College Connections: Advice for Rising Seniors and Juniors

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Do you ever wonder what is the “magic number” of colleges to apply to, or curious how some seniors make balancing schoolwork and the college application process seem manageable? I reached out to two current seniors, Sophia Dykstra (’21) and James Lowe (’21), and Casady’s Director of College Counseling, Ms. Kisselle, to get some helpful advice, as well as suggestions for what rising seniors and juniors can do over the summer to best prepare for college applications. 

For the Class of 2022, summer is a time to relax and recharge after a busy junior year filled with plenty of testing (PSAT, ACT, SAT, APs, and final exams), and it is also a time to prepare for applying to college in the upcoming fall. During the summer, rising seniors need to take the SAT or ACT, as well as research and refine a college list by visiting colleges virtually or in-person (if possible). The Class of 2023 can also check out prospective colleges and even start preparing to take the SAT and/or ACT. James Lowe shared some wonderful advice for what students can do over the summer as he suggested, “Do something that you are passionate about. Junior year is a lot for most students, but it is always nice to be able to say, ‘I did this thing over the summer, and I was passionate about it.’ Volunteering or passion projects are great ways to show colleges that you will be a good addition to the community.”

Due to the ongoing pandemic, many colleges are choosing to be test-optional for the Class of 2022. For a current list of test-optional colleges, please refer to the following list at https://fairtest.org/university/optional. Although many colleges are test-optional, Ms. Kisselle still recommends taking the SAT or ACT at least once. For students who have already taken the SAT or ACT and are applying to a test-optional college, Ms. Kisselle believes it may make sense for students to submit their score to some schools on their college list, but not others, and the student’s College Counselor can help decide what would be the best course of action. According to Ms. Kisselle, “Test-optional colleges have made it very clear that students will not be disadvantaged if they do not include a test score with their application materials.” 

In addition to taking the ACT and/or SAT, it is important for students to do some research on colleges they intend to apply to in order for them to make sure it is a good fit and a place they want to call home for the next four years. The best way to learn about a college is to visit in person while students are on-campus. However, as the pandemic has postponed on-campus tours, most colleges have created virtual campus tours and information sessions. Sophia Dykstra participated in these webinars and highly recommends them, as she advised, “I made sure to stay up-to-date on the Zoom webinars and virtual tours going on for all of the colleges I applied to. I think that it was a great way to get more information about the school, regardless of whether I had visited or not. Often, the colleges had panels with current students available for questions.”

In order to determine if a college is a good fit, Ms. Kisselle suggests, “First, think about your priorities. Is it important for you to be on a traditional college campus? Do you want freshmen housing that is near campus dining, athletic venues, etc.? Do you care about the architecture of the campus buildings? If a college offers a virtual program beyond the standard campus tour, sign up for it! Hearing from faculty members or current students can really give you a feel for the school.” Sophia Dykstra also recommends learning about campus life from recent Casady graduates, as she said, “I also reached out to some Casady graduates to hear about their perspectives.” Our College Counselors are great resources for getting students connected with recent Casady alumni.

Through campus tours, information sessions, and speaking with current students and recent graduates, it is possible to narrow down one’s college list to a manageable number. The “magic number” of colleges to apply to differs for each student, but it is important for all students to remember that each application involves multiple essays that require a substantial amount of time. James Lowe applied to six colleges and said, “My biggest suggestion for the number is to find a few schools that you are really interested in, a few backups in case you have terrible luck, and then have fun with it. But the number is up to the person, I think.” Sophia Dykstra applied to eight colleges (and was impressively admitted to all eight!), and Sophia shared, “I think the sweet spot for college applications is around 6-12 depending on the student. For me, eight was the perfect number. I had enough schools I applied to to feel secure that I would get acceptance letters, but not too many schools where I felt overwhelmed by supplemental essays.”

When I asked James for advice in creating a college list, he recommended to “make sure you don’t waste time and stress over applying to colleges if you don’t want to go or need a potential back up. Also, a back up school doesn’t necessarily need to be a school you feel only decently about. My back ups were all schools I could see myself happy at, and I think that is important for people to remember.”

How important is it to spend time during the summer before one’s senior year preparing for the college application process? James Lowe warned that “The most challenging part about senior year is balancing college applications, school work, and life. It becomes increasingly difficult to stay on track during the year, so it is important to focus, but also get some rest for the next day.” Sophia Dykstra revealed the best thing she did to help with the college application process was starting early, as she said, “I highly recommend doing as much as you can before the school year begins, so that when deadlines come around, you don’t feel like you’re running out of time.”

This summer, the Class of 2022 will participate in a mandatory College Application Boot Camp that will be held August 1-4, 2021. In May, rising seniors will sign-up for one of those four days to attend. During the program, Dr. Hubbell and Ms. Kisselle will focus on completing the Common App, and each senior will meet individually with a College Counselor. Ms. Kisselle recommends students prepare “by working on the Common App over the summer, brainstorming some possible essay topics, and refining their college list.”

Next school year, the Class of 2023 will participate in a new class, College Counseling Seminar, during the spring semester of 2022. This new class will take the place of the college seminar series that has previously been offered to juniors outside of class. Due to the new American Design class, Ms. Kisselle shares that there will now be space in students’ schedules to offer the College Counseling Seminar to juniors “at least 7 or 8 times over the course of the semester.”

Most juniors and seniors have busy schedules filled with work inside and outside of school, and while junior year is filled with testing, senior year is filled with applications. However, amidst the college preparation, students should pursue their passions and make some great memories. James Lowe stressed the importance of being authentic: “I think the most important thing I did was doing the things that I love to do. This allowed me to present myself in a unique way that truly represented who I was.” Carpe diem, Cyclones!