College Prep Tips: Start Early!

Here are some thoughts…

College Prep Tips

It’s never too early to start thinking about the college application process.

1. Keep a calendar and timeline. Map out the next year so that you keep track of deadlines that are coming up.

2. Create a college spreadsheet with deadlines, pros, cons, and information that help you weigh the costs and benefits of each college. Information that would be helpful to have on the list might be: requirements, fees, and any other information that may help you decide later (e.g., size, location, cost, etc.).

3. Establish a filing system for important academic documents.

There are a lot of files that start to accumulate and you’ll need them handy when you apply for colleges. Create a filing system and keep copies of your test scores, transcripts, essays, and application materials. Keep transcripts, AP, SAT and other exam scores, as well as a list of people who might be good letter writers.

4. Find out more personal, in-depth information about colleges and their alumni experiences. Don’t be afraid not only to  read more about colleges (online or through application materials) but also talk to people who recently graduated from or are attending those colleges. Most people love to talk about their college experience and will be honest about the pros and cons of their experience.

Make sure to talk to many alumni and current students at the colleges you are interested in. You can find out a lot by asking simple questions about both professional, career, and residential life at college, such as

– “What did you like about your college experience at ____?”

– “How do you think going to ____ college influenced your career? direction in life? personal life and friends?”

– “How did you like living in ____?”

If you are interested in a specific field already (e.g., film studies, biomedical engineering), find out if the college has those fields available and how it fits into the required curriculum.

Also, strongly consider visiting colleges and keeping a list (on the spreadsheet- tip #2) of the pros and cons of your reactions and thoughts after the experience since you might not remember when it comes time to decide.

5. Request recommendation letters early (i.e., at least one month in advance) and provide the people who are writing your recommendation letters with your college application essays, your resume/ CV, and the deadline and address.

A strong recommendation letter shines when the recommender has specific and detailed understanding of who you are. So choose wisely and make sure you ask if that person feels comfortable writing you a strong, specific letter of recommendation.

Choose people that you know for a significant period of time or know your work in-depth. Don’t choose someone who barely knows you just because the person sounds “famous” or are “well-known” (e.g., mayor of your town that you met once).

You don’t want your recommendation letter to look like a written copy of your resume. This means that you should maximize your chances of having a useful and excellent recommendation letter by doing this:

– make an early request of a letter (at least one month) prior to deadline
– provide your college application essays so writers know how to frame the letter
– tell recommenders if you have specific reasons for wanting to go to a specific college (for example, if you love MIT because of it’s specific engineering program, mention that to your MIT letter writer to emphasize this specific aspect)
-ideally, meet with the letter writers to discuss your plans and goals in college and what makes you unique

6. Brainstorm a list of essay topics that you’d like to write about and keep a list of essay prompts from the applications.

When you’re faced with a deadline, it’s the worst time to get writer’s block. In order to prevent a rushed essay, take some time early on to brainstorm application essay topics you find meaningful and representative of who you are as a person. One of the most important elements in a good application essay is to be authentic and true to yourself. Make sure that you give enough time to write and proofread the essay carefully. Ask friends or family to read it as well to give their thoughts and feedback.

Remember that you’re writing to a complete stranger. This means that if you are a student interested in literary criticism and philosophy and who wants to study art history in college but decide to make the main essay about zombies because you think it will stand out and be funny (but you actually have no interest in zombies at all but were just trying to be sarcastic), the reader won’t know that you’re usually a serious philosophy student because all they have is the essay in front of them. One of the worst mistakes by essay writers is to try to impress someone by being someone you’re not and result in a sense of an essay being a gimmick.

Don’t forget: Readers of application essays appreciate simplicity and authenticity. Tell a narrative and a coherent story and your application reader will appreciate it.

7. Start compiling your CV/ resume now.

It’s never too early to start making a list of all the extracurricular activities, volunteering, clubs, jobs, and awards during the academic year and the summers. It’s easier to update a CV/resume while you’re doing things rather than years afterwards trying to remember the names of the award or organization. Be honest when listing the hours (and, yes, committee members do add up the hours to check that you’re actually still have enough time to sleep during the week) and detail your descriptions accurately.

8. Finally, perhaps most importantly, be true to yourself and think of the process as only the beginning of the journey. 

“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” –Aristotle

A college application is only one (albeit very important and formative) step in a series of steps of developing yourself, your identity, your career, and your personal life. The process of the college application with the dates, deadlines, and scores and GPA number crunching is important but don’t allow the goal-oriented end overshadow enjoying the process of how you get there.

The college application and decision of where to go to college is only the beginning of a longer journey and later decisions. Therefore, keep an open mind and continue to participate in activities that you find meaningful and worthwhile and not just ones that “look good” on a resume or to get into college. While it’s important to be well-rounded, it’s equally, if not more, important to be yourself. Whether you have a true passion for playing jazz music or you love rock-climbing or building robots, first try to give yourself the freedom to pursue what you enjoy and find rewarding. The enthusiasm for what you do will naturally flow from and shine through on your application as a result.