It's no secret that this fall will be stressful for rising high school seniors as they navigate the college application process. But what students might not know is that starting the work now — even in small ways — can make a big difference.
High school seniors and even juniors can use the time away from the classroom to begin reflecting on what college is best suited for them by making a list of their favorite and least favorite aspects of high school and researching where they can best pursue their passions, experts told NBC News.
It also pays to go on some college tours — even if they're just local campuses a student doesn't think he or she is likely to apply to — to narrow down what to look for in future campus visits, the experts said.
Once students have an idea of which colleges fit them best, they can use the summer to start the necessary paperwork for applying, said Sara Harberson, professional college admissions counselor and founder of Admissions Revolution.
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"One of the most time-consuming parts of the college admissions process is filling out the applications. Students often underestimate how much time and attention are needed to fill out all the sections on each application," she told NBC News, adding that many selective colleges also require supplemental essays and short-answer responses.
And now that students no longer have to wait until August 1 to begin filling out the Common Application — used by hundreds of school nationwide — Harberson recommends starting as soon as possible.
"It's not a bad idea to create an account and begin working on each section one-by-one," she said. "The finished application for each college requires crafting and time. As straightforward as some of the questions appear, there is a lot of room for interpretation and nuanced responses can transform an application."
Associate Director of Admissions Megan Starling at Rhodes College in Memphis suggested making separate folders for each school on a student's list to keep mail and other material in, and making a list of deadlines and important dates for every college.
Students can also begin making an overall timeline for both the upcoming fall and spring to keep themselves on track with applications, campus visit programs, and financial aid or scholarship deadlines, she said.
"As your fall schedule fills with school and life events, you will be organized and already have a sense of what is necessary for your college search," Starling said. "Plus, a timeline changes your college search from something overwhelming to something you tackle day-by-day."
She also suggested making a resume to have all of a student's achievements and activities in one place for reference as they work on applications.
Starling added one piece of unconventional advice: Look up admission counselors at each college on your list and send them an email introduction. It shouldn't include your life story, she warned, but it can help show colleges that you're excited and humanize the process on both sides.
"When we meet you this fall, we can match a face to a name," Starling said. "For admission counselors who are lucky enough to get to know their students, this connection is part of why we love our jobs."