is to be responsible. Your friends may start to do things that are not exactly what you expect, or aren’t in line with your values. Keep the idea in mind of who you are, and don’t sacrifice yourself for the sake of fitting in. Don’t worry if you stand out or feel like you don’t fit in; you’ll really be grateful for your unique self later on. Don’t do anything you wouldn’t want your parents or grandparents to know about, and be wary of what you post on social media. Be true to yourself, and you’ll be fine.

Sophomore Year: 

In my experience, sophomore year, academically, is the year of fulfilling graduation requirements. At my high school specifically, we must take math and english every year, as well as the following classes to graduate: Foundations of Technology (basically, wood shop),  Financial Literacy,  2 Gym Classes,  Health,  American History,  Government,  2 fine arts classes (chorus, band, art or drama), and World History as well as some science classes. Across  freshman and sophomore year, you should take as many of these as you can so that you have flexibility in the junior and senior years. It will give you room to be out of the building for part of the day as well as explore more classes that will help steer future college major or career decisions.

Sophomore year, focus on grades, and if you can get some leadership experience in either a volunteer position or a club, that’s great too! The summer after your sophomore year, if you happen to vacation somewhere that you know has a college you may have an interest in, go ahead and schedule a visit. Now is not the time to be stressed about tours, but it is a valuable time to start the process if it is convenient for you.

You’ll probably be taking the PSAT. This is a standardized test called the Preliminary SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test). This is great practice for the SAT, and will give you a pretty good idea of what you need to work on for SAT prep later on.

In addition, think about what you are going to do with you summer. Look into volunteer programs around you, summer jobs, or even internships. It may seem early, but I attended a two-week leadership and science conference the summer after my sophomore year, and it was the best two weeks of my life.

Junior Year

College Applications Begin to Take Shape

Now it’s time to get a little more serious about the college process. I would, at the beginning of junior year, recommend touring in-state schools. Even if you think you are set on going out-of-state, touring these will give you the means to start deciding what you want. Small or big school? Public or private? Majors, study abroad, internships, faculty relationships? Campus life? Plus, as we will talk about later on, you want to have one or two schools that you’re 99% confident you will get into, as backups.

You also may have the chance to take the PSAT again junior year. I would recommend doing this; it’s great SAT practice, will indicate what you should study for on the SAT, will give you practice questions, and will give you the chance to be considered for the National Merit Scholarship competition, if you score high enough.

Junior year was my most challenging year of high school by far. I took 3 AP Classes, plus anatomy and physiology which was just as challenging. Thusly, school, studying, and homework took over most of my time & life. I had to sacrifice some of the things I was involved in, but I maintained an above 4.0 GPA and got A’s in every class I took, while co-running an after school program for elementary school students.

My biggest regret from junior year? Not touring schools. While it wasn’t totally my fault (I had no free time whatsoever, and couldn’t afford to miss school), I should’ve made it a priority to research, research, research, and plan tours, especially in the summer.

Most people choose to take the SAT at least once during their junior year of high school, and then can retake it in their senior year. I did not take the SAT junior year; I took it one time, senior year. I don’t really regret this as I scored what I anticipated I would and didn’t have time with AP Tests.

Tips for Junior Year? Schedule a challenging course load. It will help you prep for college level classes, while easing the burden you’d need to take senior year in order to be competitive. However, also take the opportunity to explore other options. Taking challenging courses doesn’t mean taking a whole bunch of classes you don’t care about. I picked the 3 AP classes that I was interested in, which were Psychology, Biology, and English Language and Composition.

Explore dual enrollment.  Start thinking about possible careers down the line, and consider doing an internship in your senior year. I have a post on this coming up soon as well.

Finally, the summer after your junior year should be focused around visiting schools and doing research on what you want. This way, you’ll be prepared when applications open up partway through the summer. Visit a variety of schools, and take some notes on how you feel about it when you get home.

I’m going to wait to talk about Senior Year, since the timeline for that is a lot longer and more specific. Don’t worry! I’m going to have lots of content-rich posts in this series to give you an inside look at my experiences, what I wish I’d done differently, and how to make the college application & admissions process a breeze.

Let me know if this series is helpful or interesting!


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