A Back-to-School Admissions Checklist
August 14, 2013
There are mums on sale at Home Depot. Mums mean fall (at least in New England). And fall means another school year is about to begin. And another school year begets a new application season. So, dear rising seniors, here's a short admissions-themed checklist for you to complete as you dust off your backpack, refresh your school supplies and head to class:
- Start a draft of your essay (aka, “the personal statement” on the Common Application) before Labor Day. (For our international friends, that’s the first Monday in September.) Trust me: it’s better to make a first pass at it now than wrestle with the writing and rewriting of it while you’re also juggling your senior year curriculum and assorted extracurricular activities. It need not be perfectly polished prose by the ascribed deadline; a very rough draft will suffice. I gave this same advice to my niece last year; she protested (loudly) at the time but she just told me it was the best piece of practical guidance I had offered.
- Sit down by yourself (that’s important) and jot down the names of the eight colleges (which I’ll call “The Eight” for the rest of this blog) that have impressed you the most since you launched your college search. These may not be the ones where you actually apply, but try to focus your thinking around which ones stand out. Ideally, you should apply to a balanced group of eight colleges and universities: a couple of aspirational choices (places where the selectivity and/or your academic credentials suggest the odds of your admission are uncertain), four reasonable options and two likelies. The likelies (I dislike the phrase “safeties,” it sounds dismissive) should be places where you would gladly enroll, not places that would admit you but ones where you’d rather have an endless root canal rather than go there.
- Ask yourself if one of The Eight breaks from the pack. Don’t force the question. Remember, you’re alone as you pen this list, and who wants to lie to themself? If your answer is yes, an early application might be in your near future. If not, say hello to Regular Decision and ignore the chatter among your peers when they inform you that they’re applying early somewhere.
- My 4th grade math teacher liked to say MYOB. (Don’t know that one? MYOB means “mind your own business.”) For admissions purposes, let me modify Mrs. Ellis’ wise (pre-texting!) decree: KYOC. Keep your own counsel. Promise yourself you won't tell everybody where you're applying. If (when) someone asks—and they will—politely decline to answer with specifics. Say, "I have a nice list. Thanks for asking." And leave it at that, even if your list remains in flux. It’s like when someone asks, “What did you get on that test?” Ideally, you should say, “I did my best.” No one besides you, your teacher and your parents needs to know whether you earned an A or a B-. The same goes for your college list.
- Go see your guidance counselor. (Ignore #4.)
- Schedule your testing dates. Perhaps you need one more session with the SAT or ACT. If you haven’t taken any SATII subject tests and two are required by your college options, sign up for the ones you think will highlight your intellectual fingerprint. What’s that? Your intellectual fingerprint is your academic area of excellence or interest; if you’re a history buff, take American or European history. If you’re a “voracious reader” (as teachers love to say in their recommendations), then Literature makes sense. Pre-med? Biology, chemistry and Math 2C are logical.
- Pick two teachers from last year (i.e., 11th grade) who can write a letter for you. Both need not underscore your obvious strengths. For example, if you earned an A+ in AP English last year and 800s on all the verbal sections of whatever standardized testing you completed, two teachers don’t need to celebrate your verbal prowess. We can see it. Use one of your letters to add a new perspective to your application.
- See if an admission officer from one of The Eight is coming to your school or your city this semester. If so, put the date in your smart phone and go see them.
- Check the application requirements of The Eight and make a list of any supplemental questions they require. Do they offer interviews? When? Where?
- If you’re an athlete, type up a resume with the salient stats that outline your athletic prowess and contact a coach. Why? She/he can be an advocate for you inside the admissions process. If you're not an athlete, don't type up a résumé. The Common Application tells us everything we need to know about you. The resume is clutter. .
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, get ready to study and do your best work. Your academic work in the fall of your senior year counts. If you’re an early application, your first quarter or trimester grades will be the last grades we see before we render a decision. Start eating spinach. It’s good brain food.