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For many high schoolers, especially juniors, COVID-19 has upended school as we know it and created a host of looming questions around what this all means for applying to college.

While COVID-19 has introduced a number of changes -- in terms of school offerings, testing and extracurricular options, the good news is that the general principles for what students can do now to prepare for the college application season remains the same. Now is the perfect time for high school juniors to start thinking about college applications. If you start the process now, it will make the fall college application crush much less stressful.

Putting together your college application is like cooking a good beef stew. If you’re trying to make a five-star stew, you wouldn’t just nuke beef, potatoes and carrots in the microwave. That mouthwatering stew requires slow cooking and simmering for hours to achieve that delicious flavor and texture. Likewise, the most competitive college applications are crafted when a student has spent time reflecting on their time in high school, brainstorming, writing and revising (and re-revising) their essays.

But before you can get cooking on your college application, you need to first gather the raw ingredients. Don’t aim for perfection right now, just gather the key components. And if you feel intimidated, remember: the hardest part is getting started.

1. Draft a college list.

As my colleague who formerly worked at Uber often says, you don’t typically get in a car unless you have a destination in mind. Similarly, before you start piecing your application together, you need to have a general direction or destination in mind in terms of colleges.

Sometimes students feel intimidated because it’s hard to know how to even begin making a college list. Consider these questions that can act as a compass to point you in a direction: “What do you like about your current high school and community? What are some things that you’re not a fan of about your high school?” This thought exercise can help to inform what you’re looking for in a college and perhaps even more importantly, its culture and community.

Some key factors to consider: college size (a large state institution like the University of Michigan versus a small liberal arts college like Haverford College), location (city/rural), weather, finances (in-state versus out-of-state tuition) and proximity to home. Be honest about your personal preferences, as you will be spending four years of your life in college.

A typical college list will have roughly 10 institutions, comprised of reach, fit and safety schools. For now, don’t feel confined by the number of colleges you will apply to, just start the list. Over the next few months, as you have time to think about it, you will be able to whittle down your list.

In many cases, COVID-19 has impacted the ability to participate in on-campus visits, but many colleges have adapted to online visits. While it’s not the same as in-person visits, it should still give you a sense of the culture and what they view as their strength. Think about what these colleges choose to highlight on their websites and videos. And try to connect with a current student at the college, who could provide more personal insight.

2. Track your extracurriculars.

The Common Application, which the majority of colleges and universities accept, gives you space to list up to 10 activities. Start a running list of the different activities that you’ve been involved in and note the impact you have made in those activities.

One of the biggest mistakes I saw as an admissions officer is that students would use the description portion of the activities list to describe the activity. Keep in mind that admissions officers aren’t looking for a description of the activity, but we are looking to understand what type of impact that you’ve made during your participation in the activity.

You can describe your impact qualitatively, but when possible, quantify. For example, if you organized a fundraiser for the local Red Cross, how much did you and your team raise and what did the money do? Or if you made a film or an art piece and posted it on Instagram and gained a lot of likes or views, write that down. Or under your leadership of a club, how much percentage growth did your club experience?

3. Brainstorm some ideas for your personal statement.

The Common Application has announced that its prompts for 2020-21 will remain the same as the 2019-20 prompts. There are seven total prompts, but since the last prompt option is “share an essay on any topic of your choice,” you can essentially write about anything.

Getting started is the most intimidating part. As a starting point, I’d suggest you look through the prompts No. 1-6 and jot down some potential brainstorm thoughts in response to each. Keep in mind that these ideas can come at completely random times -- while you’re chatting with friends, taking a walk outside, sipping coffee by the window. As these thoughts come, you can type them on your phone or write them down in a notebook, however you want to notate. Over time, there will probably be two to three topics that emerge as ones that you feel more drawn to and can write more easily about.

I actually think it’s a good idea to have two potential personal statement options. The reason is that if you get writer’s block, you can turn to the other topic. And also, you will almost surely be able to use your “backup” personal statement content for the college-specific supplemental essays.

4. Consider and identify your theme.

The strongest applications that I read at Yale University were ones where after reading, I felt like I could almost see the student pop out of the application, because there was a common and consistent theme. Are you the mountain biker who is fascinated by all things mechanic? The budding scientist who loves to write? Try to come up with a short catchphrase that can help you identify what your theme will be. Imagine if you were writing a Twitter bio.

Oftentimes, your theme will be tied to where you spend most your time on and what gets you the most excited. Step back and take a look at your transcript (what classes you took) and personal statement brainstorm thoughts, along with the list of extracurriculars (this includes how you spent your summers). Do you see a theme? Or perhaps ask a friend to take a look and ask them if they see a theme.

This theme should be reflected in your personal statement, activities list order, teacher recommendations (areas you can ask your teachers to highlight) and more. The reason a theme is so important is because as an admissions officer, we could be reading upward of several dozens of applications in a day. The applications can start to blur together, so the ones that are most memorable are ones that I can easily recall.

5. Make sure you’ve completed any testing that you would like to take.

Prior to the pandemic, there was a movement toward test-optional admissions. That movement has been accelerated due to COVID-19, particularly as test dates have been canceled and there is less access to standardized testing options.

But if you still have the option, I’d recommend that you take the standardized tests and then -- based on your results -- you can then decide whether you want to submit to colleges.

6. Identify your teacher recommendations.

Most colleges require two letters of recommendation from teachers, as well as a letter of recommendation from your school counselor. Most often you’re preassigned to your school counselor, but you do have a choice for your teacher recommendations.

Ideally, you’ll have one letter of recommendation from a teacher that has taught you in the humanities or social sciences.

My biggest piece of advice is to choose the teachers that know you the best and that will advocate for you. Sometimes it will be the teacher for the class you have the best grade in, but sometimes it won’t be. In my experience at Yale, the most underestimated part of the college application was the teacher recommendations. Admissions officers tend to put more weight on teacher recommendations over alumni interview write-ups because the teachers have the benefit of seeing you over an extended period of time, interacting with peers, and they see the more natural you.

By the end of junior year, you should have already asked your teachers whether they would be willing to write a letter of recommendation for you. Over the next few months, attend office hours, participate in class discussions and find ways to nurture that relationship.

7. Be kind to yourself and keep the big picture in mind.

If you’re feeling stressed, know that it is understandable. Not only might you feel like you’re trying to capture four years of high school life onto paper, but different colleges have different requirements. And on top of that, with COVID-19, a lot of normalcy has been upended.

I think it’s so important to keep perspective, as sometimes we miss the forest for the trees. College admissions at selective schools is subjective -- it’s human readers and committees formed of humans who make the decisions. It’s rare that a student who gets into all the colleges they apply to.

At Yale, we weren’t looking for students would only be happy at Yale. We were looking for students who would love to be at Yale, but also the type of student who would be happy and thrive at a number of colleges. Because ultimately, it’s less about the college itself as it is about the student and how the student creatively utilizes the resources at hand.

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