For some intensely motivated families, the college hunt started a long time ago. For some high school juniors, the student has not – and does not – want to think about college yet. But there are steps juniors should be taking right now to prepare for college admissions applications season later this year.
A few very selective universities (e.g. Stanford, Princeton) ask students how they spent the summer after their junior year. (Stanford asks about the last two summers.) Many more ask about extra-curricular activities or work experiences – summer is prime-time for both. For the record, the summer after my junior year, I slept 12 hours a night and “hung out” with friends doing nothing important whatsoever. Alas, this is no longer a viable college strategy for juniors.
The “rules” about what constitutes a worthy summer experience are in flux. The accepted wisdom has been that travel, internships, and summer courses on college campuses are the best ways for juniors to show that they have used their time to learn more about the world and themselves.
However, stung by charges of elitism, colleges admissions officers are proclaiming that local volunteer work or even “merely” having a job will suffice. And as I have written about previously in Mission Accomplished? Maybe Not Anymore, overseas service trips are losing their luster because they are perceived as available only to the wealthy.
Each student’s circumstances will determine their best “summer strategy.” Exploring a potential medical career by “shadowing” in a hospital, or a science career by working in a lab as a research assistant, or any career by working in a related internship, is a common activity. Students leaning more toward humanities and the social sciences often participate in writing workshops, fine arts experiences, and travel. Students may also study college-level material in a formal academic program.
Of course, plenty of students needing to support their families or save for tuition have only one choice: work all summer. As noted above, colleges are slowly accepting this reality, and many fine essays come out of the most mundane of work experiences. Families unwilling or unable to pay for summer experiences will favor this option, along with encouraging their student to read for enrichment; Wake Forest currently asks for the student’s five favorite books.
The only rule that matters for now is that families should start working on summer plans while it is still cold out.
Most colleges will accept one to two teacher recommendations; some colleges will also accept a recommendation from a non-teacher.
Stay tuned for a post about how to secure the best recommendations. For now, note that most recommendations come from teachers who are currently teaching your student. Teachers in your student’s senior year will have too little time in which to learn about the student before applications are due; sophomore teachers may not remember much about the student when it comes time to write recommendations two years later. Much the same is true about non-teachers, such as employers, coaches, and the like.
Juniors who have impressed teachers should redouble efforts in those classes. They should keep notes of their achievements (best papers, projects, and tests) for later use when asking for a recommendation. Note: doing so may be essential because a few colleges are now requiring students to submit a graded paper with their application – this may well become a trend.
Juniors should also increase their participation in class, review their teacher’s comments on papers and projects with them after class, and generally gain their teacher’s regard. Some may call this “sucking up.” Why yes, that is exactly right. Welcome to the world of college admissions – and life.
Finally, all colleges require a letter from students’ “guidance counselor.” This can be the most important recommendation of all. We will take up the reasoning supporting this assertion in a subsequent post; suffice to say at this juncture that juniors should get to know their guidance counselors. In large schools, the guidance counselors serving as college advisers have huge caseloads – even identifying them and introducing yourself can be a challenge. Nonetheless, juniors should begin planning to make an appointment with their guidance counselors to discuss college plans.