As we closed out 2022, there was no shortage of “best of” news pieces–lists of songs, movies, stories, pictures, and much more. I always appreciate comedian Dave Barry’s poignant month-by-month review, finding humor in the absurdity of the year’s news. Many of us have also come to anticipate Spotify Wrapped, the personalized roundup of one’s year in listening.
College admission certainly had a year of bests and worsts in 2022–from the rise of test-optional policies to the potential fall of race-conscious admission. While I understand the desire to reflect on what has been, I much prefer to look forward. In some ways attempting to make predictions is a fool’s errand, so instead, I offer high school juniors and their supporters a monthly breakdown of what to anticipate and my hopes for them. Consider it “College Admission Unwrapped”. As a bonus, I have included a recommended song each month to add to your admission playlist.
“Who Are You” –The Who
The new year provides an opportunity to pause, reflect, and start fresh. If you are just beginning your college search, this is especially important to do. Allow yourself time to consider who you are, what you value, and what you are hoping for in the future. You will not have all the answers right now (or maybe ever), but you will gain a great deal from exploring these questions. You might even start the year by taking an assessment like Strengths Finder or Principles You to identify the aptitudes, values, strengths, and personality traits that will help inform your college search.
Be proud of who you are and what you have to offer. Instead of focusing on what you can’t do as compared to others, celebrate your strengths and interests. Angela Duckworth is a co-founder of the Character Lab, author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, and Rosa Lee and Egbert Chang Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Read her blog post about values affirmation and try this practice throughout the coming year.
“Free your mind”-En Vogue
Having done some self-reflection to start the year, you may now be thinking about which colleges you should consider. February is a great time to explore—whether you visit campuses during a school vacation or attend online programs. If you are human then you undoubtedly have opinions, perceptions, and assumptions about specific colleges. You might be familiar with the names of schools that friends or family have attended, maybe you have watched their sports teams compete, or the college is known locally. It is tempting to default to what is familiar or comfortable, but this is the time to think big.
Expand your search. Start broad and be open to the wealth of opportunities for higher education. As En Vogue encourages, “Free your mind and the rest will follow. Be color-blind, don’t be so shallow.” Don’t rush to judgment or limit yourself to the schools that everyone around you is considering. Break away from the herd and challenge yourself to discover colleges that might be hidden gems. You can do an online search using a variety of tools like Big Future or College Navigator. Groups like Colleges That Change Lives (CTCL) also offer suggestions for schools that you might have never considered.
“We Will Rock You” –Queen
Everyone needs a psych-up anthem, and Queen always delivers. This month is when many students will take the SAT. Several states administer the standardized test to every junior as part of their state assessment protocol. Whether you are taking the SAT, ACT, or both this spring, don’t go in cold. At the very least, familiarize yourself with the test, the types of questions, and the instructions for each section. This will save you valuable time when taking the test and hopefully give you some comfort going in. Ideally, you would do some prep work in the weeks ahead of the administration by trying practice questions and reviewing concepts that you might have studied a while ago. You can access free test prep for the SAT through Khan Academy and Schoolhouse.world, and for the ACT at ACT Academy.
Keep this in perspective. A test score does not define you or take the place of your academic work in school. The majority of colleges have test-optional policies and FairTest keeps a list. If you are a strong tester and/or have the discipline and desire to do test prep, absolutely try, but not at the expense of other interests and opportunities. My advice: do your best to rock it and then move on.
“On The Road Again” –Willie Nelson
This month is a great time to get on the road and visit colleges. Many high schools have a spring break during April and colleges are still in session. Schools are aware that not everyone has the resources to go on elaborate multi-city college tours, so don’t worry if you are limited in what you can do. Going “on the road” might mean doing online tours and information sessions and attending virtual programs. You may also see if a friend is visiting colleges and perhaps you can join them. If you are planning a tour, consider your classmates who might want to join you, but make sure that once on campus you have your own experience. This is also a time in the calendar when there are spring college fairs throughout the country. These are great opportunities to connect with your regional admission officer at schools on your list and also to discover new colleges that might not be on your radar.
If you can travel to college campuses, make the most of it. Prepare for visits by researching each college and go with specific questions that you want answers to. Don’t try to see too many schools in one day, but rather allow for time to really explore and get to know a place. as Willie sings you may be “Goin’ places that [you’ve] never been’, Seein’ things that [you] may never see again.” Take advantage of these opportunities and have fun!
“Eye of the Tiger” –Survivor
After a long academic year, staying focused can be challenging as the weather gets nicer and summer is within reach. As this month’s theme song encourages, “Don’t lose your grip on the dreams of the past. You must fight just to keep them alive.” Educators sometimes refer to this month as the 100 days of May. A lot gets packed into these final weeks of the year and it can be a balancing act. From Advanced Placement (TBEN) tests, SAT/ACT administrations, and year-end projects/papers to summer planning and continuing your college search, you need to “hang tough and stay hungry.” Before school is over, it is wise to ask two teachers to write letters of recommendation on your behalf. Colleges often prefer these to come from a junior or senior-year teacher and some faculty like to draft letters over the summer while your work in their class is still fresh.
Finish strong and “keep it 100!” Enjoy your spring, live in the present, and also remember what your hopes are for the future. If you are the best of who you are and living up to your potential, you will find success in college admission and beyond. Find the eye of a tiger. You’ve got this.
“It’s Your Thing” —The Isley Brothers
Summer has arrived and rising seniors often wonder what they should do to be competitive for admission. In some ways the answer is simple and the Isley Brothers lay it out for us: “Do what you wanna do!” Some students simply need to work a summer job and that is admirable. Whether you are bagging groceries, mowing lawns, or working a paid internship, the responsibility and commitment that come with a summer job are valued by colleges as much or more than extravagant travel opportunities or other pursuits. Some students want to take classes in the summer and this can be a great experience but do it because you are curious about learning in a certain area, not because you think it will be the silver bullet to a college acceptance.
Again I will defer to the Isley Brothers: “I’m not trying to run your life, I know you wanna do what’s right.” I just hope you will not let college admission dictate everything you do. Summer looks different for everyone and there is no right thing to do. Ask yourself what success will look like as you return to school in the fall and then “do what you wanna do.”
“Summertime” —DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince.
“Here it is the groove slightly transformed, just a bit of a break from the norm.” The lyrics say it all—try something new this summer. What have you wanted to do during the school year but didn’t have the bandwidth or freedom to try? Maybe it is a new hobby or an interest you want to learn more about. What does a break from the norm allow you to explore or do?
If you have not heard this song, go listen to it. I couldn’t resist because it came out the summer before my senior year in high school (“And as I think back, makes me wonder how the smell from a grill could spark up nostalgia”). Be curious this summer and allow yourself to discover new opportunities that could help you better understand what you want to learn in college. Make sure you carve out time to recharge, be a teenager, and enjoy the people and places around you. After all, it is “Time to sit back and unwind.”
“The Final Countdown” —Europe
When the calendar flips to August, things get real! The Common App goes live on the first day of the month and many high schools begin the new academic year. It is indeed the final countdown for college applicants, but you still have time. Take this opportunity to plan out your fall. Work backward from your first TBEN (October 15 or early November for many early application plans). Plan thoughtfully but don’t rush yourself into a forced decision because you are playing the admission game. As you think about your fall schedule, use this helpful time management tool from Making Caring Common, a project of Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Don’t buy into the narrative that the senior fall and applying to college have to be overwhelming, grueling, or something you need to simply survive. Believe it or not, it can be fun but you have to choose for it to be. If you haven’t read “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” by Carol Dweck, do your future a favor and check it out and then get into the right mindset for your senior year.
You are probably wondering what this European city has to do with September. If you listen, you will hear this chorus:
“I’m gonna write you a letter. I’m gonna write you a book. I want to see your reaction. I want to see how it looks”
This is the time of the admission experience when most applicants are refining (or drafting) their personal statement (college essay). This is one aspect of the application that often creates significant angst. First of all, this is more of a letter than a book (less than 650 words). Secondly, don’t overthink this. Ideally, you have started your brainstorming and writing in the spring and summer and maybe taken a break to let it marinate a bit. Put effort into sharing your authentic voice but don’t obsess over every word. Solicit feedback from a trusted friend or adult but don’t cede control of what you want to say and how you want to express it. Do not wait until the night or week before the TBEN to finalize your essay, as it will only create panic and potentially cause you to stray from your message.
Rather than trying to anticipate the reader’s reaction, consider the story you want to tell. You can’t get inside their head but you can get inside your heart. The essay doesn’t need to be about some traumatic event, loss, or challenge. Sometimes the most simple essays about the ordinary are the most impactful because they reveal something unique about you. You might need to set aside perfectionist tendencies to produce an essay that you are excited about submitting. Remember… a letter, not a book.
“Money, Money, Money” –ABBA
This month, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is available for families to fill out. If finances will be a determining factor in your college choice, make sure you are well aware of the types of aid available and the required forms and deadlines. In addition to the FAFSA, some schools require the CSS Profile and/or their own institutional forms. Every college has a Net Price Calculator (NPC) on its financial aid website that will provide an estimate of how much aid you can anticipate. Do NOT wait to see where you are admitted and then file financial aid forms. If the college has allocated its aid budget, you will be out of luck.
Plan ahead. Ideally, you are not waiting until this month to have conversations as a family about affordability, capacity, and willingness to pay for college. Higher education is a significant investment and one that will require sacrifices. Identify how much you are willing to sacrifice and stay true to this. Treat debt seriously and do not anticipate it being relieved. Consider the many paths to a college degree and find one that will not limit your financial future, but rather enhance it.
“Takin’ Care of Business” —Bachman-Turner Overdrive (BTO)
Applying to college takes effort. BTO reminds us that “If it were easy as fishin’ you could be a musician.” In truth, applying to college can be complicated at some schools, but not all. If you have been keeping up with our monthly calendar, you should be well prepared to submit applications this month for early admission deadlines (usually 11/1, 11/15, or 11/30). Be aware that at some colleges you will have to take care of business after you hit submit. You might have action items to complete on their admission portal, or emails to respond to. Allow a few days for the school to process your materials, and then confirm that they have received everything and that your application is complete. Check your email regularly!
Once you have taken care of submitting your applications and attended to any required follow-up, move on. Have confidence in the work you have done to take care of business. Go fishin’, because now the decision is in the colleges’ hands. Stay on top of your work in school, continue to be an engaged community member and as the holidays approach, take some time to relax and recharge. Finally, in this month when many of us celebrate giving thanks, make sure you share your gratitude for those who have supported you and the opportunities you have.
“My Way” –Frank Sinatra
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to arrive at the end of the year true to Sinatra’s mantra (try saying that five times quickly): “I did it my way.” Though you will hopefully involve, and lean on, others in your college search, ultimately it is YOUR search. As the year closes out, you could be learning decisions from your early applications. Resist the temptation to see these outcomes as a referendum on who you are or what you have to offer. As Sinatra sings:
“I did what I had to do
I saw it through without exemption
I planned each charted course
Each careful step along the byway
And more, much, much more
I did it, I did it my way”
Be true to yourself. This is just one moment in time during a long life. Step up to the challenge and control what you can control. Remember the path to your future in college and beyond is not always linear and the way will open. One final reminder from Sinatra:
“Yes, there were times I’m sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew
But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out
I faced it all and I stood tall and did it my way”
Back to the Future
And, just like that, it is January again. Unless you applied Early Decision, the admission experience likely continues for you. It’s a waiting game at this point, so focus on squeezing the most out of your last months of school. You will have accomplished a lot in the past year and 2024 will bring exciting opportunities.