The last year of high school is a tough balancing act. You have one foot in the future, but there are still plenty of obligations in the present.
How do you dedicate your best effort and energy to preparing your college applications while still maintaining your GPA and staying on top of your other commitments?
The short answer is to be an early bird about your college applications, and to get all the advantages that they get. But that's easier said than done. Not only does it take energy and commitment to be an early bird; it also also takes savvy and smarts.
When it comes to college applications, there are four traps it's really easy to fall into.
Trap #1: Waiting Until School Starts to Work on Your Applications
It's easy to get sucked into thinking that your brain will be better able to handle a big project while you're in school. There's a kind of logic to imagining that you'll be in "work mode" and that you'll have better focus and energy. But you won't have unlimited focus and energy.
The last time I checked, high school was pretty stressful. I've yet to meet a student who said, "Wow, I've got so much extra time! Hey, do you know what would be perfect right now? A time-consuming project that had a huge impact on my future!"
You need to make use of the summer before senior year to get started on your applications. Maybe all you'll do is make a plan. But then at least you'll know where you're going and the steps you need to take.
Trap #2: Waiting Until Winter Break to Start Your Personal Statement
Winter Break is the Siren song of senior year. It calls out to you in melodious lies, telling you that you'll have all the time in the world over these two weeks. "Those applications aren't due until January," it coos to you.
And I get it: in the first semester, you've got to keep your GPA looking snappy. You've got to put effort into your finals. You've got to stay involved in all of those extracurricular activities that you've already started listing on your application.
Reality check? You are not going to bust out the most amazing essay you’ve ever written over winter break. It's not even close to enough time to write your amazing personal statement. You need a lot more time to write a fantastic personal statement, plus all those supplementary essays. You'll have to...
- choose the right prompts
- structure and draft
- get helpful feedback
- revise for organization, tone, voice, and word choice
- polish your writing until it really shines
- and proofread like a pro
Ideally, during winter break you'll rest. You 'll need it! First semester of senior year demands a lot from you, and without a rest, it is easy to get overwhelmed and overwrought.
It's really important to replenish your energy so that you'll be happy and healthy as you undergo the transition from high school student to college student; it's a major change!
If you do have to work on your applications during those few weeks off, it should be only to bundle all your prepared documents into the right envelopes (or online dropboxes) and double check that each application has all of its components. This is not the time to write your master opus.
Trap #3: Focusing Only on College
It's a mistake to act like a future college student without also acting like a current high school student. Yes, college is a pretty big goal. But a bigger goal should be becoming the best student you can be. I don't mean earning a perfect 4.0 or 5.0. I mean taking charge of your learning by setting goals and deadlines, and then working toward them, one step at a time.
It's definitely bad etiquette to "phone it in" senior year. But it's also a missed opportunity. Use the time you have while you're still in high school to become the master of your own learning habits.
- Get conscious about how you study.
- Experiment with which note-taking skills work best for you.
- Ask your teachers and your peers for their observations about how you do your best work.
And here's something to keep in mind: one of the fantastic aspects of college is that you will be given much more independence! You will be in charge of your own education to a large extent.
If you don't have solid studying and work-life balance habits in place, this freedom isn't going to feel like freedom; it's going to feel like free-fall.
Trap #4: Going It Alone
I get it. Mom and Dad are a little intense right now. They really want you to excel. They want you to have the best shot at the best colleges and to go on to a satisfying career where you'll win Nobel Prizes and appear in Forbes' list of Millionaires Under 30. And who can blame them?
But you might be coming into more than your regular dose of conflict with your parents during this stressful time. And that might make you tune out their advice and roll your eyes when they offer to help. Here's what you have to do: Figure out how you can work with them anyway!
(And, Mom and Dad, if you're reading this, keep in mind that your son or daughter is going through a lot. A little space can go a long way!)
The biggest mistake you can make is to close yourself off and try to work on your applications alone. You need help, advice, and accountability. Plus, your parents are a great resource for helping you think about your applications because they may just know a little something about you, having known you, well, your whole life. ;)
It's also perfectly normal to get help from other sources. Talk to your school counselor. Consult a college planning specialist. Work with an expert on your personal statement. The help is out there, so make sure to take advantage of it!
The Not-So-Secret Secret to Balance
You already know intuitively how to balance: don't go too far in either direction. What that looks like in the case of college applications and high school is knowing when to focus on the present and when to focus on the future.
The key is making a Big Picture plan. Know where you're going so that you know how long it will take you to get there. Once you know what you have to do, you can schedule when you'll work on it. That will let you move forward a little at a time and get everything done, for both high school and college.