Time flies! In the blink of an eye, you are an upperclassman who’s getting ready to apply for college? Sometimes, it doesn’t quite feel like it, does it?
If you’re a current high school junior or senior (residing in the U.S.) looking for college advice, you’re in the right place. In this post, I’ll be showing you everything you need to know about your last 2 years in high school and stepping into college!
If you’re a current high school freshman or sophomore, visit the last post instead– the College Prep Guide For High School Underclassmen! This guide will help you get on the right path of preparing for college.
A quick disclaimer: I am a student, not a college admissions officer, and all of my advice is based on personal experience as well as advice from other students. Though I hope that this post will be helpful to you, please take all this information with a grain of salt. Now, let’s get into the post!
Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. Learn more here.
Before we start, here are some resources that can help you maximize your time and streamline the application process. There are various types of resources, and I’ve organized them below (note that these are a small amount, and you can find much more online).
- The Kath Path (YouTube channel)
- SupertutorTV (YouTube channel)
- SAT Prep Black Book (test prep book)
- Princeton SAT Prep (test prep book)
- College Essay Essentials (essay guide)
- EdX (online courses)
- Coursera (online courses)
- Duolingo (language-learning)
- Codecademy (coding)
- Fiverr (freelancing)
About college applications
First, what even is a college application?
The Common App
The first thing in your application is usually a type of form that contains your general information. All schools will ask for this, but there are different ways to provide it.
Most students use the Common App, a platform that allows you to fill out this information-based form once and send it to multiple (if not all) colleges you’re applying to. You will complete the entire application and submit it on this platform, so it’s a relatively simple process.
However, some schools do not accept the Common App, and instead, require you to fill out something from their own program/platform. Be sure to do research before you begin!
The Common App consists of your general information (personal information, GPA, extracurriculars, awards…) and a “main” essay– your personal statement. This essay is called the “main” essay because colleges will usually have supplementary essays that are separate from the Common App and vary by school.
In addition to the Common App and supplementary essays, schools may also ask for letters of recommendation, test scores, official transcripts, and sometimes more (like portfolios). You must check the requirements for each school; don’t be the applicant who’s missing information on their application!
You should begin your application process (polishing your list of extracurriculars, writing essays, researching writers for your letters of recommendation, etc) early, during the summer before your senior year.
Be aware of the deadlines for the colleges you’d like to apply to and what kind of deadline it is. Usually, there are a few kinds:
- Early Decision: you apply early (around November) and get results back early (around December), but it is binding, meaning that if you are accepted, you have to attend that college.
- Early Action: similar to Early Decision, but it is not binding.
- Regular Decision: application is non-binding and is “regular”, meaning you apply by around January and get results by April.
- Rolling Action: schools with these deadlines will accept applications until their programs are filled up. It’s not recommended to procrastinate though, and you should apply for these deadlines at around the same time as the Regular Decision.
Colleges, programs, academies…
By this point in time, you should know what major or field you’re interested in. Even if you don’t, you should determine a few schools you want to go to or some programs you want to take part in.
If you’re completely clueless about what you could pursue in the future, think of possible choices and consider the following aspects:
- Are you interested in this subject?
- Are you good at this subject?
- Are there are good and affordable schools that are known for this subject?
- Does this subject have the potential to be profitable in the future?
Once you’ve determined a direction, make a list of possible colleges, programs, or academies that seem like the perfect fit for you. If you’re like most students, you’ll simply apply to colleges with a variety of courses; these are the schools you’ve probably heard of, like UC Berkeley, Stanford…
Some schools have specifics programs or academies that may be a better fit for students with a strong passion for a specific field. For example, USC has the Iovine and Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation that is specific to these fields.
If an academy sounds like the right fit for you, do some research into universities you’re interested in and see if they offer anything of the sort!
Lastly, take a tour– yes, physically visit– the schools you’re interested in to see if it’s really right for you.
Your academic scores are no doubt a large part of your application. They’re not the determining factor, but having good scores definitely gives you an advantage.
Colleges usually look at your overall GPA, the classes you took in high school and how you did in them, your SAT/ACT score, and scores on AP tests. So it’s not only important to study hard for your classes, but you also need to try hard on these standardized tests.
Usually, you’ll start taking these tests in your junior (and maybe sophomore) year of high school. AP tests for whatever AP classes you’re taking come at the end of that school year, and the SAT and ACT are almost year-round, and most people take them during their junior year.
The SAT tests you on math, critical reading, and writing. As of 2021, it is scored out of 1600. The ACT tests you on math, English, reading, and scientific reasoning. As of 2021, it is scored out of 36.
These standardized tests are not easy, and it is recommended that you prepare for them starting months beforehand (especially the SAT). I highly recommend you investing in some prep books, as they provide lots of practice questions and explanations, as well as full practice tests.
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Extracurriculars are another large portion of your college applications. If you have not yet begun taking on extracurriculars, start now! There are various types of extracurriculars you can pursue in high school, and I will cover the 3 most popular ones below.
Most high schools have many different clubs that students can take part in. These could be clubs for hobbies (like Robotics, Book Club, a language club), community service (like Key Club, Interact, Kids Against Hunger), or more professional clubs that enter competitions (like DECA, Model UN).
Most schools also host club fairs near the beginning of the school year (or the end of the previous year) to allow students to browse through clubs and see what they’re interested in.
Do not miss this opportunity! Research the clubs at your school and join a few that match your interests! And although it is a bit too late as an upperclassman to try to become an officer, you can still be active in the group and contribute a lot!
Based on my experience, most high schools require a certain number of service hours in order to graduate. But not only that, community service and “giving back to the community” help to show what kind of person you are on your college applications.
A lot of school clubs help organize community service events. But even if you’re not part of a club, you can find volunteer opportunities around your community by researching a little.
You can often find volunteer opportunities in these places:
- Your local library
- Local animal shelters
- Senior centers
- Non-profit organizations
If all fails, you could even launch your own community service project by organizing a group of friends to do something for your community. You could use your talents as well, such as performing music to gather donations, raising awareness for social issues, and many more.
Lastly, you could start a personal project right now. You don’t have to complete it by the time of college applications, but you should show that you’re dedicated to this project and have a plan to complete it.
But what exactly is a personal project? Honestly, anything.
Follow your interests and create a project based on them. Here are some popular ideas to get you started (but be creative! Colleges love to see initiative and pioneering students):
- Coding an app
- Launching a club
- Starting a student-led organization
- Starting a business
- Writing a book
- Starting a blog
- Starting a YouTube channel
Do not let the word “award” intimidate you. Oftentimes, as an upperclassman, you already have some achievements you can put in this category. Your awards can be of academic achievement, something related to a hobby, a recognition for community service, etc.
These awards should showcase your strongest abilities and how passionate/proactive you are about what you’re interested in. If you’ve declared your interest in a major, try to have some awards that connect with that major.
Here is a list of awards you could be eligible for and put in your application:
- AP Scholar
- President’s Volunteer Service Award
- President’s Award for Educational Excellence
- National Merit Finalist/Semifinalist
- High class rank (a certain %)
- Honor roll
- National Honor Society member
- Subject-specific Honor Society member
- Awards that you won as a club member
- Academic competitions
- Any impressive recognitions
Letters of recommendation
Your letters of recommendation are another big part of how colleges will judge your application. These show how others think of you, and will help colleges determine whether or not you are a good fit for their campus.
So how do you land a strong letter of recommendation?
Choose the right writers
Not every teacher will be able to write an outstanding letter that could get you into your dream college. You must find someone who truly knows you as a student, understands your abilities and potential, and cares for your future enough to write a compelling letter.
To make this easier, you should genuinely interact with your teachers during the school year. Make friends with them, drop by their classes at lunch, and participate actively in class. Especially if you have a teacher in mind who you believe can write a great letter, help them get to know you, and show them that you are grateful for their teaching.
Give your writer time + resources
Do not force your writer to whip up a letter of recommendation in 2 days; no matter how close you and your teacher are, the letter will not end up as strong as it could be. Give your teacher at least a month (6-8 weeks is preferred) to write your letter.
In addition, give your teacher a list of some of your achievements that they can reference. Your teacher doesn’t know everything about you, and they may have some difficulty crafting a detailed and relevant letter.
Provide your writer with a file with your transcript, a list of extracurriculars and awards, and other things you want them to include in the letter. This means an easier process for your writer and a more complete letter for you.
Your essays are arguably the most important part of your application. They display your own personality and bring color to your application, showing admissions officers that you’re not just another good student, but the student that will be a superior addition to their campus.
Different colleges have different essay requirements, but you can expect at least 2 questions, each with a maximum of 250 words. Research your college’s application page and find their essay prompts, and start brainstorming as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, your personal statement (the “main” essay that’s part of your Common App) will be around 650 words. This is the big essay that will be submitted to multiple colleges you’re applying to, so you need to make it strong!
First, what do you even write about in your personal statement?
Your personal statement should tell a story. It should give the reader an idea of who you are, your strengths, what you’re interested in, and how you’ve worked towards that interest, etc.
At the same time, it should be interesting to read; don’t write it like a formal, informational essay. Instead, approach it like a piece of creative writing. Avoid clichés, use descipritve language, and tell a story.
Here are a few questions you should ask yourself to form a strong personal statement:
- What’s unique about your story (compared to other students)?
- What challenges have you overcome that made you who you are now?
- What skills have you developed as a result of overcoming these challenges?
- Why are you interested in the field you’re applying for?
- What goals do you have, and how do you plan on reaching them?
- What is a problem you’d like to solve?
Scholarships provide free money for you to use to pay for school (because let’s face it, college can be really expensive). There are thousands of available scholarships out there, with awards randing from a few hundred dollars to your entire tuition.
No matter how your financial state is, try applying for scholarships! Especially if it is academic/merit-based, it could be a good plus to put on your application.
How do find scholarships
Do a little research offline anad online, and you’ll be able to find tens (maybe hundreds) of scholarships that fit your taste. Here are some trustworthy sources to use:
- Your high school counselor
- Your high school career center
- The financial aid office at a college
- Reputable local organizations/businesses
- Peterson’s Scholarship Search Engine
- The Ultimate Scholarship Book 2021
How to apply
Each scholarship has different requirements. Some may simply be based on your personal background, while others require you to submit some sort of product (most commonly an essay).
Though there’s no detriment to your application if you apply to many scholarships, it can be tiring for you (especially if they’re all merit-based and ask for essays). Therefore, find a handful of scholarships that you believe you have a chance in, and work hard to make those look good.
Lastly, some tips for you to maximize your chances of getting that scholarship:
- Start your applications early!
- Treat your applications seriously.
- Organize your potentials scholarships and prioritize them.
- Continue to search for scholarships through senior year.
- Talk to your college counselor.
- Keep track and organize your extracurriculars, achievements…
- Take the SAT.
- Take AP tests.
- Determine what kind of college you’d like to attend.
- Determine a major and possible careers.
- Attend college fairs.
- Visit colleges.
- Build relationships with your teachers.
- Work on your personal project.
- Apply for scholarships.
- Attend a summer program.
- Get a summer internship.
- Contact your letter of recommendation writers.
- Start working on college application essays.
- Apply to colleges.
- Get your letters of recommendation.
- Continue to apply for scholarships.
- Choose your school and notify them by the deadline.
- Work at a part-time job.
- Get ready for college move-ins.
I hope this guide was helpful for you! Leave a comment with what your dream college is, and I’ll wish you luck in your application! And if you have anything you think I missed, feel free to comment it as well!
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