How to Prepare for College: for Smarties


As a senior, I realized that there are aspects of applying to college that you do not hear from advisors or parents, or you hear it but it is not emphasized or paid attention to. These are things that only a senior in March, or a current college student, might tell you. I hope reading this helps your college application process, so you make less mistakes than I did.

Freshman Year

This is the least stressful year of high school, emotionally and academically, so start the college search process early when you have the most time and energy. This is the year to really try to understand your relationship with college in order to start the search. Especially if you are a first generation college student, you need more time to understand your options: in state vs. out of state, finances, campus support, study abroad, the list goes on. Set aside a few hours each weekend where you’re not doing homework, but you are doing one of these things.

Summer Before

Make an email just for college. Even if you already have a professional personal email, make ANOTHER one just for college. Realistically,you will receive about one hundred emails a day from colleges. It is important to be able to comb through them and find opportunities to take advantage of. In order to do that, you need to not let all of your other personal emails mix in with your college ones.

All Year

Discover yourself. This will make it easier to know which colleges are best for you. Take personality quizzes, all of the ones you can find, and do any sort of leadership training (National Hispanic Institute and Youth and Government plug here) that helps you understand the environment you thrive best in. Maybe you like lectures, so state schools are good for you. Maybe you like socratic seminars, so liberal arts schools are your fit. Maybe you like research, so research universities are your niche.

Talk to anyone you know who has been to college or is currently in college to ask them about their experience. If you take ANY trips, even if it is to San Antonio or Georgetown or The-Middle-of-Nowhere Texas, find a college on the way or at your destination to visit. Visiting colleges right now may seem silly, but whether or not you vibe with a college is actually an important factor when applying to college. Researching out of state colleges junior and senior year is really hard when you can’t tell if you would connect with the school. When at different campuses, even if you don’t want to go to that school, it is easier to know how you would feel about another school based on that experience.


Find a prompt online and write about yourself, because you may use that essay later, and just being able to write about yourself is a skill that come in clutch later, I swear to Ann Richards herself. This is also a way to discover yourself. Start a folder in Google Docs of essays you have written for scholarships or anything else that you can use later for college applications.

Start applying to scholarships. I started a document THIS YEAR of all of the scholarships I can apply to, organized by month. Needless to say I wish I started this WAY earlier, because there are millions of scholarships that are designated just for a certain grade level (freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior year).


Research schools and different career paths you are interested in. Based on your self-discovery mentioned in the first bullet point, you can start to see the schools you fit in better with. Start a Google-Doc of schools that you are interested in and bullet point reasons why. A bullet point can literally be “I like the vibe.” It doesn’t matter, this will change a million times; what matters is that you are looking.

Sophomore Year

This is when academics start to pick up more at ARS, but please do not let this deter you from your college search. It will only get more intense during junior and especially during senior year. Do not get frustrated when your plans change. Do not let these things stress you out. Constantly try to reevaluate yourself. Try to understand what your loved ones want for you as deeply as you understand yourself. Be smart about how you communicate with your parents and advisors because they will be your biggest supporters in the most stressful parts of the process.

Summer Before

Read “Never Pay Retail for College” by Beth V. Walker. I read it the summer before senior year and I wish I read it sophomore year. For some of the information, our college counselors will tell you something slightly different, but in general the book has really good information on how you can prepare financially for college. Use the system to to your advantage and get the most money from colleges possible.

All Year

Continue the self-discovery, scholarship application, and college search items from freshman year. Those will be relevant every year of high school. You may take them for granted now, but they will help you a million-fold – more than you can imagine. As a teenager, it is easier to jump to conclusions about what you want in college (I thought I would FOR SURE go to a research institute, and I ended up applying to mostly liberal arts schools).

Junior Year

This year, academics pick up speed. You are hit with many other stressors including SAT/ACT, internships, so on and so forth. Again, please do not let this deter you from your college journey.

Summer Before

Get a low time commitment job. Continue this a little if you can throughout the year and into senior year. Examples include babysitting, dog walking, or working as a host on weekends. Ideally you would have a job that you can schedule for yourself for fun, homework, and FAFSA purposes. If you can, save half or more of the money you make for your money needs during senior year and college. When you add up application fees, sending test scores, visiting schools, cap and gown, prom, and all of the little fees of senior year, it comes to $1,000 to $4,000. In college you will want a little bit of flexible spending money for emergencies and the ability to actually do things that cost money, like go out.

All Year

Continue the self-discovery, scholarship application, and college search items from freshman and sophomore year. Everything is always changing, especially at our age. Embrace it, do not fight it. The process changes with you.


Write a rough draft of your Common Application and ApplyTexas essay when the prompts come out. The prompts for your senior year will be released spring of your junior year, but they are essentially the same every year so you can use prompts from previous years. If you write these when the prompts come out, the application process of senior year will be so much less stressful. You maybe even free up some time for your future self to go out with you friends or spend time with your family. What a concept.

End of Year

Try to solidify your list as much as possible. This will still change, but solidifying as much as possible now will make the senior year process smoother and more manageable. You can make a list of items needed for admission to each school. Your future self will thank you.

Senior Year

Summer Before

Write your essays. For any schools that you are SURE about or even SEMI-SURE, find the admission and school-specific scholarships prompts and write your drafts. You should have fun over summer, but when you feel bored or have free time, writing these feel incredibly productive and are often fun. You are really just bragging about yourself and reflecting on your experiences. You may laugh. You may cry. It is an important experience.

Fill out Common Application, ApplyTexas, FAFSA/TAFSA, and CSS Profile as soon as they come out and then review them with your college counselor before submitting them. If you do this stuff as soon as possible, like August, September, and October, it makes the rest of the process so much easier..

All Year

Do your work, but go out with your friends and family, and enjoy your last year. With applications, college interviews, sending scores, submitting financial aid forms, harder classes . . . oh boy. It is easy to lock yourself up in your free time and just do work. Although you want good grades and submitted college/scholarship applications, put yourself first. Don’t forget that this may be your last year at home and surrounded by your friends. Make memories. Go to homecoming and spend Friday nights out (preferably doing free stuff).

When you start receiving application portals from colleges, bookmark login pages and save usernames/passwords on your computer. I did it on my AISD chromebook. Additionally, save all of your login information on a piece of paper that you keep in a sacred place and can always access.


Create a spreadsheet. In fact, create multiple. Keep track of admission, money awarded and expected to be paid, your ranking preference of the schools, and scheduling visiting dates, overnight stays, etc. I cannot explain in words how much easier this makes everything. Color code as much as possible because it is more fun and easier to digest that way. For the admission one, have across the top:

  • College: Name of college and link (Ctrl+K) to the page on their website with admission requirements.
  • Application: If the application login is school specific, link the login page. If your application is through Common Application, ApplyTexas, or one of the other main ones, specify which one.
  • Admission Decision: Yes? No? Deferral? Put your current decision from them here so you can keep track. If you are waiting for a decision, put the date that you expect to hear from them.
  • Interview: Check if there is an interview option for the school in the Austin area. If there is, schedule one as soon as possible and put the date, time, and location here.
  • Special Requirements: Portfolio? Extra scores sent? Video application? There are crazy additional requirements these days, so keep track of them here.

Thank you for taking the time to read this and being proactive about an experience that will surely change your life! If you have any questions, feel free to come up to me in the hallways and ask away, or ask your upperclassman friends. We are always here to help.