At Signet, we recommend that students have their college applications nearly ready for submission by the end of the summer after junior year. When senior year starts, you may still be tweaking the essay or making small changes to the activity list, but the bulk of the work should be done. Senior year is jam-packed with rigorous classes and demanding extracurriculars, so making good use of the summer is key.
Lots of students head into this crucial summer with the best of intentions for completing college applications. But for too many students and parents, college applications become a dark storm cloud that hangs over the summer and never, ever rains. We get a lot of calls in August from families who have spent the whole summer fighting about college applications, or struggling to find the time for this process. They need our help.
For many, the heart of the problem is time management, not lack of information. So we’d like to offer you this set of tips to help you structure the application process so you can make substantial progress throughout the summer.
TIP #1: DO A BRAIN DUMP
Early in the summer, create a master list of everything that needs to be done for the college application process. Make sure to be specific here: instead of “write college essays,” make a list of each essay that needs to be completed; instead of “research schools,” try “develop initial list of 25 potential schools.” This will give you a big-picture overview, which you can use to start setting smaller goals.
TIP #2: CREATE MANAGEABLE TASKS
A task like “write personal statement” is so massive that it can be overwhelming. When things overwhelm us, we don’t know where to begin, and as a result we often don’t begin at all. Breaking down big projects into bite-size tasks makes the entire process feel more feasible. The earlier you can do this, the better. For example, you might break down “write personal statement” into several steps, starting with “spend an hour brainstorming interesting essay topics.”
TIP #3: CHECK IN WITH YOUR HIGH SCHOOL
Before you get too far into the planning process, look into what your college counselor expects and offers throughout senior year. Many schools offer workshops on the common app in the fall semester, so you may need to only do prep work for the common app over the summer. On the other hand, counselors may have set dates for submitting recommendation requests or other materials; you need to be able to look ahead and prepare for those deadlines.
TIP #4: SET REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS
It’s important to be practical when establishing goals and timelines for college applications. Different approaches work better for different students.
Some students work best with a recurring schedule, such as an hour a day, or a few hours at a set time each week, to focus on college applications. It can be helpful to link this kind of scheduling to another “non-negotiable” in your schedule. For example, “I’m in driver’s ed 3 days a week, so after every driver’s ed class, I’ll come home and work on applications for an hour.”
Others may prefer to set aside a few longer periods of time for tackling applications. Perhaps you want to devote a full week or two at the start of the summer to working intensively, then focus on other summer activities the rest of the time. While this method can be effective, it won’t work for students with a short attention span or who have difficulty sitting still for long.
TIP #5: SCHEDULE TWICE THE AMOUNT OF TIME
College applications are one of those things that always take longer than you expect. Plan for how much time you think you’ll need, and then double it. This is a totally new process, and it will take some time to get accustomed to it. Also, you’ll be in a “summer mindset,” which is as it should be—this is still your summer! You deserve some time to rest and recharge in between application work sessions.
TIP #6: LEAVE A BUFFER
You know what they say about the best-laid plans… Smart families will leave some buffer time toward the end of the summer as a “last-minute” option for working on college applications. This might look like setting aside five days before the school year starts that can be devoted to applications as needed. You may find you need this time even if you’ve stuck to your schedule and have worked on your applications throughout the summer—see Tips #4 and #5!
It’s also wise to work with your family to set a deadline to ask for help. For example, “If we haven’t finalized a college list by mid-July, we’re going to talk to a consultant.” This backstop creates a firm commitment and holds both parents and students accountable for engaging with the process and accepting help if needed.
TIP #7: RESPECT THE PROCESS
Even if you’re working intensively, it’s important to understand that creating a good college application doesn’t happen overnight. It requires sustained effort and thought over time; there are no shortcuts. This is a process of discovery and revision, and the application and essays will have multiple iterations along the way. Respecting the process will put your family in the right frame of mind to create a strong college application.
TIP #8: ASK FOR HELP
If the applications are just not getting done, if you or your parents are banging your heads against the wall (or against each other!), then you need some outside assistance. Ask for help. The stakes are too high to let this become just another teen/parent argument. This is important work that will play a pivotal role in your future, and families need to be ready to disrupt their usual patterns in order to get things done.
Wherever you are in your college application process, we hope you find these tips helpful! If you do think you need outside help, we at Signet are always ready to work with you and your family.