For U.S. high school students, the college preparation, application and decision-making process has long been a source of stress and anxiety, and the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have only made things worse.
In a fall 2020 survey from NBC News and Challenge Success, a school reform nonprofit affiliated with Stanford University, almost 60% of high school respondents said their worries about college had increased during the pandemic, and that number was closer to 70 percent for female students.
Amidst that concerning trend, college administrators and admissions experts point to steps students can take as early as freshman year to best position themselves for college. By starting early and planning wisely, students can avoid having senior year become a source of anguish rather than excitement.
Students can sometimes focus on taking difficult courses to improve their chances of getting into a particular college. But experts emphasize that high schoolers should also spend time exploring potential career interests in order to make the often costly college experience as worthwhile as possible.
“What I want students to be doing in grades nine through 12 is not just challenging themselves,” but also “taking advantage of the opportunities that they have,” says Michelle Whittingham, associate vice chancellor for enrollment management at the University of California–Santa Cruz. “I don’t want them to do things that are just for a university or ‘I think this will look good.’ I want them to think about what they are interested in.”
As students start their high school careers, they should seek out adults who can serve as mentors, says Lisa King, director of the American College Application Campaign, an initiative aimed at increasing the number of first-generation college students and students from low-income families pursuing higher education.
That means not only connecting with school counselors but also coaches, family members or other adults who “have navigated the path to college and can help answer questions,” King says. “It’s about finding the adults in your life who will help you over those next four years, who will be your biggest champions. Students shouldn’t think they are going to do it alone.”
Experts recommend that students create an ongoing list of skills, potential job interests and possible colleges. And they suggest that freshmen begin to get involved in student organizations, where they can later pursue leadership positions.
“That’s going to help the individual find their calling,” says Monte Randall, president of the College of the Muscogee Nation in Oklahoma, adding that participation in clubs could also lead to scholarship opportunities later in high school.
While experts say there are no major distinctions between freshman and sophomore year as far as college preparation, the second year of high school can be a good time to begin taking practice tests for the SAT or ACT. Sophomores can also take the PSAT, the qualifying test for National Merit Scholarships.
Students should continue to take rigorous coursework — including Advanced Placement classes if available — and begin to select courses that align with the college path they are considering.
“If they know they want to be a doctor, making sure they are taking the right science courses along the way” is key, says King. “Some colleges will have some of those expectations coming in, that you have certain courses behind you.”
Still, while taking AP courses is helpful, students’ goals should not just be to take as many of such classes as possible, Whittingham says.
“If you are just focusing on as many AP courses as you can, you may lose other opportunities,” Whittingham says. She suggests students keep an ongoing resume highlighting jobs, volunteer work, extracurriculars and other accomplishments — along with reflections on those experiences — because when they apply for college, “it can be challenging to reflect on the prior years effectively.”
By reviewing your resume, she says, you might discover that, for example, “maybe I’m a little lopsided. I’m doing too much just focused on academics. What are some leadership skills I might want to build?”
Students should also consider finding an after-school job and community service opportunities to discover a potential career interest and develop more relationships with adults, King says.
“It’s a chance for them to build relationships with people outside the classroom … and get exposure to other types of jobs that exist and just the way you interact with others and function as teams,” she says.
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While junior year is often associated with college visits, students should tour campuses whenever possible, says MorraLee Keller, senior director of strategic programming for the National College Attainment Network, a nonprofit aimed at closing equity gaps in higher education.
While on campus, students should visit departments connected to their potential areas of study, tour residence halls and find out what support services are available, such as a writing center, Keller says.
For students who are thinking about moving to a new community, it makes “such a difference” to visit in person, King says.
Junior year is also often filled with standardized tests, like the ACT, SAT, PSAT and AP tests. Students can take advantage of test-preparation programs like the free, personalized SAT prep offered by Khan Academy in partnership with the College Board. But staying focused on school coursework is also important, experts say.
“Doing well in the most rigorous curriculum at your high school is really going to be the best step to prepare you for scoring well on tests,” says Keller.
In addition to AP classes, students should also seek out dual-enrollment courses if available, Randall says. These are college-level courses that allow students to earn both high school and college credit.
“It gives them an introduction to the college setting,” Randall explains. “It gives them a head start towards that degree. It helps them financially.”
He also advises students to start researching potential scholarship opportunities to help with the cost of college.
As students begin to apply for college, they should work from a list divided into three categories: reach schools, meaning those that might be more difficult to get into; target schools, which match well with your qualifications; and likely schools, meaning those you are likely to get in to, either because of open enrollment or because you exceed their academic profile.
Students should submit four to five applications, including one from each of those categories, King says. And if you want to be considered for financial aid, fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as well.
For help with application fees, King advises students to apply for fee waivers through organizations such as the College Board, ACT and the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
As for the application itself, a personal essay is often a crucial piece. Students should include values, goals and any experience in leadership positions, Randall says.
Schools and scholarship programs are considering whether to invest in you, Randall says. “Think of it in that mindset. You’re seeking investors into yourself, into your professional development.”
Students must also decide whether they want to apply for a school through the early action or early decision process, meaning that they apply early and get an earlier response, typically by December or January. While this can possibly improve a student’s chances of acceptance, early decision is binding, meaning you commit to attending that school if accepted.
“There are some students who have done a lot of work on their research and just have the college that they are just going to die if they don’t get in. If there is a college or two like that on your list, then maybe early decision is for you,” says Keller.
To manage the anxiety of not knowing which schools will accept you and which school you wish to attend, Keller advises students to remember: “There is no such thing as a bad college degree or credential.”
“It’s not where you start; it’s where you end up,” Keller says. “So starting at community college and transferring to a four-year” program can be a good option.
King has one more piece of advice for students as they apply for colleges and decide which one to attend: Celebrate.
“If you’re putting the pen to the paper and submitting the application, submitting the FAFSA, we want to celebrate those steps,” says King. “They are huge milestones for students as they prepare for this next part of their life.”
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