It's not just your imagination -- applying for college is harder than ever! I didn't graduate that long ago... but it's already twice as hard to get into Stanford now than it was back then.
Which is why it doesn't surprise me when high school juniors and rising seniors often feel like they're "already behind" in April or May!
So... is there something you could or should be doing right now to make yourself a more competitive candidate for college?
Here's what I tell my education consulting and college counseling students:
Your junior spring grades matter, but they are not the be-all, end-all.
Today's top colleges have realized that students are a lot more than numbers, which is why the UCs have doubled the number of essays they require, and more and more colleges are going test-optional (you can submit your SAT and ACT scores, but you don't have to) or test-blind (they won't even look at your test scores).
This is great news, because the students who are going to turn into tomorrow's thought leaders are going to be the best, most resilient, most passionate problem solvers, not the best test-takers. Success in the digital age means being able to do something a computer can't.
That said... yeah, the grades still do matter. Now is not the ideal time to burn out or lose focus.
So right now, I don't think it necessarily makes sense to be thinking about your essays. Just focus on your coursework --
And, for your and your mental health and your transcript's sake, GET ENOUGH SLEEP.
Seriously. You can spend all night studying, and you're only going to remember, like, 20% of it if you're exhausted. Brains work best when they are well-rested.
If you're like most modern teenagers, getting enough sleep, even just for these two or three months, is going to require some self-control on your part.
It means deciding on a bedtime for yourself, and trying your best to stick to it.
It means planning ahead, and ideally not procrastinating too often (though obviously some procrastination is inevitable).
And... it probably means changing your screen habits.
To get restful and productive rest, you should stop looking at screens, whether your phone or tablet or computer, at least an hour before bedtime. I know that's not always possible, since so much coursework happens online, now. But, if you plan ahead, you should be able to give your brain time to wind down before bed. Even if it's only just for these few months.
At the very least, you should be using a nighttime setting on your screens, so that there is more red light and less blue light.
Beyond that, here is a checklist of things to do and consider as you approach the end of your junior year:
1. Think about who is going to be writing your recommendations, and do what you can to reconnect with those recommenders.
As I wrote in The Two BIGGEST Mistakes Seniors Make on Their College Apps (Hint: They Have NOTHING To Do With Essays):
The other major mistake that students make on their college applications is submitting "good" recommendations.
This is why it is so important to touch base. Even if they're not currently teaching you, you can still swing by their classroom to tell them about your summer plans, and perhaps remind them how something you learned in their class influenced your decision to pursue this summer abroad program or internship or job.
Additionally, many schools give students a form to fill out to help the recommenders with the recs. And... many students totally half-ass this small task.
Put thought into it. This is your chance to influence what is said about you, which matters as much as what you're going to say about yourself in your essays this summer or fall.
Not sure how to get started with this? I've helped students figure out how to develop strong mentorships, and I've helped students get the most out of their About Me Cheat Sheet. Contact Me if you'd like individualized help.
2. Make a GREAT summer plan.
I promise you. Brown is going to be MUCH more impressed if you spend your summer working on a guided reading, research project, or purposeful study abroad...
... Than if you spend the summer studying for the SAT and slightly improving your score.
Put some thought into what you're doing and why -- and remember: this could end up being the topic of one of your essays next fall! For more information, check out How to Write Epic and Unforgettable Service Trip or Teen Travel Tour Essays and Here's What Colleges REALLY Think About Volunteer Work.
3. If you're indicating an intended major... make sure you have some experience in that or a similar field.
Don't say you want to major in computer science, if your schools offers computer science and you didn't take it. That's going to look weird and insincere.
If you plan on indicating an interest in a computer science degree, and you haven't take computer science, you should spend at least a little time on it this summer. Go above and beyond to find and create opportunities for yourself, because going to Stanford doesn't mean you'll get a Stanford education, and top schools want to make sure you're going to make the most of the opportunity they give you.
Want help coming up with a killer summer plan that will help you stand out when you apply to college? Contact Me!
4. DO THINGS FOR FUN.
What is something you do in your life, just for fun?
No matter how busy you get, you should still prioritize things like having dinner with your family, building models, playing ultimate frisbee, climbing trees, swimming in the river, or whatever other hobby, interest, or pastime takes your breath away.
If you don't, you're going to be miserable -- and it's a lot harder to do well in school when you're struggling with misery and depression. (But it's definitely possible. Learn more here.)
But here's the other thing.
Part of why I'm good at what I do is because I sincerely believe everyone has a genius inside of them, whether they realize it or not. Everyone has a question inside of them no one has ever asked before, or a problem they can solve better than anyone else. Maybe it's super niche... but it's still there.
And, in my experience, genius and innovation doesn't come from studying really hard all the time.
It comes from falling in love with surfing, and realizing there's no good way to film your adventures. (Like the GoPro guy -- he was literally a surf bum for years after graduating from UCSD.)
It comes from spending countless hours on origami, then realizing the same principles could be used in design and architecture.
It comes from the things you do because you love them.
So whether happiness or success is your goal, it makes sense to have interests outside of your goal-focused, career-oriented pursuits.
Thoughts? Questions? Fill out the form below, and I'll get back to you as soon as I can!
Eva Glasrud completed her B.A. and M.A. at Stanford. She is now a college counselor and life coach for gifted youth.