What I Wish I’d Done to Prepare for College Applications

By Shubhra Mishra | December 15, 2020

College application deadlines are right around the corner, and let me tell you, I am stressed. I’m done with half of my applications, but the prospect of opening decision letters in a few months is even more nerve-wracking. Now that I look back on how I prepared for college applications, I believe there are some things I could’ve done to make this process easier. With each item on the list, I’ve mentioned a suggested start time. This might vary from person to person, so start when you think it is best for you to do so!

Before we dive in, here’s a picture of a cute cat:
And now, here's the list:

Research colleges.

This goes without saying, but having a definitive list of colleges by the beginning of senior year really helps. Even more importantly, make sure you dive deep and research specific courses, programs, and clubs. Not every school has a “Why Us?” essay, but research like you have to write at least 300 words for each school you’re applying to. I did this over the summer before senior year, and it helped me narrow my list down to colleges I love.

When you should do this: no specific starting point, but diving deep during the summer before your senior year is best, since this is when you’ll know your exact preferences for geography, majors, culture, etc.

Think about letters of recommendation.

You obviously have to think about which teachers you’ll be asking for letters of recommendation. But I’d recommend going a step further — write down interactions in class/clubs you are proud of. A lot of teachers have students fill out brag sheets to write letters of recommendation, where they ask you to mention specific anecdotes you want them to include. So it’s helpful to have a list of times when you made valuable contributions in class, did something creative at a club they coach, went out of your way to help someone, etc.

When you should do this: Junior year. Most people recommend against having teachers from before junior year writing letters.

Fill out the Common App Activities section.

Towards the end of your junior year, it’s a good idea to think about which activities you’ll include in the activities section. Then, make a detailed list of 1) what you do for this activity regularly and 2) any one-time achievements/events related to this activity that are worth mentioning. Then, try to condense the information into 150 characters. This definitely won’t be your finalized activities list, but it’ll be extremely handy when you actually fill that section out during senior year/over the summer.

When you should do this: near the end of your junior year/beginning of your senior summer.
A table like this might help!
Take part in competitions.

Regardless of whether or not college applications are a thing, competitions can be important in determining how much you enjoy the activities you participate in. Reaching out to your guidance counselor helps with this — they receive information from different organizations about ongoing competitions that you’ll be able to take part in. Plus, if you win, it’s a nice addition to the Awards and Honors section on the Common Application!

When you should do this: all of high school.

Make a Goodreads account.

What? I know, I know. Why does a Goodreads account even matter? Well, a lot of schools have prompts asking you to list your favorite book, or all books you’ve read recently, so keeping track of books you read will really help. Columbia, USC, Harvard are just some examples. So yeah, like the other things on this list, starting early will help!

When you should do this: whenever you read this article! Even besides college, tracking books you read gives you a sense of accomplishment unlike any other.

Write down your achievements/awards as they happen.

Trust me, forgetting your achievements is the easiest thing.

When you should do this: start freshman year (or whenever you read this article).

There are some things I DID do junior year, that are really helping me now. Here’s a list:

Apply to summer programs!

Not only is the experience of attending a summer program rewarding, the process of applying to them is very similar to the college application process. I saw what happened when I didn’t follow deadlines I’d set for myself, which made me a lot more punctual when it came to college applications. I also wrote a lot of essays to apply to various programs, which helped me find my voice. If you’re a rising junior or senior, and need financial help for summer programs, I’d recommend applying to the Joyce Ivy Foundation Summer Scholars Program! As a 2020 summer scholar, I also want to mention that the benefits of being a summer scholar go beyond the scholarships — we get college application advice, peer mentorship, and most importantly, an amazing community of inspirational girls to look up to. If you’re reading this article around the time it was posted, applications are open!

2020 Summer Scholars prepared for AP exams together (virtually)!
When you should do this: varies. Most high school students that participate in summer programs do so during the summer before senior year, but there are tons of sophomore/junior summer programs out there too.

Write down any essay-worthy ideas.

I had a list called “college essays” in my notes app. Every time I thought of something, I pulled the note up and added a bullet point. I can’t emphasize how many of my supplemental essays are based on ideas from there.

This is how I stored my ideas! Nothing too fancy.
When you should do this: start freshman/sophomore year. You likely won’t be using early ideas, but it’s helpful to track notable/interesting moments.

Write a few common app essays.

You likely won’t use these essays for college applications, but like I mentioned above, writing essays helped me find my voice. Plus, you’ll get an idea of your strengths and weaknesses and have time to work on them!

When you should do this: Junior year.

And that’s the list! This list is definitely non-exhaustive and largely based on my experience, so keep an eye out for advice from other JIF bloggers on their experience with the college application process!

Good luck with college applications and online school!

P.S. Please send any cute cat pictures my way!!! I love them!

Shubhra Mishra is a senior at Walnut Hills High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. She enjoys reading (current favorite: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), photography, and baking (carrot cakes, anyone?). She also loves working with kids and occasionally reading kid’s books. Her favorites include some of the classics: The Big Friendly Giant, George’s Marvelous Medicine, and the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series.