Photo Credit: Nora Vilijaniemi
Photo Credit: Nora Vilijaniemi

Some say that senior year is a breeze. Maybe they should have said senior year is (kind of) a breeze second semester.

Most say that senior year is crazy, hectic and stressful – at least it is so until all college applications are sent in.

Whether you believe in the first or latter stance on senior year, one thing is certain: getting a head start on your college applications can definitely alleviate some of the stress that will come during the school year.

There are multiple ways to get ahead of the game. One way is to start seriously looking at the colleges you want to attend now. You may have glanced over the admissions statistics and dreamed about strolling through the campus your first three years of high school, but now is the time to make those dreams a reality.

Create a plan.

If your standardized test scores are not up to par with the average admitted student (generally, the 25-75% admitted range), plan to retake tests to get them there, or as close as possible.

Get in contact with your admissions counselor at the colleges that interest you. While you don’t want to harass the admissions staff, some colleges do appreciate your interest. Colleges also generally prefer to see students -and not their parents- taking initiative when it comes to their education.

Ji Yun Suh, one of the valedictorians of the Class of 2014, stated earlier in the year that demonstrated interest is important. Colleges do consider it.

If you do decide to contact your admissions counselor, make sure you don’t ask them a question that can easily be found on the website (“do you have a biochem major?”). Ask insightful questions that show your interest.

Schedule college visits. Send a thank you note after the visit.

If a college requires (or even recommends) interviews, schedule one. While you won’t know exactly what they’ll ask, having truthful, educated answers in mind will prevent you from stumbling around during the interview. This can give you an edge in your application.

If you haven’t already, ask your teachers early on if they will write letters of recommendation for you. Keep in mind the letter limit of certain colleges, whether they want letters from just your core subject teachers, and whether the teacher has to be one you had junior or senior year.

If you’re looking for financial help, consider applying to programs like QuestBridge or filling out as many scholarship forms as possible. For many scholarships it’s a numbers game: the more you apply to, the more likely you’ll win. Make use of the College Resource Center (yes, it exists).

Decide whether you want to apply early decision, action, or regular action. Make sure you know the difference between each, and which one will increase your chances of getting in. Colleges treat early action in different ways: while some see it as a way of expressing true interest in attending, others see it as a much more competitive pool of applicants, and are therefore stricter in their consideration.

Remember, just because one friend tells you, “apply early action! It’s definitely better,” does not mean that you should. This is a personal decision, and is therefore different for everyone.

One of the best ways to get ahead this summer, is to start working on the college application.

Elena Sucharetza, also a valedictorian of the Class of 2014, stressed earlier in the year the importance of getting a head start on the application process. It helps eliminate stress, and gives you more time in the year for other things.

Find out if your top picks use the Common Application or have their own form.

Whether you fill out the Common Application or a college-specific application (or both) one chance for you to shine is through the essays. The essays are the one part of the application when your voice, and not numbers, matter. Be sure to start writing your essay(s) very early on. The more you work with it, the better it will be. While you may have written an English essay the night before it was due (and who hasn’t?) doing so on this essay will not work.

Here’s the good news: the Common Application essays are the same this year, so you can start writing them as soon as you want!

Keep in mind that you should not write Common Application essays with a “one-size-fits-all” approach. While you can keep the general ideas and format for each application, be sure to tailor-fit and fine-tune the details for each college you apply to.

Once you’re done with your rough draft and initial revision, get trusted adults (parents, teachers, counselors, etc.) to help you polish your piece. They can give you ideas and help you communicate  them more effectively. Just make sure however, that they don’t change your voice. As Shannon Kelly, admissions counselor at the University of Notre Dame said, “we can tell when a parent is writing for the student.”

There are many steps to be taken when applying to college. Therefore, it is better to start early, and knock out at least some of those steps before the fall of senior year. While procrastinating on a school assignment may not have produced any damaging results previously, creating a last-minute, slip-shod college application will.

Remember, there are always people around you to help you in this next big step. More importantly, you can help yourself if you start early in the application process.

By Kevin McNulty

Kevin McNulty teaches English and Mass Media Studies at Penn High School. He advises the Penn News Network and manages the PNN Studio and news room. For more information, navigate your browser to