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Tips for Soon-to-be High School Seniors

Scripps Institution of Oceanography (UC San Diego) in 2011, taken from the Birch Aquarium. By Invertzoo on Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0 Int'l.

We thought this school year would never end, but the last day is almost here! A huge congratulations to all our graduating high school seniors—this was a crazy year to finish your K-12 education, and you handled all the challenges with aplomb! Best of luck to all the 2021 graduates as you go off to accomplish great things! And congratulations to all the juniors out there on finishing what is often the most difficult year of high school, academically speaking.

Most of our blog posts this year have centered on advice for current seniors. But now that the school year is winding down, and this year’s eleventh graders are gearing up to start their senior year, we’ve rounded up some advice from former and graduating seniors about what they wish they had known at the start of their senior year. Their thoughts will provide valuable insight on the college application process, while reassuring rising seniors that the process doesn’t have to be stressful but can be very enlightening!

Do your research

First, I asked our lovely seniors what helped them the most when they were applying to college, whether it was starting applications early, asking for outside advice, or anything else. Lexine, a high school senior heading to UC Santa Cruz this fall, said, “What helped me most… was looking at my stats and which colleges would be my safeties, matches, and reaches, and then navigating videos, images, and the colleges’ websites to try and narrow down which I would apply to.” She added, “The easiest part of the college process for me was choosing which colleges I would apply to because I already had an idea of the kinds of schools I could see myself at.”

Jolene, a current freshman at UC San Diego, agreed. She also said, “I think the most helpful thing for me was probably talking to people that had experience applying to college to get their insight. Talk to your teachers and anyone who can help you who has experience and who knows you. And I wasn’t able to visit colleges because of COVID… but I think that would have helped.” Jolene also urges soon-to-be seniors to take advantage of any college application workshops that their high schools might be holding. “One time,” she said, “these [admissions officers] came to the school and they read through sample college essays and gave feedback [on them], and I thought that was really helpful to get feedback from an experienced admissions officer.”

Start essays early to allow plenty of time

Gerard, another 2021 grad who will be attending Colorado State University, also listed some of the things he did that he found useful: “Starting early, getting help on essays (help with choosing prompts and what to write about and having someone help edit), and having a counselor to lay out all the steps.”

Lexine remembers that drafting her essays was “unexpectedly difficult,” namely because the prompts all had “a limit for the amount of words you could use to basically show who you are as a person. I would tell both my younger self and upcoming seniors to start the application process earlier so you can really fine tune the essays and have plenty of time to think.”

Geisel Library at UC San Diego in 2016. By Fastily on Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0 Intl.

Geisel Library (UC San Diego) at sunset in 2016. By Fastily on Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0 Intl.

Jolene wishes she had started her essays earlier so that she could have had time to take a break and look back at the essays “to see if I still liked them or if I had only really liked them when I was writing them. Every college needed supplementals, which is normal, but I applied to way too many [colleges] so I always had so many essays to finish. And I wish I had taken more time on the ‘Why This School?’ essay, because I… felt like I didn’t know what to say because I had written so many that, at this point, I didn’t really know what I wanted in a college so it was difficult to say specifically why I wanted one university.” I would reiterate Jolene’s suggestion to develop a manageable college list because those supplemental essays can really add up! Looking back, I did not narrow my list enough and ended up having to write thirty-plus supplementals.

Jolene also advises next year’s seniors to allow themselves plenty of time to make sure your essays can be as polished and well thought-out as you would like. She has a useful tip for gathering essay ideas early on: “What I did to make it a little easier was I wrote all of the Common App topics on these big posters and I taped them to my closet door. And anytime I had an idea for them, I would just kind of jot it down on the poster. It gave me something to start with so it didn’t feel as daunting to just sit in front of my computer and write.”

Pay attention to details (and check your email)

“Double- and triple-check the due date for your applications,” Jolene advises. “[For one of my applications,] I had to actually email the school and request that they still take my late application because I had gotten the date incorrect. Just make sure to check all of your due dates,” she added. “That, and just making a calendar for yourself is really important to stay organized.”

As soon as they click “submit” on their last college application, most people are so burnt out that they never want to think about college again (at least until decisions start coming out!). But, as Jolene recommends, “Check your emails! Check the emails from colleges. I know you get so many, but it is so easy to miss the information from the useful ones in the colossal landslide of college junk emails. I missed one interview opportunity I would have loved to take because it was buried in all the other emails and I just completely missed it. So constantly check your emails.”

In the same vein, Gerard suggests, “Once you’ve turned in all of your applications, you still aren’t done. Start looking for scholarships, make sure you look at your email every day. Talk to people about your options. Many scholarship application deadlines are on March 1st and they require essays.”

“I guess my biggest piece of advice would be to actually not really stress about this because, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter,” Jolene concludes. “I think it can get so competitive and so cut-throat and everyone has a lot of anxiety about where they’re going to go to college. But it doesn’t actually matter where you end up; it’s just what you do with where you go and the experience that you make out of it.”

Thank you, Jolene, Lexine, and Gerard, for your words of wisdom! Senior year is a stressful time, as they can all attest. But with some planning ahead and a zen outlook, the whole college process doesn’t have to be as anxiety-inducing as it’s often portrayed to be.

Best of luck to this year’s juniors getting ready for their last year of high school. And congratulations again to the Class of 2021 on their imminent graduation! All of our best wishes for everyone starting twelfth grade or their freshman year of college this fall. In the meantime, have a wonderful summer!


  1. Denise Wadsworth

    Thank you, Ava, for this wonderful article. College is about making connections and landing a job that brings you joy (and pays the bills).

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