15 Tips to Own Your Senior Year of High School

Senioritis is the coined term that is loosely defined as the self-sabotaging disease that inflicts thousands of high school seniors across the country each year. Its symptoms often include a lackadaisical approach to school, the feeling of being overwhelmed with assignments and college applications, and an intense desire for the year to end that can tame even the students with a track record for being overzealous.

As an 11th and 12th grade teacher and a college essay advisor for 4 years, I started to notice the patterns of the students who held themselves together–the ones who maintain their grades, their positive attitudes, and their work ethics from their junior to their senior year. I separated these patterns from the students who, despite being on top of their game for the previous 3 consecutive years, lost their momentum.

A lot of adults will say that your junior year of high school will be your most challenging and the most important. They base this off the idea that you may be tackling a number of Advance Placement (AP) courses or a more challenging curriculum. This is also the year that you take the SAT or ACT, and if you’re involved in extra-curricular activities, you may choose to take on leadership roles. For some of you, you may also have an after-school or weekend job.

Whew.

But, your senior year presents its own challenges. Some of you may still have all of the aforementioned work plus you’re adding college and scholarship applications into the mix. Since it’s your last year of high school, you may also have the desire to be more social, which often conflicts with your busy schedule.

It may be tempting to throw in the towel, and to cut down on your efforts, but your decisions in your senior year can directly influence the rest of your life. Not applying to a school you might excel at may be a temptation if you don’t feel like studying for the SATs again or don’t have enough time to tackle the supplemental essays on their application.

Therefore, I’d like to share some of my observations and advice with you to keep your motivation and momentum, and to help you go after your dreams in the least stressful way possible. This article is especially for students who are planning to apply to college.

1) Figure out what you’re looking for and make a game plan

Who are you? This is a deep question, and you should spend some time answering it.

An easy way to pick a college is go off what other people say about particular schools. “That’s the best community college,” or “that school has a great reputation,” or “I went there, and I loved it!” The problem with this is that, while knowing a school’s reputation is great, that really doesn’t tell you much about how you’ll fit in there.

Are you someone who will drown in the sea of students in massive lecture halls? Or, are you okay with having small classes where you might need to participate more? Do you plan to live on campus, or are you going to commute? If the former is true, how far are you willing to live away from home? If the latter is true, how far will you be willing to travel? Do you want to live in the city, the suburbs, or a rural area? Are there clubs and sports that interest you at the school? Are there majors or programs that peak your interest? How many schools are you going to apply to? What’s the price range of the schools you can afford? Will you work while in school?

This may seem like question overload, but it’s important to make a game plan. Figure out what you’re looking for and why. The more you plan in the beginning, the less complicated the application process will be. You’ll be able to safely say, “this school is one I should apply to while this other one doesn’t meet my criterion.”

 

2) Research schools early in your junior year

The earlier you begin to research colleges, the better. And, I don’t use the term research lightly. Choosing a college is a big decision, and a lot of thought needs to go into it.

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Collect brochures from colleges and go to their website to look through their course offerings. See if professors from the school have videos on YouTube. Watch them. Look through the internship opportunities and affiliations the school may have. Gather data on class size, graduation rates, tuition, clubs, and housing. The more you learn about the school, the more educated decisions you’ll be able to make.

 

3) Create a binder for your potential options

The best thing I ever did before I interviewed for a teaching job was to create a binder that included all my lesson plans, legal documents, and letters of recommendation. I felt confident walking into the interview because if the interviewer asked me a question, I had evidence with me to back up my answer.

Use the same strategy for your college applications–especially if you’re someone who is particularly disorganized. As soon as you start collecting information on potential schools, organize a binder. You can organize it based off reach/safety schools, commuter/away schools, programs that interest you, application deadlines, or any other way that makes sense to you. Include brochures, print outs from the websites, and notes from your discussions with your parents and guidance counselor.

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You should also keep a calendar at the front of your binder to keep track of application deadlines and which type of essays you’ll need for your application.

 

4) Look for scholarships in your junior year

There are MILLIONS of dollars up for grabs in scholarship money. MILLIONS. And, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to obtain them.

There are plenty of scholarships that you’ll qualify for…simply spend some time looking for them.

Here’s bonus tip #1: look for scholarships that require essays. Why? Well, did you just groan when I implied that you should write an essay? Exactly.

Fewer students apply to scholarships that require essays because they don’t want to write essays. What does this mean? This means that there is less competition.

Bonus tip #2: if you plan this ahead of time, you can usually find a way to write a scholarship essay that doubles as an application essay. I did this and won a $1000 scholarship from Burger King. I didn’t have to write an additional essay–I simply planned ahead.

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Student loans are an incredible way to pay for college, but trust me on this: you really don’t want to send a huge chunk of your hard-earned paycheck every month to Sallie Mae. Plus, that $70,000 you borrow turns into a $100,000 payback quite quickly with high interest levels.

Bonus tip#3: add the scholarship info into the binder!

 

5) Write your admission essays/scholarship essays over the summer

If you’ve kept up with the advice above, you’ll have a basic knowledge of the schools you plan on applying to and the types of essays they require.

College applications get piled onto your workload in your senior year. And if you go into your senior year thinking you’ll have time to relax, you’ll be surprised by how much work you actually have to get done.

Therefore, at the bare minimum, begin your admission essays over the summer. Learn how to write them: either take a course, hire an advisor, or do a self-study. One of the easiest ways to ruin your college applications is to take the college essay too lightly. It’s likely you’ve never learned how to write for a college admission audience or how to write a personal narrative. The more competitive the school, the more important it will be to have a stellar admission essay.

 

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6) Get a job, internship, or volunteer position over the summer

The more experience you have to put on your activity list, the more appealing you’ll be to admission officers. Plus, a little extra cash is always a plus.

Maintaining a steady job shows that you have a work ethic. An internship shows that you are willing to learn from others. A volunteer position shows that you will be helpful on campus. Spend your summer making money, learning a skill, or helping others. You’ll not only benefit from experienced gained, you also might make connections to people who may help you with future opportunities.

7) Get to know your guidance counselor

I’ve worked with and befriended many college guidance counselors, and they really want you to end up in a school that is a great fit for you. However, it’s hard to guide a student when you don’t really know much about him outside of his GPA and standardized test scores.

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Do yourself a favor, and begin a conversation with your guidance counselor. Send him or her an email that tells them a bit about your future goals and your current interests, and ask a question. Make an appointment to meet your counselor in your junior year when he or she isn’t overwhelmed with helping seniors.

The more your counselor knows you, the more he or she can help you make good decisions for your future. In addition, many colleges require a letter of recommendation from a guidance counselor. The more she knows about you, the better your letter will be.

 

8) Attend college nights and college fairs with your parents

Your school set these up for a reason. The more you learn about the college application process, the better off you are.

College fairs typically have admission officers who come to tell you a little more about their schools and who can answer any questions you may have about the process and how they judge candidates. Introduce yourself to the admission officers from the schools you are applying to, briefly tell them about your interest in their school, and ask a question that they haven’t already answered.

It may also benefit you to frequent college fairs or panels if several are offered at your school. Proximity is power, and if you have several positive interactions with the admission officer from your dream school, you may have a higher chance of being remembered when they get to your application.

9) Talk about finances with your parents

Unless your family is particularly well-off and has made the decision to pay for your college tuition in full, it’s likely that you’ll need to plan for how you’ll pay for college.

Attend financial aid night with your parents to learn about government grants and student loans. Ask questions and keep detailed notes in your binders.

An open line of communication with your parents is often the best way to tackle finances. If you’re going away to school, it’s likely that you’ll have to live on campus as per school policy for at least your freshman year. Consider how much it will cost to live off campus and to skip the school’s meal plan in the subsequent years to save yourself some money.

Think ahead: is it likely you’ll go to graduate school? Who will pay your loans if you don’t secure a job right away? How much will your loans cost each month when you graduate? Where will you live after college? Are there ways to make money during college to help pay your tuition?

The earlier you have these conversations, the better. 

 

10) Keep an organized calendar of deadlines

Although I mentioned this above under the binder heading, I think it’s important enough to deserve its own category.

Do not rely on anyone except yourself to stay on top of your applications. No one is going to sit over your shoulders in college to direct you or to keep you organized, so start to transition to independence now.

Make a detailed calendar of school application deadlines, college nights, financial aid nights, and college guidance appointments. Schedule in time to revise your essays, write your activity list, and to fill out your online applications.

This is also really good practice for college. In college, each of your professors will provide you with a syllabus of assignments, topics, and test dates, and it will be your job to organize your time accordingly.

 

11) Visit schools when you can

If you have the opportunity to visit a college campus, do so. Brochures can only give you so much information, and they are tailored to get students to apply. That means that a lot of (if not most of) the pictures are staged to appeal to potential applicants.

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When I visited college campuses, I knocked off one of the schools from my list because I didn’t find the students to be particularly welcoming. The campus was cold, literally and figuratively.

When I visited Binghamton University in New York, my top choice, I felt at home. I envisioned myself there, and it helped me to feel more confident about my choice to go there.

Lastly, take a tour and then do your own tour. The tour guides will feature the best parts about the campus, and they will be able to give you insights since they are students themselves. However, they are also trained to show the positive aspects of the school–just like the brochures. If you have time, take a walk through the campus, drive or walk around off-campus to see what surrounds the college, take a look at off-campus housing options, and eat at one of the dining halls (Bonus tip: if the campus uses a meal plan, chances are, you’ll pay more if you’re paying with cash or credit. Offer to pay a student in cash in exchange for him placing your meal on his meal plan. Many students will gladly accept this!)

 

12) Seek advice from trusted sources

Parents, friends, and family members will love to give you advice on your college applications, but tread carefully. Well-meaning advice can also be misleading advice.

Talk to admission officers, guidance counselors, or college-planning/essay advisors for the insider’s scoop. Learn from those who’ve done this before and keep notes of their advice.

You can also reach out to current students at the universities you wish to apply to, students who aren’t invested in getting you to go there (i.e. tour guides). Ask them what they like about the campus, the classes, and dorm life. Ask them what they don’t like, or if they would have made a different decision knowing what they know now. Their answers may surprise you, and they also may help you.

13) Be mindful of your stress levels and find appropriate ways to address them

College applications are stressful–if you let them be. The more you organize your time and stick to a predictable schedule, the less likely you are to feel that dreaded overwhelming feeling.

Be mindful of your stress levels during your junior and senior year. Take breaks when you need to–go for a walk, listen to an inspiring Ted Talk on motivation, visualize yourself finishing your applications, meditate, journal, work on a fun project. Learn how you relax and how you alleviate stress.

14) Make time for your friends and for fun–be present

On that same note, make sure you have some fun in your senior year. Hang out with your friends in non-school related activities. Find a balance between your school and social life. If you organize your time well, you’ll be ahead of the game, and you’ll find you have more weekends to socialize because you got things done early.

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You may not realize it now, but your senior year will go by quickly and before you know it, you’ll be graduating college wondering where the time went. Spend time appreciating the present moment, and spend time appreciating your friendships. Many relationships dwindle when friends go on to different colleges, so cherish the memories you’re making now.

 

15) Apply early when possible and let go when you send you applications in

Do you have a school in mind that you definitely want to attend? Consider applying early.

Early action or early decision will help you know where you stand at your dream schools sooner rather than later. They also give you the incentive to get your applications done early, which leaves you more time for other activities.

Lastly, let go, once you click the send button. Do your best with your applications and trust that you’ll end up exactly where you’re meant to be.

Also, don’t take “maybe” as a final answer. If you’re wait-listed at a school you’d really like to attend, meet with a guidance counselor to craft a letter to the admission officer expressing that you’re still very interested. This helps to separate you from the other wait-listed candidates. Should you get rejected from your dream school, you can also look into transferring. Spend a year at a different school, and find out what grades you need to transfer. It might give you more motivation to do exceptionally well, and if you choose to attend a community college, you may also be able to transfer a lot of credits and save yourself money!

Happy Writing!

This blog was written by Jaclyn Corley, Founder of The College Essay Captain and digital course creator of College Essay Playbook

The College Essay Captain helps teens overcome their fears and limiting beliefs around writing college application essays, so they are free to authentically share their stories with admissions teams.