Making the Best of Application Season: A Guide for High School Juniors

Though my junior year was the most academically challenging of my high school experience, my senior year was easily the most stressful. Even though I only took three serious academic courses, none of which were particularly difficult, I found myself consistently swamped with work, short on sleep, and starved of social interaction. Between August and December, I applied to seventeen universities and twelve scholarships, wrote fifteen unique essays, took two SAT’s and three SAT II’s, spent hours with college counselors exploring financial aid options, and maintained straight A’s and a part-time job. The work was certainly worth it—I got more than 90% of my application fees waived, was accepted or waitlisted at 14 of the 17 colleges, and am now a UC Berkeley student studying on a full scholarship—but there are countless ways I could have spared myself unnecessary stress (and gotten a lot more sleep.) Here are a few of the things I’m glad I did (and a few I wish I had done) four years ago to prepare for application season.

  • Take standardized tests early. I waited until the fall of my senior year to take most of my tests, and had to worry about applications and tests at the same time. I know plenty of people who were dissatisfied with their September/October scores and chose to retake their tests; though most of them eventually achieved their target scores, they had to study through November and December, which is for many students the busiest time of application season. Those of my friends who made sure to have their tests done and ready to send before senior year had a far easier time than the rest of us did.
  • Start your personal statement early. CommonApp releases its essay prompts a while before the application actually opens, so you can start writing months before you begin the application itself. Sign up for email notifications and/or regularly check the CommonApp website to stay on top of release dates.
  • Build relationships with your teachers. Good relationships with teachers take time to develop, and there’s a big difference between a quick letter of recommendation and a strong, personalized, well-written one. Teachers can also be excellent mentors through the application process; one of mine proofread my essays, suggested colleges that she thought would be a good fit for me, and counseled me through stress.
  • Research schools during your junior year. Research before application season. I applied to seventeen schools, all of which were very different from each other, because I had no idea what I wanted out of a university. It took me months to realize that I wouldn’t have been happy at many of the places I sent applications to, and it was extraordinarily disappointing to realize that I had written three essays and a personal statement to Stanford for no reason.
  • Visit the universities you’re applying to. Since there’s no guarantee that you’ll have the time to do so during senior year, it is best to start visiting while you’re a junior. After a mere two hours on USC’s campus, I was sure I didn’t want to accept their admissions offer; I didn’t like the weather, the social scene, the lack of public transportation, the surrounding area, or the teaching styles of two professors with whom I would have needed to take classes in my freshman year. I learned more about USC in those two hours than I had during hours of perusing the school’s website, emailing alumni, and speaking to my college counselor. The same happened at UCLA, UCSD, and Vanderbilt. I could have saved myself four applications (and their fees.)

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Courtney Tran is a student at UC Berkeley, studying Political Economy and Rhetoric. In high school, she was named a National Merit Finalist and National AP Scholar, and she represented her district two years in a row in Public Forum Debate at the National Forensics League National Tournament.