A step-by-step guide for college preparation and applications

Photo: Canva graphic by Maddie Qualls, The Puma Prensa

by Maddie Qualls, editor

The college application process has left me jaded–maybe taken years off of my life. Juniors, you’re next. Aren’t you excited? Well, I am here to hopefully make it a little easier for everyone (except for you, seniors, but good job–you’re done!). I will tell you everything that I wish I had known, and because preparing for college is a seemingly life-long task, I am going to break it down into pieces of advice for each grade level.


I know college might feel like a lifetime away, but you’re going into your sophomore year pretty soon, and time moves faster than you think. So, if you plan to go to college, I have a few tips that might make your life down the line a bit more straightforward. I know this seems obvious, but if you haven’t already, you’ll want to start building your college resume. Look for clubs to join, but only join them if you’re actually interested. It is better to be dedicated to a few clubs than to occasionally show up to a million. This will help you get leadership positions later on, which is impressive to college admissions officers. And it’s never too late to join. I know it might feel frightening, but I promise clubs always want more members. Also, if there are no clubs that interest you, make your own! It is not as hard as it sounds. Get a few people together and start your club next school year by getting the forms from the business office–you’ve got this. It shows a lot of initiative to start your own club, especially when it’s something you are passionate about. 

But you also need to show initiative outside of school: Look into community service opportunities. I know you might be rolling your eyes right now because everyone tells you to do community service, but with the highly competitive admissions scene, it is highly recommended. Also, remember to do something that you are actually interested in. Community service doesn’t have to be boring! And when you are passionate about the community service you do, you’ll stick with it, and commitment to one organization is something that colleges value. Also, if you can, and haven’t already, start now: You’ll be able to say you did community service for four years, which proves sincere dedication.

You should also start thinking about your future–I know, I know, another eyeroll. But it’s a good idea to look into potential majors because there are so many options that no one talks about. The major that I chose is something that I literally had never heard of when I was a freshman. You can take a look at the offered majors on college websites. Of course, you may change your mind on what you want to major in by the time you are applying to college, but it is helpful to narrow it down and know the general direction you are headed, such as the humanities, physical sciences, life sciences, mathematics, etc. This will help you decide what courses and extracurricular activities align with your interests and goals.

OK, freshmen, that’s all I’ll bother you with for now, but you can read on to see how you can prepare in the next few years.


Sophomores, you are about to enter what many people call the hardest year of high school. Most of the advice for freshmen applies to you, too. Keep up with extracurriculars, stay involved with school activities, and start thinking about what you want in the future. 

However, there is more for you to think about. As you probably know and dread, junior year is the start of SAT and ACT season. If you plan to take them, there are a few steps you can take to make it slightly less miserable. For SAT takers, you can take the PSAT at the beginning of next year. Don’t worry about it too much–most people do not study for this. It can help you get into the National Merit Scholarship Program and the results can help you tailor your studying. For example, you may be great at the math section but have trouble with reading and writing. Then, you’ll know to spend more time practicing reading and writing questions rather than wasting time doing math sections over and over again. Also, within the sections, you can identify specific question types that are difficult for you, such as two-part questions or trigonometry. Then, you can keep working on those questions without doing the whole section and be more careful when you come across them. I have some more general tips for SAT takers (sorry to everyone taking the ACT, I can’t be of much assistance). In the math section, for the most part, you should not answer the questions in the way you would on a normal math test. What I mean by this is that you need to take the simplest approach possible. You should use the answers on the multiple choice part: Plug them into equations rather than solving from scratch. And for the no-calculator math section, you’ll probably need to brush up on long division and multiplication. I had to do practice worksheets intended for sixth graders; it was humbling but helpful. Also, use the process of elimination, especially for the reading and writing sections. OK, that was a lot of information, but I hope that if you plan to take the SAT, this helps.

Next year, you should also begin thinking about what colleges you want to apply to: public or private, liberal arts or research, small or large, suburban or urban and close-to-home or far. Knowing what you want can help you narrow down the seemingly endless choices of colleges, and by no means do you have to have a concrete list. You should also continue brainstorming majors, narrowing in on a few that excite you. Additionally, if you plan to get a college counselor, it would be a good idea to begin thinking about that now.

 I hope this hasn’t stressed you out too much. Don’t forget to enjoy your summer and junior year, either–don’t let college prep and school take over your life.


Unfortunately, juniors, for the first few months of your senior year, you might not have much time for fun. You might still want to take or retake the SAT or ACT next year, so if you are going to, the tips for the sophomores could be helpful for studying over the summer. Also, this is definitely the time for you to narrow down your college list. You should probably have six to 12 colleges on your list, with at least two safety schools (schools that you are almost guaranteed to get into based on your grades and test scores), at least 3 target schools (schools that accept students with your statistics), and a few reach schools (schools that would be difficult for you to get into). Over the past few years, college acceptance rates have dropped drastically, so be sure that your safety schools are realistic. Niche can help you find colleges that fit your needs based on location, college type, major, acceptance rate, etc.

You should start working on your Common App personal statement essay as soon as possible, so you will have less to do next year. You can look at the prompt options here and make an account here. You can also begin your UC application early with their Personal Insight Questions and make an account here. Most other colleges usually release their supplementary questions in July, so you can start working on them then. Also, once you create your accounts, devote a day to filling out your personal information on these applications because that can take a while. 

When you know what colleges you are applying to, you should compile a list of their supplementary questions after they come out (if applicable), so you can see how much you’ll have to write over the next few months. I know depending on how many and what kinds of colleges you are applying to, this can be a lot of writing. However, a lot of colleges use the same types of questions, so you can rework some to work for other schools’ questions. Nonetheless, you’ll need to create a writing schedule, considering each college’s deadline, so you don’t leave it to the last minute. Make sure to do multiple drafts and don’t be afraid to ask for help editing.

For each college you are applying to, you´ll need to decide which application round you will submit in, such as early decision, restrictive early action, early action and regular decision. Early decision means you submit your application early, usually in November, and if you get accepted, you are required to attend that university unless you cannot for financial reasons. This also means you can only apply to one college early. Restrictive early action is similar because it is also during November, and you can only apply to one early; however, you do not have to accept your offer of admission. Early action is the same, except it is not restrictive, so you can apply to other colleges early action. Early decision and early action applicants usually have the best chances of admission too. Some colleges also offer early decision/action II, which means the same thing, but you submit your application in December. Lastly, the regular decision deadline is usually in January, and there are no restrictions or binding agreements. However, UC and CSU deadlines are different–November and December, respectively.

On top of these deadlines, you need to watch out for the financial aid deadlines. They are usually around February, but they vary from college to college. The two main types of financial aid forms that you might need to fill out are the FAFSA and the CSS profile. Essentially every college uses FAFSA; whereas the CSS profile is commonly used by private institutions. Also, you’ll notice that you can only put 10 colleges on your FAFSA and eight on your CSS Profile, so what do you do if you are applying to more than that? Well, don’t worry. After you have added your 10 or eight colleges, you can remove some and add the additional ones. The ones you removed will still have access to your financial information; they just won’t receive any updates you make.

Once everything is all submitted, you should take some time to relax, but do not lose motivation. You will want to continue building up your accomplishments because if you get on any colleges’ waitlists, you’ll want to be able to tell them about all the amazing things you have done since you applied. Don’t worry too much though: The next few months will be difficult, but believe me or not, it will all be over before you know it.

This is a lot of information, and you absolutely do not have to do everything I recommended here to be successful. I just hope to provide you with advice and information that you can pick from to fit your goals. This is everything I wish I had known. Good luck to everyone in your future endeavors!

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