Dear Class of 2023:
I know you are super busy, in the throes of the spring term of junior year. But as you continue to plan your summer, it’s time for you to develop a summer work plan for your college applications.
By now, you probably have at least a rough idea of your summer plans, which may include a job or internship, volunteer work, academic programs, sports or music camps, travel, and time off (reserving some time to do nothing, decompress, and recharge your batteries is important!). You also know (or will very soon know) exactly when your summer break will begin and end.
Once you have a sense of how busy you will be during each week of your summer vacation, you should sketch out a detailed (week by week) summer work plan for your college application process, with the intention of completing as much work as possible before the start of your senior year. I recommend writing out your work plan in a Google Doc, with specific blocks of time designated each week for college-app work. (You can and should update the plan as you go along, if circumstances change.)
In general, you should plan to spend at least 5-10 hours a week this summer on college-related work, and perhaps 10-15 hours a week (especially if there are any weeks during the summer when you will be traveling or immersed in a program and therefore unable to work on college apps). Each week, you should spread your college-app work out over multiple days, devoting some time to this work 3-6 days per week. (Each week, you should seriously consider taking at least one day off from all work/commitments—have a “free day” to do nothing, hang out with friends, etc.)
Whenever you sit down to work on college-app tasks, make sure to “work smart.” As with all the work you do (for school, extracurriculars, etc.), try to do the most intellectually demanding tasks when you have excellent mental focus and energy, and save the “busy work” or less demanding work for those times when you are tired or less able to concentrate deeply. Luckily, college-app work includes a wide variety of tasks, including plenty of “housekeeping” and organizational to-do items, so you can choose freely from this diverse buffet of options each time you sit down to do some work. Brainstorming, writing, and revising essays require excellent concentration and mental energy, while doing college research, tweaking your organizational system, clicking on links in emails from colleges, and filling out basic portions of the Common App will feel more doable when you are tired or a bit distracted. It is hard to predict in advance how you will feel on a given day, so don’t try to designate specific blocks of time for essay-writing, for example. Just go with the flow. If you have reserved enough blocks of time each week for college-app work, you will find enough opportunities to complete even the most challenging tasks.
Do not overload yourself this summer. During the school year, your top priorities should be maintaining your physical and mental health (including by getting enough sleep) and doing the best you can in your school courses while also enjoying extracurriculars that are genuinely meaningful, challenging (providing opportunities for growth), and rewarding. During the summer, you should continue to prioritize your health (including by getting enough sleep) while meaningfully engaging in jobs, programs, or activities that will edify you or enrich your life in some way (this includes everything from retail/food-service jobs to structured college courses). But don’t do too much. If you overstuff your summer schedule, you will pay a price for it this fall, when you’ll find yourself overwhelmed with tons of college-app work alongside major amounts of schoolwork and extracurricular commitments, and unable to truly do your best work in any of these areas.
Here are the main aspects of the summer college-app work you will need to do, with my recommended timing. (Note: the list below does not include every single college-admissions-related task you will have on your plate this summer, but it does include the most significant of those tasks.)
From the start of your summer break until July 31:
- In June, if you have not already done so, reach out to the teachers whom you plan to ask to write recommendations for you
- In June, set up an effective “productivity system” for the extremely complicated process of applying to colleges: a Google Drive folder with subfolders that contain the various documents relevant to your college-app work (e.g., notes on colleges and college visits, essay brainstorming, essay drafts, transcripts, activities list, awards list, a list of questions for your school college counselor), in addition to a “bulletproof” reminder/calendar system so you won’t miss any deadlines
- Consider using an app like Todoist to keep track of to-do items and deadlines (but a well-organized and frequently updated Google Doc can work just fine, too)
- Explore in detail the course offerings in virtually all departments of at least one college to determine the fields that you might want to major or minor in (I advise my students to do this in a particular way, so that the exercise yields maximum insight into potential fields of study)
- Stress-test your pre-existing assumptions and plans, which you most likely formed without reference to actual course descriptions, major/minor requirements, etc.
- Every year, at least a few of my students discover that they no longer want to major in the field they had thought they wanted to major in
- Every student who fully explores college course offerings is surprised and excited to discover courses and entire fields of study that the student didn’t know existed—it’s wonderful to make these discoveries!
- Making evidence-based, fully informed decisions about potential majors and minors (and about other consequential matters, such as which colleges to apply to) is critically important
- Many students end up majoring in something other than the major they listed on college apps, and that’s fine—the intended/potential majors you list on applications are the ones that most interest you at that particular point in time
- If possible, at some point this summer, you should create a draft four-year course of study so that you can see what a college academic program is really like
- It’s very different from high-school academics—every year, students tell me that they’d thought they understood college academics, but after completing their draft four-year course plan, they realized that they’d truly had no clue how college courses/academics work
- Your planned major, minor, and electives will most likely change between this summer and when you start college (and might even change halfway through college), but it’s still valuable to map out what a college academic program might look like
- This is a difficult, time-consuming task, for which you will likely need the help of parents or friends/relatives in college, but it is incredibly worthwhile
- Try to complete most of your college research, including in-person/virtual tours and information sessions, conversations with current students and recent graduates, reading about certain colleges in the Fiske Guide and similar books, and extensive web research
- Continue to refine your preliminary list of colleges; consider including both large universities and small colleges
- In particular, ensure that you have enough “likely” and “target” schools on your list, and not too many “unlikely” (aka “reach”, <20% admit rate) schools
- The goal is to create a list that consists entirely of schools that you would genuinely be happy to attend (because what each school offers does at least a reasonably good job of meeting your needs), with a range of selectivity levels
- Draft your Common App activities and awards lists
- How you describe each activity is crucially important; this is a time-consuming and painstaking component of your application work, if done right
- Brainstorm potential topics for your main Common App essay and do some free-writing on the most promising topics to determine which topic to select
- Topic selection is absolutely critical for the main Common App essay in particular. Over the years, I’ve developed a particular method for brainstorming essay topics and helping students identify the topic(s) that will serve them best; it’s important for the Common App essay to provide insights not afforded by the other components of a student’s application. I also have specific recommendations regarding the process of developing and writing college-app essays, recommendations designed to help students write as freely and completely as possible in the early stages before tightening the focus and the writing.
- Develop a rough draft of your main Common App essay, which will eventually be capped at 650 words
- For most students, the entire essay development process will take quite a bit of time; you will need to do multiple rounds of work on the main Common App essay
- As one of my past college applicants noted, “I was surprised by how emotionally draining it was to do the introspection required while writing/brainstorming college essays.”
- If appropriate, draft the optional Covid-19 essay (up to 250 words) for the Common App
- If appropriate, draft the content you would like to include in the Common App’s optional Additional Information section/essay (up to 650 words)
- Revise your draft Common App essay(s)—the required main essay and the optional additional essays, if applicable—multiple times
- Most students end up revising their main Common App essay 5-10 times; it may well be the most thoughtful and labor-intensive piece of writing you’ve ever worked on
- Draft a prototype “academic interest” supplemental essay explaining what you want to study in college (major, minor, electives) and why
- Draft a prototype “why College X” supplemental essay for a college on your list that you know asks for this essay every year
- Start gathering the 2022-23 supplemental essay prompts for the colleges on your list that have already released those prompts (most colleges release them around August 1)
- Find the application forms and essay prompts for colleges on your list that do not use the Common App, and start working on those forms and essays
- Set up your Common App login (but wait until the new application is released on August 1 to start filling out the application)
- Stay in communication with your school’s college counselor as needed (you will most likely have some questions for the counselor about, for example, which AP scores to report or how to list certain courses)
- If you are planning to retake the SAT or ACT sometime between July and December, do appropriate prep work at whatever point during the summer makes sense, given your planned retake date and the amount of score improvement you are aiming for
From August 1 until the start of senior year (which for some students is as early as mid- to late August):
- Complete any additional college research that you need to do, including attending virtual or in-person tours and information sessions (remember: it’s best to visit colleges only when classes are in session)
- Further refine your college list, if needed
- Thoughtfully consider your early-action and early-decision options and make preliminary decisions regarding where you want to apply early (you will submit those applications in late October)
- Find the application forms and essay prompts for any colleges on your list that do not use the Common App (if those forms and prompts were not available before August 1), and start working on those forms and essays
- Finish gathering the 2022-23 supplemental essay prompts for the colleges on your list that have released those prompts; some colleges will also have short-response questions
- Organize all supplemental and non-Common App essay prompts in a well-designed table or spreadsheet so that (a) you can take advantage of synergies among similar essay prompts (recycle content, if appropriate) and (b) you won’t lose track of any prompts and have to write a last-minute essay
- Draft all supplemental and non-Common App essays, or as many as you are able to draft before school starts
- You will most likely need to write at least 10-15 of these extra essays, and possibly as many as 25+
- For example, last year, a student applying to 17 colleges had to write 30 supplemental/non-Common App essays (each ranging from 100 to 650 words) and 8 short responses (<100 words)
- Fill out the Common App (demographic information, senior-year course listings, test scores, activities list, awards list, college-level courses taken for credit, essays, Additional Information, etc.)
- Some colleges also require you (in their supplements) to list all your courses and grades from 9th grade onward (an extremely time-consuming task)
- If you are planning to retake the SAT or ACT sometime between August and December, do appropriate prep work
- Prepare for college-admissions interviews (this can be done in the fall, once you know which of the colleges you’re applying to will offer interviews—most likely only a few colleges will offer you the opportunity to be interviewed)
- Essay-writing and college research naturally help you prepare for interviews, but some additional interview-specific preparation can be valuable
As you devise your summer (and fall) work plan for college applications (and test prep, if needed), keep the following in mind:
1. Everything will take longer (possibly much longer) than you think it will. (This is generally true of all our efforts in all spheres of life.) Many college-app tasks are also more difficult or complicated than you originally thought they’d be.
2. Try to front-load your college-app work; do as much of it as early in the summer as you can. The earlier you start, the sooner you will realize whether you need to tweak your summer work plan to achieve your goals. Also, the earlier you start, the more time you will have to reflect deeply and honestly on who you are, what matters to you, what you want from your college education, and other foundational questions that underlie the formation of your college list (and application strategy) and the drafting of your application essays. Try to allocate extra-large amounts of time to college-app work in the early weeks of the summer (June and early July).
3. The more college-app work you can get done before senior year starts, the better. Every fall, seniors tell me that the fall of senior year is even more intense, stressful, and overwhelming than the spring of junior year. Under those conditions, you may not be able to do your best work on your remaining application components, including essays.
4. Schedule frequent (shorter) coaching sessions. If you are working with me this summer, I recommend scheduling shorter, more frequent sessions (e.g., 30-45 minutes twice a week rather than 60-90 minutes once a week) so that you can keep up the momentum and work as steadily as possible; I can help you get “unstuck” each time you get stuck. (Too often, students do little to no college-app work for 5-6 days and then do three hours of work in a single sitting right before we meet. That approach is not a recipe for doing your best work.)
5. Do extra work during certain weeks. If you will be unable to do much college-app work during certain weeks this summer (e.g., because you will be doing a program abroad for six weeks), you should plan to do extra college-app work both before and after those weeks.
In sum, rising seniors should work steadily on their college applications throughout the summer in order to minimize workload and stress during the fall term of senior year. As one of my recent college applicants (an exceptionally bright and high-achieving student who is also an outstanding writer) commented, “I didn’t do much/any college work over Thanksgiving break or the weekends during the fall term of senior year because I was so burnt out from my course load that I needed time to mentally do nothing. So it’s really great if you’re able to get ahead on college essays over the summer before school.”
Virtually all of the college applicants I’ve worked with would agree with what one applicant pointed out: “College applications can be a very fulfilling process if done well. You can really learn a lot about yourself, your values, your goals, etc., through your essays and reflections.”
In today’s absurdly competitive college-admissions landscape, there are no assurances that even the most outstanding students will get into their top-choice schools. My goal is to help students achieve the peace of mind that comes from knowing that they’ve done the best they can on their applications—which is the only peace of mind to be found anywhere in the college-application process. And the key to doing your best on your college applications is starting early this summer and working steadily throughout the summer.
As one student put it, “I was surprised how time intensive applications are! However, remember that the time and energy you invest in the process will give you peace of mind when you’re waiting for decisions. Make every application the best you can.”