11th Graders: Use Your Summer to Get a Headstart on College Applications

There is a raging controversy amongst college counselors about how students should spend the summer between 11th and 12th grades.  Some argue passionately that  "summer should be an idyllic interlude of nothing but fun and relaxation;"  others advocate for students to use this summer to get a headstart on the application process.  I'm definitely in the latter group.  Why am I such a "summer spoilsport" (words used to describe another counselor who articulated my viewpoint in an email exchange)?

Well, first I don't think I'm such a spoilsport.  The average student has a 10-12 week summer break and surely you can squeeze in a bit of work on college applications between fun and relaxation.  In fact, I actually believe that if you plan well, you can do more than that -- you can devote yourself to a meaningful summer activity (job, community service, extra class), get ahead on your applications AND have fun and relaxation.  Now, it may mean you have to make some choices and you can't do every single fun thing you have the opportunity to do, but to that I say, "So?"  I don't see harm in that; in fact, I believe you should be developing "choice muscles" in this phase of your life, so I believe that a few difficult choices (that actually have few big time consequences) are just what you need!   Second, I think you need to take a longer view.  I'm for having "fun and relaxation" baked into your life all the time, not just during the summer, because it prevents ugly meltdowns that come when you are completely overwhelmed. The fall of senior year is INSANELY busy for most students, so why pile on things related to the college application process that you could have done poolside with much less stress and drama in mid-July?  Convinced that you should get a headstart?  If so, here's what I suggest you do during the summer:

June:  Finalize your college list.  

You can't really get going on college applications until you know where you are going to apply.  That's why getting your college list finalized is the first thing to do.  Not sure how to go about putting together a college list?  Check out a prior blog posting to find out.  Once you have your list, decide where, if anywhere, you will apply early.  Strategically, it makes sense for you to apply early if:  1)  your first choice college offers an early admission option; and 2) you can complete your application by the early deadline.  Be sure and read all the fine print of the early admission program at the college -- they vary widely!

July:  Complete a full draft of all answers to the Common Application.

Generally, colleges do not release their applications until August.  But the Common Application board has already announced that the core components of the Common Application are not changing this year.  True, not all colleges use the Common Application, but the questions asked on the Common Application are so common as to be virtually universal.  In other words, you'll be able to use your answers on the other applications.  So all of you should just do it! Download the four page application and go to work on a draft.  You definitely want to get a final draft of the following sections done now:  the extracurricular activity and work experience list; the short answer essay; and the personal statement.  Important caution:  the Common Application prevents you officially beginning an application for the 2012 season until August 1st, so all you are doing right now is a DRAFT and you should do it offline.

August:  Write, write, write -- knocking out the college specific and/or supplemental essays.

Begin monitoring the colleges on your list for the release of their applications or supplements to the Common Application.  As soon as the college's application is available, download it and determine what additional essays are required.  Then get to work writing those essays.  Be alert to the possibilities of using a single essay on multiple applications.  It is a way to work smarter, instead of harder!!!  But don't recycle by just cutting and pasting.  Recycle the smart way -- revise the essay to respond specifically to the question being asked by each college.  That may mean writing a few new paragraphs, but it is still much easier than writing a different essay from scratch.  One huge warning here:  the one essay that should not be "recycled" in this way is the "Why College X" essay.  Why?  The reasons for each college should be particular enough that the one size fits all, generic "Why College X" essay simply won't work.  

If you follow this plan for taking some time during the summer to get a hardstart on your applications, you should have at least 1/2 if not 3/4 of the "heavy lifting" done by the time your senior year begins!  You'll be in a position to submit quality college applications on time, with minimum stress and drama, AND still have some time for fun and relaxation during the fall of your senior year -- a certifiably crazy busy time.  Come on, admit it, that sounds pretty great, doesn't it?

Comments or Questions?

Post your commitment to get a headstart here!  We'll cheer you on and you'll be more likely to do it if you commit to it.  Not sure how to get a headstart given your summer commitments? Post your calandering quandry and we'll help you figure it out.

Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (most recently at Dartmouth College). She works with students and families throughout the U.S. and abroad.  Follow Alison on Twitter (@IveyCollege)