High Schoolers: Six Steps to Get A Jump on Senior Year


We're about to head into July. Most high schoolers have been out of school since early to mid-June. If you are a rising senior, you've probably had a couple weeks to decompress from the academic rigors of your critical junior year. I say “critical" because -- if you're planning on heading to college in 2020 -- your academics and activities during your junior year will be an important component of your college process success.

Summer will pass by in a hurry, much like a fast-moving freight train roars through a railroad crossing. This is where procrastination can be a sneaky thief of your time. You may be thinking, “Great! I have the whole summer ahead of me. Time to have some fun!" I agree. You should have some well-earned fun, but be careful that the “fun" part of your summer doesn't become the main part of you summer. I suggest using part of your summer to get a head start on your fast-approaching senior year.

The last day of school for me often landed on my birthday. I recall those days fondly, especially during middle school. I would ride the bus home on that last day knowing that birthday presents were waiting for me. What a way to kick off the summer! June, July and August stretched before me, offering what seemed like an eternity to relax and read my Archie comic books and baseball magazines. Those were the days!

During my high school years, though, I had priorities other than Jughead, Betty and Veronica, not to forget Mickey Mantle. There were sports (tennis), part-time jobs (Holiday Inn busboy, tennis court caretaker) and cars (a 1959 Chevy), among other diversions. The only thing on the horizon was that inevitable September day when I had to head back to school, which caused a lot of mixed emotions.

If you're a rising senior planning on applying to college this fall, you need to add some important to-do items to your summer calendar. You should certainly be enjoying summertime, but you shouldn't be wasting this big chunk of time leading up to twelfth grade. To get you moving in the right direction, here are six suggestions to help you make full use of your summer:

1. Get your Common Application Started

Go to the Common Application site and set up your account, using these steps. It's quick and easy and will help you start to focus on the application process. Getting started on the Common App during the summer will pay big dividends for you, since the fast pace of senior year will surprise you. Before you know it, Halloween will appear, and if you're planning to apply Early Decision or Early Action, you'll give thanks at Thanksgiving that you worked on your Common App over the summer.

2. Start working on Your Common App Essay

Probably the first task you'll want to undertake after setting up your account is to approach the Common App essay. You may already know that the 2019-2020 essay prompts are the same as they were last year. If you're stuck for ideas, take a look at a College Confidential article I wrote about Planning Your Common Application Essay. Of course, if you're applying to schools that have Common App essay supplements, you'll have to deal with an additional essay or two. Don't worry about supplements now. Once you finish your main Common App essay, you'll feel like an experienced writer and the supplements should flow fairly easily. Plus, you'll take some heat off your senior year requirements.

3. Target Your Recommenders

Who, among your recent teachers, really knows you well? To that, add another question: Who, among that group, can relate convincing anecdotes about who you are and how you think? You have to be careful here. Some teachers (and I have seen this firsthand) have a recommendation “template" on their computers that they use to issue recs. Sure, they tweak it to suit the specific student about whom they're writing, but templates are easy to spot by admission committees and they (the recs) don't come off well, compared to “original," one-off efforts created by the writer. So, think carefully about who you want to represent you in your applications as senior year approaches.

4. Do Something Significant Over the Summer

By “significant," I don't mean inventing an unhackable operating system for computers or finding a way to make an iPhone battery charge last two weeks. You don't even have to discover a new planet or set a world record in the marathon. In fact, working an honest job (not that you would work a dishonest one) during the summer can add a significant plus to your profile. And, as of this late-June writing, there's still time left to find an interesting work challenge, even if it's merely becoming skilled at making interesting landscaping patterns using river stone. At least do something other than just texting and binge-watching Game of Thrones. See how original you can be in doing something that counts.

5. Take A "College Vacation"

This may be a logistical challenge, but it's possible. Discuss vacation plans with your parents and see where they plan to go (assuming that you will be going along with them). Then, take a look at your college candidate list and see if there is any overlap between where your vacation will take you and where any of those candidate schools are. Even if a college is 50-100 miles from your vacation route, it would be a good investment in travel time to make a detour to visit the campus. Yes, it's better to visit when school is in session and all the students are there, but a summer visit can pave the way for a fall or spring visit. A summer visit might even prove to be the deciding factor to eliminate a school if, after you get a good look around campus and the surrounding area, you can honestly say, “Hey, no way do I see myself here!" Trust your gut.

6. Do Some Test Prep

If you're like most rising seniors, you probably have an October or November SAT/ACT planned. If you do, don't forget to check the registration deadlines. They come up quickly and you don't want to be left out in the cold or having to travel to an outlying test center. Also, summer is a great time to do some test prep. You probably have at least one area in which you need to improve, so make a schedule to attack that area with a good prep program, either in book form or online. Just a couple hours a week can make a big difference for your confidence and familiarity with your tests. You'll be glad you did.

These half-dozen actions will allow you to hit the ground running with your college process this fall. The thing to keep in mind is that old saying about a journey of a thousand miles: It begins with the first step. Another analogy is building a wall. If you cement in place just one good brick per day, eventually you will have a very strong wall.

Thus, look at your summer as an opportunity to build a strong college application process. It may seem like a long distance from where you are now to the end of the admission results road, but a few sensible steps over the summer can make your trip much easier than it would be if you have to start from scratch this fall.

Here's to your fun -- and productive -- summer!