While you might think that college application season doesn’t really start until the fall, the truth is rising seniors need to think of summer as the real beginning of application season. Yes, fall is when application season really amps up, with applications being accepted for some schools as early as September, but it’s not a great idea to wait until then to start working on a college application plan. In addition to regular school responsibilities and extra-curriculars, seniors also have to balance writing multiple application essays, managing application platforms, fitting in a few last standardized tests, and more. There is plenty that rising seniors can do over the summer to set themselves up for a successful – and much less stressful – fall.

1. Research colleges

Researching schools is one of the most important parts of the application process, but can also be one of the most daunting! How do you know where to look? What should you be looking for?

I recommend starting with what you know. Make a list of the colleges you’ve heard of, places your family members have attended or schools your friends have mentioned they’re interested in. Only heard of it because it has a big football team? That’s ok, add it to the list! Is the one thing you know about it that it’s at the beach? On the list it goes! Is it a highly selective school that you know you’d never get into? Add it! The point is, for this first dive into potential colleges, it doesn’t really matter what’s on your list, just that you have a starting place.

Maybe you have an idea of where in the country you would like to attend college or what you might want to major in. If that’s the case, you can start to search by those criteria. The following are some of my favorite resources for more specific college searches:


  • Naviance – specifically the SuperMatch and the advanced college search features. Both let you search by specific criteria, which can help you find colleges with the characteristics you want. However, Naviance is a resource that can only be accessed through high school portals, so if your high school does not use Naviance, you won’t be able to access this one.
  • Niche.com – I like this one because it lets you search by location and major, and then by more criteria, such as selectivity and test scores, but is not a comprehensive resource.
  • Unigo.comA large selection of majors and locations to search by, with so many results it can be overwhelming! But it does help to see how many options are out there for whatever you’re looking for.
  • BigFuture.collegeboard.orgThe College Board’s college resource page. I like the search options here, but some students find it tricky to navigate.


Once you’ve done an initial search and sort of thrown a ton of options on your list, it’s time to start doing some research.  Dig into the schools’ websites to find out about the majors and programs they offer, the size of the schools, the locations, whether students live on campus, what the housing options are, what campus life is like, etc. You should record all of this information on a document somewhere so you can keep track of it!

2. Narrow down your list

Hopefully all that research you did in Step 1 has left you with a nice long list of schools to consider. You probably got rid of some in that first round because you learned that some schools didn’t offer a major you were interested in, or were bigger than you would like, or located farther away from home than you feel comfortable with.

But now it’s time to start weighing the characteristics of each school that’s left on your list to determine whether it’s going to stay on your list. Ideally, you’ll ultimately apply to between 7-10 schools (counting any of the University of California or California State University campuses just as one, respectively, since you’ll only fill out one application for each institution and check the box of which campuses you want to apply to).

Go through your list and determine which schools meet the criteria that are most important to you. Distance from home, religious affiliation, study abroad programs, over 10,000 students, whatever is important to you. Next, determine for you personally which schools will be reach schools, target schools, and safety schools. You want to make sure you have a few of each on your list.

This is a big step and it is not imperative that it be completed over the summer, but you should have a pretty solid idea of which colleges you are applying to once school starts again. There is always room to adjust by adding or removing a school here or there, but try to get it mostly narrowed down over the summer.


3. Make a resume

Some colleges specifically ask for you to include a separate resume document with your application and some will just ask for the components of a resume within the application. Either way, it’s a good idea to start compiling a list of all of your accomplishments, activities, interests, and work/volunteer experience. Sometimes it can be tough to remember everything you have done throughout high school, so start this one early and add to it as memories come back to you.

4. Make a Common App account/start filling it out

This is one of the easiest tasks you can do over the summer to get ahead of the game once school starts. The Common App doesn’t officially open until August 1, but anything you enter in before then will roll over once it officially opens. I recommend filling out as much of the universal Common App sections as you can, so that it’s one less task you have to do in the fall. I typically advise students to wait to fill out the sections that are unique to individual schools until the application officially opens and you know for sure which ones you’ll be applying to.


5. Brainstorm Essay topics (Click here for our free Brainstorming workbook!)

Coming up with a College Essay topic can almost be harder than writing the essay itself! For this reason, I recommend spending some time doing some self-reflection before you even look at the essay prompts. Think about your personality, what makes you tick, the things you’re most proud of, the challenges or struggles you’ve overcome, what makes you feel like the best version of yourself, etc. Then think about specific stories or examples from your life that best illustrate those characteristics or accomplishments of which you’re so proud or that showcase any special talents or aspects of your life that define you.

If you’d like some help with the brainstorming process, you can download our free Essay Brainstorming Workbook that will guide you through the whole process. Once you’ve completed it, you’ll not only have a better understanding of yourself, you’ll have everything you need to start writing both a stand out Common App Essay and UC Personal Insight Question responses!


6. Complete a draft of a Common App Essay and your four UC PIQs (if applicable)

This year (2019), the Common App Essay prompts and the UC Personal Insight Questions have not changed, so this is a task you can complete before school starts! I hope you believe me when I tell you how much your Fall-self will thank your Summer-self for getting your main essays done over the summer! It might not be your final-ready-to-submit-and-blow-away-the-admissions-officers draft, but having a usable draft of these completed over the summer will put you leaps and bounds ahead of the game once school starts. There will still be plenty of time for revising or adding in new experiences or insights that arise.

Writing these essays is likely a totally different experience from anything you’ve been asked to write before in school. It may take many attempts to find your voice and express yourself in a manner appropriate to this type of essay. That’s ok! That’s why it’s a good idea to start these early. If you find yourself feeling paralyzed by writer’s block, here are some tips for writing Common App Essays and UC Personal Insight Questions.


7. Read!

Reading is important for so many reasons, but especially for rising seniors about to embark on their college admissions journeys. Many of the more selective colleges have questions on the applications asking about what you’ve read and it’s common in interviews or even at casual prospective student events to hear the question “What have you been reading lately?” Let me tell you, the answer to that question cannot be “Ummm…I don’t really read.” That’s a huge red flag for colleges! They want to know that you’re ready for the challenges of college and telling them that you don’t read is not going to instill in them confidence in your academic abilities. You don’t have to read enormous boring Charles Dickens books (unless you love enormous boring Charles Dickens books, then please, read them all), you can read whatever you like! Just make sure you’re always reading something so that you can confidently answer the question “What have you been reading lately?”


8. Continue to further/deepen your interests

After getting through the first seven things on this list, you’re probably thinking there’s no way you’ll have time left for your hobbies and interests! But you will. We always make time for the things that matter to us. Colleges want to know that you have interests and they’re interested in whatever you’re interested in. Hopefully you’ve already been working on developing these interests over the last few years, so that by the summer before senior year, you’ve reached a point where you can take them further. This will look different for everyone, but some examples include coaching younger kids in your sport, starting a club or organization at your school, developing a project on your own, entering a competition that’s outside of the norm for your chosen activity, or submitting articles to a local publication outside of your school. The possibilities here are endless! Ask yourself what’s something you can do to take something you love just one step further.