American Universities mainly use a holistic approach to applications. That means they look at the whole student and not just his/her grades and test scores. The other activities in your life can influence your acceptance. By planning and starting early, you can assemble a strong application to increase your chances of acceptance. Of course, different programs will be interested in different aspects.
Many American university applications close in January/February to be admitted the following September. While it might appear that you can start during a January term, this is a more difficult path and also means that you won’t be starting classes with the vast majority of students. Part of university is engaging with others, and that is easiest when you start with everyone else. The timeline below is geared toward a September start.
While many students don’t start planning until grade 11, they are rushing to complete all the standardized tests as well boosting their grades.
Plan your extra-curricular activities; Choose activities that you are really interested in investing your time into for the long term, but don’t be afraid to dabble.
Start researching schools-there are dozens of websites and places to find information about great schools, but don’t limit yourself to the famous universities. There are plenty of excellent universities in the U.S. where you can invest in an excellent education.
Personal Interest-The biggest mistake I see with students is that they don’t have any personal passions or interests. Remember that interesting people are interested in something. They develop knowledge and insight because they are self-motivated to read about their interest. It doesn’t have to be something flashy or particularly academic. It could be teapots or astronomy, antiques or pop music of the 80s, Coco Chanel or muscle cars. The only really important thing is that it MUST be something that you really enjoy and are self-motivated to explore.
Volunteer Work-Some countries require students to complete a certain number of hours of volunteer work in order to graduate, while others do not. Either way volunteer work can be an excellent experience and allow you to gain perspective on the world. However, you should look at volunteer work as more than a means to an end. If you are interested in medicine, you should be volunteering at a medical clinic or a research lab, or if you are interested in business volunteer at a non-profit organization in their office. Try to match your efforts to your interests.
Networking-A crucial aspect of an application is the teacher recommendations. You want detailed and personal recommendations, but that can only happen if you have had relationship with your teachers, beyond being a “good student”. A teacher who you meet in grade 9 might become a mentor that will help you throughout high school and will be able to evaluate how much you have matured throughout high school.
Summer before Grade 10
Don’t let your summers go to waste. Plan to use them to do volunteer work, have a job, jump ahead in your courses. Applications frequently ask what you did with your summers and you want to be able to have an answer besides…watched Netflix on the couch and hung out with my friends (not that there’s anything wrong with doing so, on occasion)
Start SAT/ACT prep– this may seem early, but slow and steady wins the race. By starting in grade 10, you can identify any weaknesses and correct them. Just don’t be too hard on yourself. This is a test designed for grade 12 students and you are NOT expected to get above 1200 right away. Take a practice test for each of the ACT and SAT and see which one you prefer before investing a lot of time and money. Reading, Writing and Math skills are much more important than test strategy, so focus on developing those skills.
Start taking on leadership positions-Your application will ask you about your role as a leader in your extra-curricular activities, so if you have been sitting on the sidelines, it is time to start taking on more responsibility. You don’t need to be the Editor of the Newspaper or President of the student council (yet), but you should be more actively involved.
Decide on schools and programs-By the end of grade 10 you should have a list of schools and programs that you are interested in. This may seem early, but by knowing your goal, you can make sure that you are taking the right combination of courses in order to be eligible. If you want to go to a design school like RISD or Parsons, you should be working on your portfolio, so that you don’t find yourself trying to come up with 25 excellent designs in the month before application submissions. You will also be able to identify your score goals for SAT and ACT.
Summer before Grade 11
See summer of grade 9 with one addition. If you have a weakness in a subject that you will be taking in grade 11 it is now time to work on that subject this summer. For example, if you are planning to go into medicine, but grade 10 chemistry was weak and you are taking grade 11 chemistry next year– start this summer. Your Grade 11 marks are key to your application and you want them to be a high as possible. So take advantage of the extra time you have during the summer.
October-Take your first real SAT/ACT. As long as your score is within 200 points (SAT) and 5 points (ACT) of your goal. Gain some experience and take a real test. If over the summer, you were nowhere near your goal score, you need to find a new way to study. Don’t keep doing the same thing and expect a new result. If you have been with a tutor, suggest trying a different system or if you have been self-studying, try a tutor or a class.
Plan your SAT Subject tests– If your universities don’t require subject tests (Hurrah!), you should still think about taking them to prove your proficiency. Some subject tests are only offered a couple times per year and so you need to plan ahead to take them. If you plan on applying during early admissions, you want to have your SAT Subject tests completed by October of grade 12.
AP Exams– These exams are only given once a year, and so to be able to submit an AP exam grade on your application you need to take the test at the end of grade 11. This means that you need to plan ahead. If your school doesn’t offer AP courses, you can still self-study and arrange to take the exam through the college board website. However don’t leave this to the last minute. Apply and start studying early.
Take a TOEFL test– If you are not attending high school in the United States, some schools will ask you to submit a TOEFL score. Some will waive this if your reading score is high enough, but each school’s policy is different. You want at least a 90 for most schools with specific requirements for your reading and writing scores. Scores are valid for 2 years after the test date, so plan to take it during the spring of grade 11, so the score will be valid throughout grade 12 and into your first year of university.
March/May Take SAT/ACT Ideally you should take your final SAT/ACT in the spring of grade 11. By having your test completed during this time, you will free up your energy in the fall to focus on SAT subject tests and Applications.
Summer before Grade 12
Start writing College Application essays. Set up an account with www.commonapp.org, BUT wait until after the August reset or else you will lose your data. However, you can start your essays early. Start by making a list of all the essays you will need to write. Schools that accept the common app will expect one 650 word essay based on one of 5 prompts AND a supplementary essay (or 4!). So students who are applying to 8 schools will be writing 10-15 essays in total. This is why starting early is a great idea. The amount of data entry into the common app and other applications can be daunting to plan to do a little at a time. Also the application will ask about your parents and siblings’ university experience.
If you just weren’t ready for your final SAT/ACT tests in the spring, spend time pushing yourself to get those scores as high as possible. The fall of grade 12 is a hectic and stressful time between the increased difficulty of grade 12 classes, applications and completing testing, many students get burned out quickly which is why it is optimal to have completed some of the testing in grade 11.
September-Ask teachers for recommendations- Ask early and give your teachers lots of time (4-6 weeks) to complete your recommendations. remember back in grade nine when I told you to start developing relationships with your teachers? Well hopefully you have 2-4 teachers on whom you can count to write you a stellar recommendation. Your school’s counselor will also be sending a recommendation, so make sure that he/she is on your side. I have had experience with an excellent student with stellar scores had her application weakened by an unflattering letter from a counselor who just didn’t like the student.
September Complete Application essays-complete your essays and tuck them away for a couple of weeks, so that you can look at them with fresh eyes and decide which ones are the strongest and which ones need more work.
October Take final SAT/ACT -you will also have the opportunity to retake the tests in November, December and January, BUT it is better to be finished with your testing by October if possible
October Submit Early Applications– Pay attention to whether you are applying to an Early action or Early Decision school and don’t violate the rules. You want to submit at least 1 week before the deadline. I have had students wait until the last day and have their application not go through because of the increased traffic during the final 24 hours before the deadline. Giving yourself a week will allow the application to e submitted and you to get an email for the school acknowledging your application.
November 30– University of California Schools’ deadline is November 30. So don’t think you will be able to apply in December or January.
November/December-Complete any SAT Subject tests, take the SAT/ACT once more if you still need to boost your score BUT most importantly make sure that your grades are optimal. Your grades are the most important aspect of your application, so they should take priority.
December Submit Regular Applications-If you didn’t get accepted during early admissions, you need to submit these. Try to submit before Christmas to avoid the rush and do be considered first if the school has rolling admissions (This means that they accept students as they come across them rather than looking at all the applications first.)
January– BREATHE- but don’t relax. Keep your grades up and even improve them if you can. Keep participating/competing and expanding your resume. If you are wait-listed, being able to show your continued dedication will help you gain acceptance. So don’t think of Winter/Spring of grade 12 as vacation time. It’s not.