“The early bird gets the worm,” as the saying goes.
This is as true for the college admissions process as it is for hardcore shoppers trying to snag the best deal on Black Friday (or, you know, for birds-catching worms).
The college admissions process is insanely competitive, but the good news is that if you’re thinking about it early, there’s plenty you can do to strengthen your applications, even years before the deadlines. But with all the resources and conflicting advice out there, how do you make sense of it and find a way forward?
Well, get cozy, and let’s get into it.
Let’s take Sandra, for example. Sandra is a sophomore. She’s interested in politics, community service, running, and writing. She runs track, writes for the school newspaper, and has done one community service trip. She gets top grades and dreams of attending Columbia, and she wants to prepare far in advance to increase her odds.
What should she do?
4 Tips to Starting College Application Process Early
Learn about yourself, your interests, your strengths, and your passions.
One of the major keys to a stand-out application is demonstrating what makes you different, through the interests and activities you pursue outside of class. But, how do you choose these?
Sandra is already off to a solid start, in that she knows a few of her key interests. But there’s a big difference between casually pursuing broad interests as they arise, and lunging toward specific goals. So, do some self-reflection and intentional experimentation—figure out what excites you. Maybe since Sandra is interested in politics, she volunteers with a national campaign canvassing door-to-door, and then also volunteers with a local campaign helping out with communications. She discovers she much prefers the writing component of the local organizing work. That honed-in interest is much more actionable than a general interest in “politics.”
The real KEY is that the takeaways here will be different for every person—there’s no universal recipe for success, it’s more of a choose-your-own-EPIC-adventure kind of thing. You don’t need to lock yourself into a specific career path at this point, but the goal-oriented and mature applicants adcoms are looking for should be able to talk expertly about one possible career path.
Make a plan of action for converting your interests into accomplishments.
Sandra is already pursuing a few of her major interests through being on the track team, writing for the newspaper, and doing a service trip. But is this level of involvement enough to earn admission to the top schools? Probably not. That’s the benefit of starting early: she still has time to dig into her major interests and accomplish big things that showcase her leadership skills, creativity, and innovation.
For Sandra, planning ahead means she can find ways to COMBINE her major interests in cool ways, and can then unleash unique accomplishments through pursuing those overlaps. She can start by sketching out a big-picture vision, and can then drill down. For example:
Big-picture Vision: By the middle of senior year, Sandra wants to have founded a new political journal at her school, focused on local politics. Beyond digging into political issues, she wants the journal to enable her and her classmates to get more involved in issues they care about, so she’ll connect with local organizations to increase opportunities for student impact. To further this impact, she wants to organize one major running-related fundraiser for a local nonprofit. She could organize a school-wide “Olympics Field Day,” that raises money through entrance fees and sponsorships.
This combination of pursuits allows her to blend her interests, and, as a result, to achieve a range of accomplishments that are boldly and uniquely her. After the big-picture vision, Sandra can break this down by year. This might include:
Sophomore Year: Launch political journal. Continue with track and newspaper.
Junior Year: Grow political journal, connect with local organizations, and organize events that allow students to get involved locally. Continue track and newspaper—maybe earning leadership roles.
Senior Year: Organize “Olympics Field Day.” Continue with the political journal, track, and newspaper, focusing on leadership opportunities.
Optimize your high school GPA and SAT/ACT test scores.
By now, you’ve probably heard that top grades and test scores alone aren’t enough to get you into the top schools—instead, they often function as a sort of “minimum requirement.” What that means is that if you don’t have the grades or scores that the school tends to look for, none of the other stuff will matter much (now, there are always exceptions here, but this is a good guiding principle).
This means that Sandra needs to ensure that she is able to secure top grades and top scores, in order for her awesome collection of other accomplishments to get her across the finish line.
Develop the writing, introspection, and communication skills necessary for strong essays and interviews.
What’s the point of having top grades, top scores, and an incredible collection of unique accomplishments if you’re not able to effectively communicate all you’ve achieved? Being able to tell your own story, in your own authentic voice, is what will tie all of your hard work together in a strikingly compelling bow. But, this ability doesn’t happen on its own, and, luckily, it’s something you can hone, refine, and strengthen—with practice. Again, that’s the benefit of starting early. Even if Sandra doesn’t have stellar personal writing, self-reflection, or communication skills as a sophomore, she has time to strengthen them, with consistent hard work. She can start keeping a daily journal, completing weekly creative writing exercises, answering sample prompts, and doing practice interviews.
What we’ve sketched out for Sandra can be used as a guide for any student trying to prepare for the college admissions process far in advance. If you need help in figuring out how this might look for you, get in touch—that’s what we’re here for.