Preface: I am writing this as a senior before I’ve finished any of my college applications. I looked back on some very specific things I would have done differently if I’d known then what I know now, got stressed, and decided to write it all down. All of these statements are my opinions and I don’t know sh!t. I’m 17 years old. I only wrote college app-specific advice here that would apply to someone like the person I was a few years ago, then rewrote it to be more general. Keep in mind that you are more than the set of stats and essays called a college application.
MAKE A SEPARATE EMAIL FOR YOUR COLLEGE BOARD ACCOUNT!
Before the first time you have to give your email address to the College Board, make a new email address dedicated to college board-related stuff. For most people, the 10th grade PSAT is the first time the College Board asks for your email. This will save your inbox from the massive amount of emails you will receive. The College Board sells your data for $0.25 to universities, so by the time senior year comes around you are getting 100s of emails a month. If you make a new email account before or near the start of 11th grade, you may still have a chance of saving your inbox.
Don’t use this specially dedicated email account for college applications, as your important emails from colleges could get lost in the huge amount of mail flooding that inbox. Make another email account specifically for college applications. This may seem extra, but I wish I had done this because my inbox has so many emails from colleges flooding it that I sometimes miss the important stuff like scholarship opportunities.
Colleges want a well-rounded class, not a class of well-rounded individuals. Don’t take a bunch of random extracurriculars to pad your college application. Do things because you like to do them/are passionate about them, and/or they make you happy.
Focus your activities on a few passions (1-3) and go super in-depth on them, doing activities at a high level.
Quit all sports after sophomore year (2 year PE requirement) if you are doing it to pad your college apps. Unless you plan on doing that sport in college, it makes you happy, or you are really good at it (champion at some level, ideally state or national level), if you’re just doing a sport for college apps, spend the time on your passion-related extracurriculars instead.
Do a few things and do them well over doing many things and being okay at all of them. Do not spread yourself too thin.
Pretty much everything you want to include on college apps must be done before December of your senior year.
Take your first SAT your sophomore year of high school (if in precalc). This gives you 2 years to work your way up to the score you want. Also, getting the SAT out of the way early on is just one less thing you have to worry about junior/senior year, you will be busy enough as it is.
If any of the schools you are even considering applying to recommend SAT Subject Tests, take them as early as you can. “Recommend” = require. Again, one less thing you’ll have to worry about. Ideally, take the Math 2 SAT right after finishing Precalculus, as everything on the test will be fresh in your mind.
Don’t disregard the PSAT as useless. It is easier than the real SAT but at least it will familiarize you with the format of SAT questions. Don’t sweat it if you get a terrible PSAT score, I know people who had bad PSAT scores and got over 1500 on the SAT.
Letters of Recommendation
Ask your teachers for letters of recommendation at least a month or two before your first college apps are due. At the very least ask before October of senior year. They are not paid to write your letter. They are doing you a favor, make it easier for them. Some teachers will request some of the items below, others won’t. Either way, give them anything that will help them help you.
- special achievements (especially subject related, if you won a math competition you should tell your math teacher)
- what major you have chosen
- what schools you are applying to
You don’t need to have all of these of course, but the more the better. Especially at a big school like CV, if your teachers can cite specific things about you in their letters, you will stand out compared to your peers.
UCs don’t take letters of recommendation.
Most schools limit the number of letters you can submit. If they don’t, that doesn’t mean you should submit a ton of letters. No one wants to read all that.
Sophomore and junior year grades matter the most. Your GPA at the end of junior year is probably what you’ll submit to most of the colleges you apply to. Some schools, like UCs and Cal States, have unique GPA calculation methods.
College applications are due at the end of first-semester senior year. UC apps are due at the end of November, and many schools have a deadline around January 1st. Some colleges don’t even look at your first semester grades when calculating your GPA.