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by Frannie Ucciferri
If you and your child can survive the roller coaster of applying to college, you should be given an honorary diploma. In today’s word of high-achieving teens and ultra competitive colleges, the process is daunting, frustrating and often times, tumultuous.
In order to help you and your student keep grounded through the college application process, Teen Focus is offering a handy checklist for your child. Use it wisely, but don’t worry – there won’t be a test at the end. Only a happy high school graduate and some proud parents.
Adjust to high school. High school is a brand new experience that will take some getting used to. The easiest way to get settled is to find a few extracurriculars (sports, clubs, volunteer opportunities) that you really love and stick with them. Colleges like long-term involvement, so start your freshman year.
Get good grades. This goes without saying all through high school. Form good study habits and try your best to maintain your grades. However, if your freshman grades are less than stellar, don’t worry! High school can be a huge adjustment, but keep working hard to improve your grades. Sometimes, a steady improvement can be just as good as straight A’s.
Know your requirements. Look at your high school’s graduation requirements, as well as the requirements for the colleges you may be interested in already. The UCs have the A-G requirements, which are a little complicated to understand at first, but all colleges have their own requirements. If you can, create a four-year plan so you know what sort of classes you need to take each year.
Take the PSAT. This test is offered in the fall and works like an SAT appetizer. It closely parallels the SAT in that it has three sections: critical reading, mathematics, and writing (though there is no essay portion on the PSAT). It also is the qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship and other special scholarships, although you have to take it as a Junior to qualify. The test also allows you to check off a box and authorize College Board to release your scores and information to thousands of universities across the nation. This is good and bad. While you will get news from many colleges you may not have known about, your mailbox and inbox will be flooded with information and solicitations from colleges in which you probably aren’t interested.
Take the PLAN. This pre-ACT test, offered to tenth graders in the fall, will give you an idea of how the ACT works. You probably want to take the PLAN as well as the PSAT in order to get an idea of which test will get you a higher score.
Take the CAHSEE. Chances are, if you don’t graduate from high school, you can’t go to college. Your high school will offer the CAHSEE, or the California High School Exit Exam, so you don’t have to worry about signing up. Luckily it’s much easier than any of the other standardized tests you’ll take.
Get good grades. This is the year that colleges consider most when looking at your application. Study hard and take Honors or AP classes -- but just as many as you can handle. Don’t go overboard! Junior year tends to be the toughest and most time-consuming academically. Just know that, prepare for a hard ride, and know that senior year isn’t as tough.
Get to know your teachers. Form good relationships with your teachers by showing a genuine interest in their classes. This will make it easier to get recommendations later!
Read…A LOT! Reading is the best and easiest way to build up your vocabulary and comprehension, both of which will come in handy on those pesky standardized tests. Read novels, the newspaper, e-magazines, anything. You will be surprised how helpful it is to be informed.
Take on leadership opportunities. You know those extracurriculars you’ve been doing since freshman year? Well now’s the time to start taking on more responsibility. Keep doing what you love, but also try to lead those activities.
Get to know your college counselor. If you have questions about the college application process, or if you plan to apply to private colleges, it’s a good idea to get to know your college counselor as soon as possible. He or she is not only a great resource, but will also be needed to write one of the recommendations on the Common Application.
Take the PSAT. By taking this test as a junior, you will not only get more practice for the SAT, but will qualify for the National Merit Scholarship and other scholarships sponsored by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation.
Start looking for scholarships. There are thousands of scholarships out there and they come in the form of everything from grants from your parent’s employers to essay contests. Use online resources and databases to check some out and find a few that juniors can apply for. Google “scholarships” and you will see plenty of sites that serve as scholarship “clearinghouses.” Also, your high school career and counseling center should have a good database of scholarship opportunities.
Make an activity list. Start taking a good look at what you have done during your time in high school. The earlier you have a list you can use and update, the easier your college application process will be.
Start looking for colleges. No idea where you want to go? No problem. College Board and Princeton Review have online questionnaires to help you figure out where you might want to start looking. They ask the important questions, like do you want a large school or a small school? An urban setting or a rural setting? What majors and activities do you want to have there? How important is the “name brand” college to you? Also ask your college counselor for some recommendations of schools and where to look for them.
Tour colleges. The next step is to actually tour some of the colleges in which you’re interested. Spring of Junior Year is when many high school students begin looking. Take the tours and figure out if the college is a place you want to apply.
Take the SAT. Most Juniors take this dreaded standardized test the first time in the spring, often during the May administering of the test, but it is also offered in January, March, and June. Sharpen your #2 pencil and get ready for what will probably be the longest test you’ve ever taken thus far in your academic career. There are three sections (critical reading, writing, and mathematics) broken into 10 timed segments, one of which is a 25-minute essay. But don’t panic! Most high school students have taken the test and survived. So can you! Get more information or sign up for the test at the College Board website. If you don’t think you have strong test taking skills, you may want to enroll in a SAT prep class – they have been known to help.
Take the ACT. The ACT is the other long, standardized test that colleges consider for admittance. This one has four multiple choice sections (English, mathematics, reading and science), as well as an optional writing test, and supposedly is more similar to what students are actually learning in their high school-level classes. Some colleges prefer the ACT over the SAT, while others will only accept the ACT. However, most schools these days will accept both, so take both and try to maximize your score.
Take Subject Tests. Some colleges require one to three SAT Subject Test scores (your parents may know these as the SAT IIs). In the past few years, the UC schools have exasperated applicants by requiring two separate tests, but students applying in or after 2011 will no longer need them for UCs. However, many private schools require or recommend students take them as well. College Board offers 20 Subject Tests to choose from.
Take AP Tests. If you take AP classes, show what you know by taking the AP test in those subjects. The tests are graded on a scale of 1-5, with passing scores 3 or better. Though the tests can be expensive, most colleges offer college credit for passing scores. Check with the colleges you’re interested in to figure out which tests they give credit for and what scores you will need to get it.
Stay active! And not just physically fit, though that’s alsoa good idea. Summer is a great time to be involved in long-term sports, activities or volunteering, so get out there! Remember, you can’t put playing videogames on your resume. Living your life to the fullest will not only keep you occupied, but chances are, it will give you fodder for that perfect essay.
Tour colleges. Summer also gives you more opportunities to tour colleges. But remember, classes aren’t in session and most of the students are gone, so you might not get the same vibe that you would if visiting during the school year.
Look for scholarships. Keep an updated list of scholarships you want to apply for during your senior year and start working on those you already can.
Take test prep classes. If you have trouble taking tests or your Junior year SAT or ACT scores were less than you hoped, test preparation classes might be right for you. There are many classes and services out there. If you can, choose one that comes with a sit-down practice test under the same conditions as the real thing.
Plan your essays. Although it’s probably the last thing you want to do, try to get a head start on the application process by planning out your essays. Although you may not have the specific prompt for the essays your college wants, most are fairly open-ended and about the thing you know best: you! Try writing a couple pages about experiences, activities, or subjects that you’re passionate about or that define who you are. In order to tell colleges who you are, first you have to be sure yourself.
Get good grades. Though it hopefully won’t be as crazy as your junior year, you should maintain a schedule made up of mostly academic classes.
Tour colleges. This is something that you can do throughout your application process. In the fall, tours can help you decide if a school is worth applying to, or they can help you make your final decision later in the spring. Ultimately, the more schools you look at, the better you will be able to compare. Really focus on how you feel on each campus, whether you get that “vibe.”
Keep on track of your deadlines! This is crucial! Make a planner, keep a calendar, program your iPhone – do whatever it takes to stay on top of when things are due. With applications, supplements, recommendations, forms, payments, and many other deadlines, managing senior year can be tricky. Don’t upset your chances of admission by missing a deadline!
Write your essays. This is one of the hardest parts of the entire college application process. Hopefully, you have a couple topics in mind, but if not, brainstorm your high school experience for moments that show your passion, initiative, leadership or ability to overcome difficulties. Don’t stress if you’ve never saved a child from a burning building; you can write a great essay on just about anything. The most important thing to remember is to make sure the subject is you! If you write about someone you admire, make sure you bring it back to how he or she affected your life. Don’t worry about prompts so much. If you write one or two solid essays about yourself, you can probably edit and shape them to any college prompt.
Narrow down or round out your list of schools. It’s not a good idea to apply to too few or too many colleges. Too few will hinder your chances of acceptance, while too many is expensive and unnecessary. However, don’t worry too much about how many schools your friends are applying to, but if you’re not sure how much is too much, most students apply to somewhere between 6 and 14 schools. You want to make sure that your list includes a couple safety schools (schools you know you can get into that you would be happy to attend) as well as reach schools (schools that are less likely to accept you). Look at offered majors, activities and location to help you decide where you want to apply.
Take the SAT or ACT. If you missed it last spring, or if you think you can improve your scores, take these standardized tests again your senior year. Be careful though as different colleges have different deadlines for the last possible date they will accept your scores.
Complete an activity list and resume. If you haven’t already, make a list of your school activities, extracurriculars, volunteering and work experience, keeping track of how many weeks per year and hours per week you take part in each one. Also make a list of any honors or awards you have won at a school, local, state or national level. If you can, include a brief description of each activity or award. Put it somewhere safe because you will most likely include an activity list on every application (college, scholarship, etc.) that you submit.
Ask your teachers for recommendations. Many colleges require one or more teacher recommendations as part of the application. These recommendations are heavily regarded, so it is important to choose the teacher or teachers who will make you sound the best (don’t worry if the teacher is a “good writer”). If an application wants two recommendations, it is best to ask one “quantitative” teacher (science, math, etc.) and one “qualitative” teacher (English, history, foreign language, etc.). Don’t ask an elective teacher or a coach unless you plan to continue studying the subject or playing the sport in college. However, if a third recommendation is needed, go ahead and ask your band teacher or baseball coach. Understand that your teachers are busy too, so make sure you give them enough notice. Ask early, because popular teachers may not be able to handle everyone’s requests, and follow up 2-3 weeks before you need the submission deadline.
Sign up for the Common App. If you are applying to any private universities, you will probably fill out the Common Application. Most private schools (and even a few public ones) accept the Common App and a cool part about it is that it can be done entirely online. It will save a ton of time for those who are applying to multiple private colleges because you will only have to fill out your general information, activity list, and submit your main essay once for all the schools that accept it. You can also keep track of when recommendations are submitted and downloaded by the colleges. Most private institutions (and a handful of public ones) accept the Common App. Notable California schools that don’t are all the UCs, which have one separate application for all the schools in the system, the CSUs, which also have universal application, and the University of Southern California.
Don’t forget the supplements. Don’t be fooled by the Common App! Most schools require additional essays as part of a supplement. Make sure you plan for any supplements or extras.
Apply Early Action or Early Decision. If you already have a strong idea of where you want to go to college, see if the school offers Early Action or Early Decision submission. Though you have less time to complete your application, most schools have higher acceptance rates for early applications. Most schools make it so you can only apply to one school early, so make sure you read the fine print. If you are accepted Early Decision, you are not allowed to apply to other schools once you are accepted, however, Early Action programs let you wait until spring to decide.
Finish your applications. If you’ve finished your essays, activity list, and asked for recommendations, then this process can be fairly easy. If you wait until the day before the deadline, it could be the worst scramble of your life. Make sure to double and triple check everything. Applications should be free from spelling or factual errors. Don’t lie or exaggerate, as most schools have some sort of way to verify your application. Lying on one application in any way can endanger your chances of being accepted at any school.
File your FAFSA. Starting in December, you can fill out the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It’s how colleges determine your financial need. Most colleges require the form, even if you and your family aren’t applying for financial aid. This is one to fill out with your parents, as it asks for tax returns and family income. The form can now be filled out online and once completed, you will be sent your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) via email. This number is the amount the government believes your family pay per year for college. Be warned, the number tends to be laughably high. However, this form is used to determine your eligibility for a number of state and federal grants for those with financial need.
Find and apply for scholarships. As costs of a college education skyrocket, many people are taking advantage of independent scholarships. Conveniently many applications have spring deadlines evenly spaced between college application submission deadlines and the date you hear your admission decision.
Get accepted! The moment of truth! Although some universities have rolling admissions and inform applicants a few weeks after they apply, most colleges’ admission decisions come out in late March or early April. A few schools still have the “big envelope” and the “small envelope,” but chances are you will need to look up your decision online, either via email or a website you log into after a certain date. And just know that from the moment you start the process to the day you submit your SIR (statement of intent to register), you will be in for a roller coaster of emotions. Enjoy the ride!
Frannie Ucciferri is a freshman at UC Berkeley.
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