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by Kara Courtois, former admissions officer at Barnard College

Amidst the uncertainty of what his first year of college will look like, I got the chance to catch up with a recent high school graduate, Ben. Knowing what he knows now, I asked if he would share any tips for high school students, including specific advice for rising seniors embarking on the college application process. Here’s what Ben had to share.

For students in 9-12:

  1. Take the time to figure out what you are interested in. “My interests have changed for me at least six times this year. Even if you don’t know what you want to do for a future career, it’s really good when you’re touring schools [or researching them virtually] to have a little bit of a target planned out. For example, I was lucky enough to know that I want to study business because I took several electives in high school, participated in DECA, and then did a summer internship for a non-profit.”
  2. Try out a bunch of different activities: “Even if you end up hating the activity and find it’s boring to you, it’s worthwhile to figure that out in high school. All experience is good experience.”
  3. Don’t feel like you need to specialize: “Even though you feel busy and don’t feel you have a lot of time, high school is when you’re not yet bound to any one area; you can explore without burden of paying bills, and there’s not much risk.”
  4. Ask questions on tours (even if they’re virtual). “No matter how stupid the question is, ask. On my visit to Emory, my #1 concern was the social life for the school. I knew the school had a beautiful campus and great academics, but I wasn’t sure if I’d be bored. My mom asked about the Greek life because she had been in a sorority. That one question allowed the tour guide to say, ‘On the surface, the college doesn’t seem like the most exciting school,’ but after the tour, he took us to the Greek houses and showed me I could find a balance of working hard with fun. Had my mom not asked that question that made us look like the most ‘shallow’ people, I wouldn’t have seen the side of the college that I needed to see to fully understand or see my future there. If you have a concern of any kind, just ask because it makes all the difference.”

For rising seniors:

  1. Plan the college application process to the best of your abilities. “Try to schedule deadlines and stick to them. The less that you have to worry about in senior year, the better. I pushed myself enough in the summer to get stuff done that I was able to enjoy fall sports, spend time with friends, and participate in activities I definitely didn’t get to do in the second half of the year because of COVID-19 and quarantine. As annoying as writing those essays is going to be sometimes, it feels SO MUCH BETTER when you’re just done with them! The amount of relief when you press send on those applications is crazy.”
  2. Revise, revise, revise. After you write your essay, print it out, edit it in pen, and read it aloud to yourself and one other person. “Be flexible with the editing, but be comfortable with ripping apart your writing. It’s a process. You’re not going to write a perfect essay the first time. There were paragraphs I wrote in the beginning, not a single word made it to the final draft, and my final essay was better because of that. Give yourself enough time and don’t be too hard on yourself.”
  3. Try to have fun with the process. “There will be some serious questions, but even in those questions, let yourself be exactly who you are in the responses. If you are someone who likes to joke around, write the essays so that it sounds like your genuine voice. Embrace the ridiculous. If a question calls for a ridiculous topic, write the ridiculous topic. As important as the essay part of the process is, not every single essay has to be worthy of winning an award.”
  4. Get letters of recommendation from those who know you best. “Unless you have an amazing relationship with a non-core subject teacher, I would try to stay with a core teacher because their feedback could apply to anything. Focus on the teachers who know your personality the best, not necessarily the class where it’s easy for you. I asked my junior year math teacher even though math wasn’t my best subject. That teacher knew who I was as a person because I really shined in her class, partly because I spoke up a lot vs. many of the seniors who didn’t care as much about doing well.”
  5. Prepare for college interviews but don’t overthink it “Prepare ahead of time by thinking through some potential questions and try to practice with a teacher or parent. Be prepared to ask your own questions that will help you get a true feel for what the college would offer you. If you are nervous, tell the interviewer that you’re nervous. Don’t put the pressure on yourself to be ‘the perfect candidate.’ By being yourself, you will connect with the interviewer and be memorable.”
  6. Try to enjoy senior year. “It will seem overwhelming, but you’re going to be fine. You will finish the essays; they’ll get done. You’ll get into a school. Have fun. Spend time with your friends because senior year goes way too quickly. I definitely know what it’s like to not have the opportunity to spend time with friends (because of COVID-19 shutdowns but senior year is SO MUCH FUN!”

Good luck at Emory, Ben!

College Application Prep 101

Written by Kara Courtois
Kara Courtois is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Kara holds degrees from University of Notre Dame and University of Portland; she completed her graduate coursework at Teachers College, Columbia University and Steinhardt School of Education. Prior to joining College Coach, Kara was a senior admissions officer at Barnard College. Visit our website to learn more about Kara Courtois.