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Thinking About College

By John Raftrey And Lori McCormick

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About this blog: We are writing this blog to give practical advice to students and parents, to reflect on issues affecting college admissions, and to provide a platform for a robust community discussion on post-secondary choices. We occasionally f...  (More)

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When to start thinking about college ? Rising Seniors

Uploaded: Jun 21, 2014
(Written by Lori McCormick)

Since this blog is titled, "Thinking About College," I figured it would be the perfect platform for addressing WHEN to start thinking about college.

For the rising senior?

Now. Now is the time to start thinking about college. The clock is ticking, my friends. Managing your time is essential to the success of your application process. An added bonus to learning about time management now is that it will set you up for success for years to come. You will use it in college, in the workplace, and in your personal life.

Here is what you can do in summer:

1. Research colleges (online, visit, ask friends and family, etc.) and make a tentative college list. Be realistic. Select colleges you know are a suitable fit. This means that based on your GPA and test scores (assuming you have taken the SAT or ACT), your profile is similar to the college's profile of accepted applicants. Note: If you have not taken standardized tests, use your summer to study and plan on taking them in the early fall semester. Register online as soon as possible, as test dates will fill up quickly.

2. Make a list of your extracurricular activities. You will want to include activities that cover your high school career. Be sure to include in what grade(s) you participated, the time commitment, a description of your activity, and any award or accomplishment received. For example, Co-Founder and signature collector for, "Students Anti-Bullying Pledge Club" 9th, 10th, 11th 12th, 5 hours per week, one month per semester. Generated signatures each semester of students on campus who pledged to not bully their peers and to help remind others to also not bully.

3. Determine which two teachers, preferably from junior year and who teach a core subject, you will ask to write your letters of recommendation. Research in advance just what information your teachers will ask of you and prepare it for them. For example, a teacher might ask for your college list, a draft of an essay you are preparing for your application, and a list of extracurricular activities. Some teachers have a specific form they will ask you to complete. Do so thoroughly and in a timely manner. Remember, this is YOUR application process. Your teachers are graciously taking time out of their busy schedules to write a letter on your behalf. Be sure to thank them and be accommodating.

4. Start writing. Hands down, the most time-consuming part of the college application process is writing. When developing your essay, plan on writing several drafts before it is "submit ready." And most importantly, write about areas of yourself that you are most proud of or are excited about. The buzz word is "passion." Let the reader (the Admissions Officer) learn about who you are in your own words. It's not often you get to write about yourself, so enjoy re-discovering who you are and what makes you tick.

The 2014-2015 University of California essay prompts: http://admission.universityofcalifornia.edu/how-to-apply/personal-statement/index.html

The Common Application: https://appsupport.commonapp.org/link/portal/33011/33013/Article/1694/2014-15-Common-Application-Essay-Prompts

5. You can also use the summertime to complete your college application profiles.
- The California State University's CSU Mentor www.csumentor.edu allows you to complete the High School Planner prior to the application becoming available. And, that information will roll over into your application (don't forget your user name and password and use your transcript for accuracy!).
- If you are applying to the UCs, visit https://admissions.universityofcalifornia.edu/ to set up your account prior to the November deadline.
- You can get a head start on The Common Application www.commonapp.org, which is used by over 500 colleges and universities.

If you are able to get the ball rolling on these five areas this summer, you will set yourself up for a successful fall semester and college application process. Remember to break up the application into projects (bullet point #1, bullet point #2, etc.) to make it feel less overwhelming and more manageable.

I will continue to answer the question of "When to start thinking about college?" to other grade levels in later posts.
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Posted by UC Davis Grad, a resident of Mountain View,
on Jun 21, 2014 at 5:33 pm

All very good points. The only item I would add is this: When selecting which colleges to apply to, DO NOT reject certain colleges, because they may not have the "prestige" factor that certain big-name colleges may have. What I have found in my experience is that certain not-so-well-known colleges are actually able to provide a quality educational experience equal to that of "big-name" colleges.

Posted by Hermia, a resident of Triple El,
on Jun 24, 2014 at 12:20 pm

I'd like to suggest that kids go visit a couple of colleges as early as possible. You have to make so many judgements in so short a time, and if all you have is the propaganda of the colleges themselves, though reps or their websites, it's hard to tell what is real. Go see some dorm rooms, and make a mental note of what feels like a place you could thrive. Look at some actual campuses and get the vibe of the students, sit in on a class if you can, so you can take that feeling back to all the websites and have a reality check for them. It will help with reading even the campuses you can't visit.

Also, when my eldest was a Senior at Paly, her particular counselor was not interested in helping her find non-ivy schools. My girl was looking for a small liberal-arts school with a solid rate of grad school acceptance, and a strong character. (She found her way to Reed, and was very happy.) Her particular advisor wasn't really able to help her with this, but other people are. If you don't get the direction you need from the person who was placed to help you, go talk with your favorite teacher or go directly to the college placement office. There are plenty of people to help, you might just have to take a few extra steps to get to them.

Everyone has been telling you what's important about college for years now. Before you choose, it'd be a great time to think about what you, individual you, actually value and desire. There are so many awesome schools out there, even if your desires and your parents' are not identical, chances are you can find a place you love that they will be happy about too.

Good luck!

Posted by one down, one to go, a resident of Gunn High School,
on Jun 25, 2014 at 11:28 am

When I, a parent, was attending all the college prep meetings (PTA, Parent Networking, Gunn Councilor meetings), everyone was telling my child to start early. The councilors, the Gunn alumni, the college tour guides, the college admissions people, experienced parents. So I was wondering exactly what was early?

I was very happy to see this article. I think 'really starting' the process the summer before you are a senior is key. My daughter had a goal of solidifying her college list AND have a solid draft essay for the UC apps and the Common App BEFORE the first day of senior year really helped to eliminate the college stress. Coming up with the college list is no easy task, it is more time consuming then you think. She really did have a stress free November and December to 'just study for finals'. My daughter was done and ready to hit the submit buttons about two weeks before the due date. It was still a defining moment because she kept wanting to 'review it' one more time.

At Gunn you need to also create a college packet which took her more time then we thought. The college packet tells Gunn's registrar which colleges to send transcripts, the school profile, mid-year reports and asked a lot of questions about the student so they could write the councilor's report as well. It also contained a section for the parents to write. So we were a little surprised by the amount of time it took.

My second son, a rising senior this year, is starting the summer off with the college packet (at Gunn on Naviance). This is because it starts him thinking about himself; it actually can work as the list of activities, awards, extra-curricular activities, work experience, etc. Lots of busy work but a nice place to put together all his accomplishments. He is hoping by doing this first, it will lead into topics for his essays since it makes him think about who he is and who he wants to be and what he has done so far in life (besides homework, classes and exams).

So his goals this summer are:
- college packet complete
- solid list of colleges defined
- almost submittable draft essays: for UC app, for Common App
- paperwork (self-addressed stamped envelops) and thank-you cards for his two teacher recommendations
- UC APP, Common App started with the easy but time-consuming busywork done(data entry part, name address, SSN, etc)

Then after school starts he will have to work on all the supplemental essays or essays for the private colleges.

Thanks again John Raftrey And Lori McCormick for putting this article together. Hopefully it will help many of seniors reduce stress by starting early.

Posted by one down, one to go, a resident of Gunn High School,
on Jun 25, 2014 at 11:41 am

Just to be clear, PALY probably also has something for their councilors/registrars but may not call it the college packet. At Gunn it is called the college packet and it is found on Naviance under the About Me tab. Click on the link: r'ecommendation request form' on the left hand side.

Posted by Parent, a resident of Palo Alto High School,
on Jul 16, 2014 at 12:26 am

Paly does give a manual from the college counselors at the end of Junior year.

Agree with previous poster - the BEST thing we did was have my son work on his essays during the summer, both the personal essay and some supplementals. And yes, it does take longer than one would think. And some colleges require 2-3 supplemental essays. I cannot imagine starting them while there is homework from classes in the fall! He had rough drafts that he only had to finalize in the fall so he avoided stress.

Also remember yearbook senior portraits are due in the fall (October, I think). Do pay a photographer that is not on the approved list of photographers. It seems like a racket, but the yearbook advisor will not allow outside photographers. Check the Madrono page online at paly.net to find the list.

Also, for parents, the yearbook baby ads are due in January.

Another tip is that U of AZ and ASU are good starter apps. They accept beginning in July and their applications are basic - no additional essays or personal essay required (although it's optional). If your child has at least a 3.5 GPA, a merit scholarship might be awarded.

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