What To Do (and What Not) in Senior Year of High School?

It’s the start of the school year in America, and there is a certain group of students that is stressed because of college apps: high school seniors.

You are under constant pressure from family, school, and perhaps everyone who knows you are a senior to craft your college application.

To help you to at least know what you should do, I’ve prepared this article:

Firstly, a quick rundown of the topics discussed in this article:

What to do during senior year of high school?

  • Start college application essays the summer BEFORE senior year starts
  • Take the SAT/ACT one last time if necessary
  • Gather letters of recommendation
  • Keep taking advanced courses as offered by your high school
  • Do not let your grades drop
  • Don’t join new extracurriculars just to add fluff to your college application
  • Stay on top of your financial aid plan
  • Visit the colleges/universities
  • Keep your record clean from any disciplinary violations

Start College Essays the Summer Before Senior Year

The biggest piece of advice I have consistently heard regarding college apps is to start your college essay(s) before senior year even begins. Your main focus should be the big ~650-word essay (also referred to as your personal statement) that both the common and coalition application require.

Both the common app and coalition app release their prompts by the summer, so you basically have all summer to work on and perfect your essay. Other than the personal statement, most colleges have a few supplemental essays that tend to have a couple of hundred-word limits.

You can definitely start those supplemental essays during the summer as well since you will likely see overlaps in supplemental essay prompts across colleges. But why should you start your application essay(s) in the summer?

Well, there are many reasons:

Opportunity to Apply to More Schools

Getting a head start on your essays gives you the opportunity to apply to more schools. For example, I interviewed Sumanth Chandraputla, who was about to finish up his senior year of high school. I did a double-take when he told me he had applied to 36 colleges.

Here I was thinking applying to 12 was a handful, and then there he was applying to triple that number. He said the only way he was able to apply to that many schools was because he had started his essays the summer before senior year had started.

Sumanth also told me that he saw a lot of overlap of supplemental essays across different colleges, which, of course, made applying to 36 schools easier. 

Less Stress

A simple/obvious reason is that it makes senior year less stressful. My friend, who has just finished high school, said his senior year was much less stressful compared with his classmates because he didn’t have to balance maintaining GPA, extracurriculars, and college prep.

He finished all his essays before the school year started and said that would be the best piece of advice he would give to any high school senior. 

Consider Applying Early Action or Early Decision

For those who aren’t familiar with applying early to a college, it is exactly as it sounds. Regular application deadlines are usually at the beginning of January, but early application deadlines are sometime in November.

There are two kinds of early applications: early decision (ED) and early action (EA). ED is binding, which means you agree to go to the college if accepted, whereas EA is not.

Decisions for early applicants usually come out sometime in December, so students who apply early can get into a college before some people have even submitted their application(s). 

Most EA and ED deadlines are sometime in November, so you would be in an even greater time crunch if you weren’t to start your application until the start of the school year. 

Take the SAT/ACT Test One Last Time if Necessary

It’s true that grades aren’t everything, but they carry a lot of weight in college apps. According to the NACAC survey for 2019, “Students’ academic achievements—which include grades, strength of curriculum, and admission test scores—constitute the most important factors in the admission decision.”

Put shortly: your SAT/ACT score needs to be on the level as the most prestigious college you are aiming for.

In the context of top schools, getting a high score is almost a given. For example, Harvard’s average SAT is 1520, and the average ACT is 34, meaning the average accepted applicant that took the SAT had a score of 1520 and a 34 for ACT admits.

Every school has a different timeline for when they require their students to take either the SAT or ACT, so based on that, you may or may not have taken the test before senior year. If you have, take a look at your score and determine if you are in the safe zone for the schools you are applying to.

The dates that the College Board administers the SAT and ACT change every year, but each occurs seven times a year. As you can see by the table, seniors applying early can take the SAT 2-3 times (early application deadline varies school by school) before the application deadline and four times before the regular decision deadline.

If you haven’t taken it yet, better start hustling.

Gather Letters of Recommendation

The second most important factor in an admissions decision is the kind of person you are. Letters of recommendation, along with your essays (personal statement and supplementals), are the primary components of your application that you will use to showcase yourself.

Although they are important, you’re not going to spend a lot of time on this part of the application (well duh because your teachers are the ones writing them), but you do need to do two things: pick your teachers carefully and give them the right information.

The former is quite self-explanatory:

a) The teachers who can attest to your character, b) those who want you to succeed and will champion for you, and c) preferably, teachers who are good writers.

As for the second part, when I say give them the right information, I mean you have to give them a lot of substance for them to write a good recommendation letter. I actually interviewed two college experts Mark & Anna about how to create a person behind the application that you can check out here:   

We talk about both the personal statement essay and how to make the most of your letters of recommendation.

high school senior

Keep Taking Advanced Courses In Your High School

Do not make the mistake of slacking off senior year. Yes, you’ve probably worked your ass off for the last couple of years, but now is not the time to let yourself go.

For example, let’s say you took 2 AP classes sophomore and then bumped it up to 4 AP classes junior year. If you can, in your senior year, you should stick with 4 AP classes as you did for junior year.

However, if you’ve already taken most or all the AP classes you can by the time junior year rolls around, don’t worry. Colleges/universities know the number of advanced classes that an applicant’s school offers, so if you literally can’t take anymore, a college will know that. 

Avoid Letting Your Grades Drop

Yep, even after you’ve been accepted, a college can take your acceptance away. Similar to the previous point, don’t let yourself go with this one.

A slight decrease (e.g., from straight A’s to straight B’s) probably won’t do much, but a drastic decrease in academic performance could result in a revoked acceptance. If you’ve been a mostly straight-A student all of the high school but then drop to a straight D student, that is alarming to a college.

I once interviewed Kate, who, at the time, just graduated from Duke University. When we started talking about her senior year of high school, she mentioned how she and practically everyone else at her school eased off on their senior year.

I asked her if she ever worried about getting her admissions revoked. She said that she didn’t worry about a revoked acceptance because as long as you meet a certain threshold for a college senior year, you will be fine (the threshold she had to meet was a 3.0 GPA). 

Avoid Starting New Extracurricular Activities

One of the important components of extracurricular activity is how long you’ve been doing the activity. If you’ve done a particular extracurricular for, let’s say, five years, it gives the appearance that you are invested and passionate about that extracurricular.

On an episode of my podcast with David from MIT, he told me about a science fair that he had been part of since the 4th grade (all the way up until college apps). The fact that he participated for 12 years and actually won during his high school years looks very appealing to a college. 

Now what does not look too good is joining an extracurricular during senior year. Even if you recently discovered a new club that sounds so interesting, it may not look like that to a college.

They’re going to have a hard time determining whether you actually joined that extracurricular because of genuine passion and interest or if it is a last-ditch effort to add fluff to your college application.

Many students may freak out as college apps creep closer and closer and join a bunch of clubs just to add something more to their college application, but this could likely backfire and hurt your overall image of a college.  

However, this is tricky because there are some extracurricular activities that you can not do until you are in your later years of high school. For example, it is very unlikely you will be able to find an internship entering high school at the age of 14.

In all likelihood, if you choose to do an internship, it will be in your junior or senior year of high school. When it comes to situations like this, where you didn’t have the chance to do an extracurricular until your upperclassman years, there is another thing you should keep in mind: try to make sure it ties in with your other extracurriculars.

For example, if you have been actively involved with mock trial and Model UN throughout high school, then an internship at a law firm your senior year wouldn’t look too suspicious. An admissions officer could still see it as a last-ditch effort, but at least it ties in with the rest of your application. 

Stay on Top of Your Financial Aid Plan

Financial aid has to be one of the most stressful parts of college applications.

For many students and their families, financial aid is the deciding factor in which college they decide to enroll in. There is not much to say on this matter. Know your deadlines and gather all the information that will be asked of you regarding financial aid.

Visit the Colleges/Universities

Honestly, if you are financially and physically able, it is best to go on college tours before senior year, but better now than never.

There are two main reasons why you should go on college tours:

Demonstrated Interest in Preffered Colleges

Demonstrated interest is a factor that plays into admissions decisions. Demonstrated interest tells a college how interested they are in attending their school. There are many ways to show demonstrated interest, and college tours are one of them.

It should come as no surprise that colleges keep track of all your activity related to their college, such as when and how often you visit their websites. It is the same for college tours.

Colleges know when you’ve visited their school and will put you on their mailing list. If they see that you decided to apply after paying them a visit, then that shows you are genuinely interested in attending their school.

Determining if You Should Actually Apply to a School

The other is for you to decide whether you actually like the college or not. This can come before or after applying to college. I can say from personal experience that a campus visit can truly change your perspective and level of interest in a college/university.

So far, I’ve been to the Vanderbilt, Harvard, Northwestern, MIT, UChicago, Yale, Duke, Princeton, UNC-Chapel Hill, Wake Forest, George Washington, Notre Dame, & Georgetown campuses, and there are definitely schools that I like better than others.

All eleven of these colleges are fantastic, reputable schools with amazing programs across numerous disciplines (I sound like every admissions officer describing their school haha), but my liking of some schools over others has nothing to do with those programs.

When you step on campus and go on a college tour, you can often feel whether or not you can see yourself as a student there.

Can you see yourself walking across the quad on your way to class? Can you see yourself studying in the campus library? Can you see yourself at the dining hall with friends in between classes?

These are the questions that ran unconsciously through my mind during all my college tours. I won’t rank the schools I visited from favorite to least favorite, but I do have some honorable mentions.

I absolutely adored my Vanderbilt visit, and it is still one of my favorite schools. Something about the people, the campus, and the atmosphere made the school so appealing to me. 

Keep Your Record Clean from any Disciplinary Violations

There are many stupid things you shouldn’t do even after you’ve gotten accepted into a college/university. “Trouble” encompasses many things such as drug use, arrests, expulsion (being expelled), or any improper social media use.

I mentioned this in my article on “How Bad Do Your Grades Have To Be To Get An Admission Revoked?” but I’ll bring up this example again because of how important it is.

At a minimum, ten students who were already accepted into the Harvard class of ‘21 had their admissions revoked after the school discovered an inappropriate meme chat where “students sent each other memes and other images mocking sexual assault, the Holocaust, and the deaths of children… [and] joked that abusing children was sexually arousing, while others had punchlines directed at specific ethnic or racial groups.”

Yes, even after a school accepts you, they can pull back their offer in the case of any sort of inappropriate behavior. If you want a more detailed list of things that can get your admissions into a college revoked, check out my article “How Bad Do Your Grades Have To Be To Get An Admission Revoked?”

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the College Reality Check.

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