Over the next few weeks, proud students and prouder parents are off to move students into dorms to start their freshman year at college -- a dream come true. But the process is really not fun. It might seem a bit early, but if you are in junior high or early high school, this is the perfect time to start to get familiar with the college application process. You do not get do-overs. Thinking about college now will help determine what classes and activities you sign up for. Download an application and read it. Common applications and private apps are not that different. Hopefully you have already visited a few college campuses and have a little bit of a feel for the surroundings. Do not be too shy to visit schools, especially football games! Parents do not sign up an eight year old for the tours intended for high school juniors and seniors.
The first thing I usually tell nervous students and parents is that there is a college for everyone. The earlier you start your college search and application process the better you will be. But not everyone is going to Harvard. College is expensive. There is money available, but you have to be pro-active, organized, and diligent about looking into what is available and know the deadlines. You are selling yourself on a piece of paper. You have to look great and tell the truth. You are competing against people who have hired college counselors, have goals since the pre-natal years, and are being pushed / guided by their parents. You are competing against the top students in the country with great grades and resumes, legacy kids, and people with money. Do your homework. Applying to college can be a fulltime job.
Be realistic about your expectations. You are competing against students that have been cramming SAT practice classes outside of regular school since they were in sixth grade. If your grades are not great, then you probably aren't going to a top ten school. Grades matter. Test results matter. Have some consistency in all the extra-curricular activities you choose. And about volunteer time, no one really cares if you built houses for the homeless in a third-world country every summer since seventh grade. If you looked around while you were building those homes, you would see that you were not alone so that does not make you interesting or stand out. Your resume should not read like a list of things you did. But if you like building houses, then build houses.
Do not wait until Thanksgiving weekend when teacher recommendations are due to ask someone to write your rec. I would not want to spend my Thanksgiving vacation writing a recommendation for a student who thought of me and their application as an after-thought. Do not pick the teachers only from the classes you got "A's." They might not know you as well or have an interesting story or insight into your participation. Think about someone you struggled with and learned something from. They probably know you better.
Work it backwards. Try to decide what you are interested in and what kind of career you can have, and then decide what schools in what part of the country you would like to go. Size matters. Consider the size of the school that you feel would work for you. Have realistic expectations. I can't count the number of students in high school who decide to be a vet because they like dogs, but they still haven't passed algebra. Vet school is one of the hardest schools to get into, and its grad school -- so you have to major in something first and be perfect if you want to apply to vet school. Pre-law and pre-med are not majors. Pick something you like and are good at to major.
Write your own essay. Essays are important. Write about yourself and experiences you have had. If you liked building houses and you can tell a story about what it meant to you and how it changed you, then write about it. Your story has got to convey something personal, special, and different about you.
Good luck and remember everyone else had to do it this way too. It doesn't seem so bad when you are moving into that dorm.