12 Summer College Application Tasks for Rising High School Seniors

Make the most of the summer months.

The summer before senior year of high school is a great time for students to make progress on the college application process well in advance of fall and winter application deadlines, experts say. “It just really makes it a less stressful, less overwhelming process when you can kind of take it piece by piece and really just get a jump on it,” says Katie Sprague, managing counselor for Collegewise, an admissions consulting firm. Here are 12 application-related tasks prospective college students can tackle during the summer.

Narrow down the college list.

A successful college search requires thoughtful research. Rising seniors should spend time learning about schools over the summer to identify institutions that may be a good fit, Sprague says. They should ultimately aim to build a well-balanced college list that includes reach schools, match schools and schools that are more likely to admit them, she says. Some people refer to the latter group as safety schools. Experts told U.S. News in 2017 that prospective students should apply to between four and eight colleges. According to the 2019 State of College Admission report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling, 81% of first-time freshmen applied to at least three colleges, a figure that has held relatively steady since 2013.

Visit college campuses — even if it means doing so virtually.

Summer can be an ideal time for families to visit colleges because teens aren’t busy with extracurriculars and homework. Visiting a college in person gives prospective students and their families the opportunity to ask questions about academics, financial aid and anything else they’re curious about. But the novel coronavirus has put campus tours on hold across the U.S., meaning these visits “are still, for the most part, virtual,” Stephanie Klein Wassink, founder of Winning Applications and AdmissionsCheckup, Connecticut-based college admissions advising companies, wrote in an email. She encourages prospective students to check out virtual tours at schools of interest.

Work on college essays.

Diving into the college essay writing process in the summer will give students time to work through multiple drafts. Those who are having a hard time choosing a topic can turn to friends and family for help, Wassink says. To jump-start the conversation, she says, students can ask questions like, “What do you think differentiates me?” Additionally, prospective students can go online to check if any of the schools they’re interested in applying to require one or more supplemental essays.

Ask for letters of recommendation.

Some colleges and universities require applicants to obtain letters of recommendation, usually from teachers and school counselors. By asking for letters of recommendation before the start of their senior year, students can give recommenders time to write before they are flooded with requests in the fall. The number of letters of recommendation required varies between schools. Students can visit a college’s website to find out how many letters they’ll need to apply there.

Compile an activities list.

Prior to filling out applications, it can be helpful for students to write a list of all of the extracurricular activities they’ve been involved in and describe them, Sprague says. Students can then transfer this information into any application platforms they use that have an activities section, such as the Common Application. Spending time reflecting on the activities they’ve been involved in may also help students come up with ideas for how to answer some of the essay questions that colleges ask, Sprague says. Experts say that activities don’t just include school-sponsored sports or clubs. Colleges are also interested in learning about a student’s work experience and family obligations.

Research scholarships.

While some scholarship application windows may not open until the fall, prospective college students can still explore available award opportunities. There are websites that can assist students in their scholarship search and U.S. News offers a guide on finding scholarships for college. “I highly recommend beginning the scholarship search as early as possible. Identify the eligibility criteria and important application deadlines,” Aaron Bruce, vice president and chief diversity officer at ArtCenter College of Design in California, told U.S. News.

Study for standardized tests.

Many high school students take the SAT or ACT during their junior year, but this year has been a little different with some testing sessions canceled and others moved online due to concerns about COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Many colleges have reacted to these challenges by going temporarily test-optional and others have signaled a long-term commitment to flexibility on admissions exams. But Wassink notes that students should still study for standardized tests. “If they have the opportunity to test then they will be prepared,” she says, adding that students with strong scores will have another valuable data point to offer colleges still using standardized test results in admissions decisions.

Learn about financial aid requirements.

Students and parents can take some time during the summer to learn about the various aspects of the college financial aid process, Sprague says. There are several types of financial aid, including grants, scholarships, work-study and federal or private student loans. Families can research the financial aid application requirements and deadlines for the schools of interest to a prospective student. For example, some schools ask for a form called the CSS Profile, or College Scholarship Service Profile, in addition to the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. If family income has been affected by the coronavirus, students should note that the Department of Education website states that financial aid offices “have flexibility to work with students to adjust financial aid when students’ or their parents’ income changes.”

Work or volunteer.

Volunteering or landing a summer job can help boost students’ college applications and help them gain exposure to potential career paths. But the coronavirus has made working and interning this summer more challenging. “So many internships dried up this summer,” Wassink says. She urges prospective students to get creative, noting that some high schoolers have used their social media savvy to land positions. “One thing students know well and much better than older small business owners is social media.” Another possibility may be an online internship, which many students turned to when other opportunities collapsed.

Leverage social media.

It’s not uncommon for college admissions officers to look at applicants’ social media accounts. What they find can either help or harm a student’s odds of admission. Some students have even had admissions offers to prestigious schools rescinded due to inappropriate social media posts. In addition to cleaning up social media accounts, students should also use these platforms to stand out. “We want (students) to build a digital portfolio to present these noncognitive skills they can bring in, whether it’s leadership, understanding of collaboration, time management, resilience,” Alan Katzman, CEO and founder of Social Assurity, told U.S. News in 2019. He says social media can showcase those skills and adds that students aren’t limited to typical essay length requirements.

Make alumni connections.

“The reality is no one knows a school like its students and alumni,” Wassink says. With that in mind, she suggests students reach out to admissions offices to see if they can connect applicants with current or former students who can answer various questions about their own college experience. Wassink adds: “Some schools are better at using their alumni as ambassadors and interviewers than others,” suggesting that the possibility of making alumni connections may vary by college.

Start filling out applications.

Some college applications don’t open until later in the summer. For example, the application for the University of California system opens on Aug. 1. The Common App, which allows students to apply to multiple colleges at once, also opens on Aug. 1, but students can create an account at any time and transfer their information into the new app when it opens.

More college application advice

Get more information about how to choose a college, and check out the complete rankings of the Best Colleges to find the school that’s best for you. For more advice and information on selecting a college, connect with U.S. News Education on Twitter and Facebook.

12 college admissions tasks for rising seniors this summer

— Narrow down the college list.

— Visit college campuses — even if it means doing so virtually.

— Work on college essays.

— Ask for letters of recommendation.

— Compile an activities list.

— Research scholarships.

— Study for standardized tests.

— Learn about financial aid requirements.

— Work or volunteer.

— Leverage social media.

— Make alumni connections.

— Start filling out applications.

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