In a normal year, for many teens, summers are a time to work extra hours at your job, attend a summer program, vacation with family, or simply enjoy a respite from the hectic pace of the academic year. Of course, 2020 has been anything but a normal experience thus far. Equally challenging is that fact that when we try to project forward to summer and even next fall, the only thing we can feel certain about is…well…uncertainty.

Even in these unprecedented times, there are still tried-and-true ways that rising seniors can get a head start on the college process. These include:

  • Requesting letters of recommendation early
  • Starting early on the Common App
  • Demonstrating interest in your prospective colleges
  • Creating an activities resume
  • Developing a balanced college list

If you follow this advice, you stand a much better chance of avoiding a potential meltdown during the frenetically-paced (and possibly disrupted) autumn months that loom ahead.

1. Request Letters of Recommendation

Separate yourself from the panicked masses who, in a few months’ time, will be begging their favorite teacher(s) to crank out a recommendation 48 hours before an application deadline. Recommenders will appreciate your proactive approach and may even utilize the extra time to write a more thoughtful, detailed letter. Additional tips include supplying your recommender with a resume (see tip #4) to better inform their testimonial as well as picking an individual who knows you intimately, rather than someone prominent who doesn’t know you at all (admissions officers see mountains of generic letters from elected officials signed in autopen). For more on requesting a LOR, particularly in the age of COVID-19, visit our recent blog on the subject.

2. Create a Common App Account and Write the Common App Essay

The Common App actually allows students to rollover an older account for the 2020-2021 application cycle, meaning that students can go ahead and create their account now, even though the 2020-21 application won’t technically launch until August 1.

Earlier this year, the Common App released their essay prompts for the 2020-21 admissions cycle, which means students can begin writing now. Of course, your first challenge is to brainstorm and pick a personal and compelling topic on which to write. Let’s define those words in the context of the college essay. By personal, we mean talk about something that happened to you, where you are at the heart of the action. If you write about a trip to Haiti and chronicle the culture of the Haitian people, then the essay is not really about you – it might as well be a homework assignment. Colleges want to know who you are and how you view the world – the essay may be your only chance to provide them with this type of insight, so it’s worth spending a fair amount of time crafting and refining your message.

3. Demonstrate Interest

Carve out a few moments to show your prospective colleges some love by demonstrating interest.  Trust us, with yield rates causing admissions officers many restless nights, making schools feel wanted can leave a favorable impression. Whether or not you were able to squeeze in a campus visit before the pandemic arrived, an e-mail to an admissions officer, a social media “like”, or a request for info through the university website can become a factor come admission time. Colleges want great students, but they really want great students who are genuinely interested in attending their institution.

4. Complete the Students Activities Resume

When it comes to listing your extracurricular achievements, the goal is not to fill a single-spaced page in 6-point font with a record of every single action you’ve ever taken as a human being. Admission officers are looking for depth over breath and want to see evidence of leadership, commitment, and a flourishing passion that will carry over to their respective campus. In other words, leave off that afternoon as a freshman when you attended a Model U.N. interest meeting, only to embarrassingly realize that it was not, as you assumed, a club for building miniature replicas of embassy buildings.

Within the Common App form itself, you will have space to enter 10 activities. This is frequently one of the most challenging components of the application—consult our detailed guide to Mastering the Activities List here.

5. Finalize your College List

Developing your college list can be much more challenging than it sounds. It’s easy to get caught up dreaming about one’s top choice school, yet it’s important to have not just multiple irons in the fire, but the right irons (all you blacksmiths out there know what I’m talkin’ about!). Remember that admission to Ivy and other uber-selective colleges can never be taken for granted, so, even if you are one of the top students in your high school class, you’ll need to diversify that portfolio. Also make sure to pick at least one financial safety school in case you end up on the short end of the merit aid chase. For a detailed look at the college list creation process revisit our previous blog on the subject.

Rising seniors — try your best to enjoy components of this final k-12 summer break, even if the reality of your experience is miles away for what you were anticipating. Relish the opportunity to enjoy a late breakfast while taking the time to relax without any Zoom meetings to attend. However, if you can also spare a few hours here and there to work on the above activities, you will thank yourself in just a few short months, no matter what September brings.