#College Essays and Applications

Ideally, students complete the bulk of their college applications during the summer after 11th grade. But when it comes to drafting essays and submitting applications, there are other opportunities throughout high school for students to set themselves up for success.

In the college admissions process, there are three qualifiable factors within a student’s control: extracurricular activities, recommendation letters, and the essays and applications themselves. Below is a timeline for how to approach these factors.

9th Grade
  • Students should focus on embracing the start of their high school journeys
  • The early years of high school are a great time to explore new curiosities and deepen interests. While 9th-grade students are not thinking specifically about college applications just yet, discovering and developing potential passions will have a big impact on their future applications.
10th Grade
  • While personal development is the primary goal, participating in meaningful activities and pursuits will lead to greater opportunities for students to shine in their college applications and essays. Students should look for ways to more deeply engage in the subjects, activities, and personal interests that excite and challenge them.
  • Students should strive to develop a rapport with their teachers. Seeking out help when needed, attending office hours, and modeling engagement in the classroom will help students thrive academically—and come with the added bonus of forming authentic bonds with teachers who may become future recommenders
  • The second half of 10th grade is an opportune time for parents to begin having the college conversation with their students. Discussing the process ahead of time can take some of the anxiety away from what can feel like a daunting process.
  • Consider touring local colleges in the summer! Whether or not your student ultimately chooses to apply to each school, campus visits can help your student get a feel for their personal preferences, which is invaluable when it comes to building a college list. Does your student want a big school with spirit, or a smaller, more intimate campus experience? Invite your student to start thinking about what they may want now—or, just as crucially, what they don’t want—in a school that will become their future home.
11th Grade
  • Believe it or not, students can create a Common Application at any point this year and begin filling out their personal information. Choosing a time in the spring to sit down as a family and plug in the necessary details can relieve some pressure later on in the process. 
  • The spring of 11th grade is also the right time to narrow down the teachers who would make great recommenders for your student’s applications. Asking ahead of time is not just good manners—it also ensures that your student is at the forefront of their teachers’ minds as the academic year progresses. 
  • During vacations and the long weekends of 11th grade, many families plan to visit colleges. Whether students have the option to plan in-person college visits or are limited due to geography or circumstances, the goal should be prioritizing the factors that will secure a school a spot on your student’s college list. Finding two or three likely schools that feel like genuinely good fits is an essential part of college list-building that can take some pressure off the remainder of the application process.   
  • While visiting colleges or virtually touring, it’s essential that students take good notes! Notes can be useful for comparing colleges, but they also help students write stellar Why College Essays
  • Free from the distraction of the school year but still with the benefit of three years of experience, the summer after 11th grade is the ideal time to work on applications and essays. Students should aim to complete—or very nearly complete—their essays by the start of senior year.
  • Once your student has established a school list, enter the summer of 11th grade with a plan. Some factors to consider: When will your student draft their personal statement, and will they have the chance to work on it as an in-school assignment? How will family vacations, extracurriculars, and jobs factor into their summer schedule? Does your student also need to set aside time for test prep? How many of the colleges on your student’s list require supplemental essays, and how long are they? What are the application deadlines, and does your student want to apply Early Decision or Early Action anywhere? Might athletic recruiting affect your student’s process?  
12th Grade
  • Create a submission calendar to track deadlines. Build in a break between writing final drafts and the actual application submission date so that students have time to do a thoughtful, final proofread with fresh eyes. Download Grammarly (for free!) to help catch typos before submitting.
  • Submit applications in the fall/early winter of 12th grade. 
  • Students should work to maintain their grades and engagement—enjoying the fruits of their labor as they wait to hear back from schools.
  • If a student receives a defer or waitlist decision, then they should follow up promptly in order to continue demonstrating their interest in a given school.
  • Celebrate choosing a college and graduating from high school!