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Monthly College Search Update

Welcome to our monthly update on the college search and application process. Each month, we'll be updating this page and including it in our newsletter, so that all of our subscribers can have access to summaries of what they should be thinking about at this point in the college search process.


These updates will mostly focus on the junior and senior classes. Freshmen and sophomores should focus on maintaining good grades, academically pushing themselves, getting involved in extracurriculars, and making sure their summers incorporate meaningful experiences for growth. 

December 2024

Class of 2025

Important Tasks

Start Thinking About College Fit

Register for Spring SAT

Connect with Teachers

Senior Year Course Planning

Prepare for a Tough Semester

College Visits

Summer Planning

Schedule a Meeting with Your College Counselor

  • Start Thinking About College Fit:  As you navigate through tougher courses during junior year, start thinking about what you might want to look for in a college. Are there certain states you are not interested in exploring for college? Are there states you do want to explore for college? Will you have financial support as you navigate the college application and educational journey? Do you prefer mountains or beaches? College town, rural setting, urban setting? How far is too far from an airport? Do you learn better in larger classes or smaller ones? Are you more engaged in the classroom when the teacher knows you? Do you prefer lectures or discussions to learn new material? Anything that comes to mind is worth writing down as you navigate this college search journey. The notes you take now will help inform your college list later!

  • Register for Spring SAT:  While many colleges and universities will remain test optional for the class of 2024, we strongly encourage all students to take an official SAT or ACT at least once to keep all doors open. Some schools might be test optional for admission but not for scholarship consideration, and many test optional schools are a lot more selective about who they admit without test scores. To that end, the College Board opened registration for their spring test dates, so be sure to register ASAP to get a seat at the nearest testing center. Registering early also affords students the opportunity to create a realistic study schedule leading up to the exam date. You can find the test dates and registration deadlines HERE.

  • Connect with Teachers: Most colleges require letters of recommendation from junior year teachers, and most often from core classes. Now is the time to connect with your teachers, make sure they get to know you inside and outside of the classroom. They will be writing about how you interact in the classroom, how you engage with your peers, how you contribute to the class they teach and the overall student community, etc. Give them positive reasons to remember your name: ask meaningful questions, accept constructive feedback to improve your skills in the class, and make sure to seek out help if you are struggling with the content of the course.

  • Senior Year Course Planning: We know it feels early, but it’s almost time for you to register for your senior year courses! Now is a good time to think about the trajectory of the remainder of your high school coursework, and make sure that you’re not only meeting graduation requirements at your schools, but also the requirements for colleges of interest. Most colleges want to see at least two years of a foreign language (preferably three or four), four years of math, four years of english, three or more years of science, and a year of visual or performing arts. Some schools require students to have taken chemistry and physics, and others require pre-calculus for certain majors. This is your last opportunity to take the courses you need, so be sure to explore all of your options with your school counselor (and Virtual College Counselors when applicable).

  • Prepare for a Tough Semester: It’s fairly common knowledge that junior year tends to be one of the toughest academic years a student will experience in high school. Remember, junior year grades will be the last set of grades most colleges will see prior to making an admission decision, so we recommend that students focus as much as they can on prioritizing their academic performance for the remainder of the year (and beyond). Don’t forget to ask for help when needed and be sure to not lose easy points by failing to complete homework assignments!

  • College Visits: Second semester of junior year is a great time to start visiting college campuses if you haven’t already. And while it’s great if you’re able to take the time to travel to visit colleges, it’s more common and easier to visit schools that are close by. We recommend trying to visit a selection of different colleges to get an idea of what you might be looking for, even if it’s not the ones that are closer to home. For example, you can visit a rural, suburban, and urban campus; private and public campus; small, medium, and large campus. Visiting a selection of schools will help narrow down your college fit interests as they relate to type of school, location, and size. Be sure to schedule your visit through each college’s website, and note that if you visit a campus on the weekend or during a time when the college is on break, the campus vibe will likely be a little sleepier than usual.

  • Summer Planning: This is going to be the last summer you have before you finish high school, and we strongly encourage you to ensure that the summer is productive and refreshing. Productive summers might include learning a new skill or hobby, working, volunteering, going to camp, participating in an internship, traveling, taking a course on a college campus, or anything in between. It’s time to start thinking about what you want your summer to look like and what goals you intend to meet during the summer. For students who are working with Virtual College counselors, summer is also when we will be working with you on your personal statement (the primary college essay) and supplemental essays (the prompts are typically released sometime in August when the applications open).

  • Schedule a Meeting with Your College Counselor: If you haven’t done so already, now is the time to schedule your next meeting with your college counselor. For students working independently with Virtual College Counselors, your January meeting will be 60 minutes (check your email for the link to schedule) and subsequent monthly meetings will likely be 30 minutes. If you’re not working independently with us, and even if you are, January is a good time to be planning ahead and getting on your school counselor’s schedule to ensure you know when senior year course registration will take place, that you’re on track for graduation, and to have that connection with your school counselor who will likely be writing one of your required letters of recommendation for your college applications!

Class of 2026

Important Tasks

Check Email and Application Portals Frequently

Apply for Financial Aid/Negotiation Strategies

Understanding College Admission Decisions and Next Steps

Making the Final College Decision

  • Check Email & Application Portals Frequently:  Seniors who have been working independently with Virtual College Counselors should have all of their applications submitted or ready to submit. Once all of those applications are in, it’s really important to check your email frequently for any updates from the school. It is also critical that you consistently check your prospective student portals for each school, to ensure that all application components have been received. Some schools add additional essays or components that can only be discovered and accessed through their portal, so applying before deadlines and checking frequently should ensure that no major piece is left out. Here’s a list of some things you should be looking for:

    • FAFSA/CSS Profile (when applicable)

    • High School Transcripts

    • School Report/School Profile

    • Letters of Recommendation

    • Student Self-Reported Academic Record (SSAR [if required])

    • Additional supplemental essays and responses not in the regular application

    • An additional scholarships application (if required for consideration)
      Please note, these portals are also where you’ll hear about most admission decisions. Most schools will send an email notifying you that a decision has been made and published in the portal, but some will just expect you to discover the decision on your own without prompting!

  • Apply for Financial Aid/Negotiation Strategies:  If you haven’t done so already, we strongly encourage all families to apply for financial aid, especially considering some colleges require these forms to disperse merit scholarship funds. Instead of reinventing the wheel and writing our own version of these important documents, we are directing you to some of the most helpful links and best financial aid resources available:

    • Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

    • College Scholarship Service Profile (CSS Profile)

    • Big J Educational Consulting's blog page (this is a helpful resource to have all of your questions answered about the changes to FAFSA for this year, and what to expect in subsequent years.

    • A helpful infographic from

    • Once you have your official financial aid award letter that lays out the total cost of attendance and the aid being offered, you may have an opportunity to negotiate for more aid. Unless a school explicitly states that the aid award is finalized and non-negotiable, it typically never hurts to inquire about more funding opportunities. Students can reach out to their admissions representative to inquire about increasing merit scholarships or other potential opportunities (like departmental scholarships) once admitted. **Please note that students should also explore the scholarship pages on each college’s website to see if there are additional scholarships that they may be eligible to apply for through the institution.** And parents can reach out to the office of financial aid if there has been a change in finances that might warrant more financial support from the school. In that scenario, the parent will be requesting a professional judgment and likely completing a form for a change in financial circumstance.

    • Before you choose to pursue additional financial support in the form of non-institutional scholarships, it’s important to find out from the school if they allow scholarship stacking or practice scholarship displacement. Scholarship stacking will allow the student to take money earned through other scholarship avenues and add it onto their aid offer, minimizing loans or a gap in aid. If they practice scholarship displacement, that means that money earned outside of the institution will take the place of what was offered from the school. In these cases, the student only receives a lower cost of tuition if the scholarship(s) they earn outside of the institution exceed the scholarship offered by the institution. Free aid that does not need to be paid back (scholarships and grants) are typically the first to be reduced at schools that practice scholarship displacement, so there’s sometimes no actual benefit to earning other scholarships. Another thing to note is that most non-institutional scholarships are non-renewable, meaning they’re only available for the student’s first year of college. If the school displaces other merit scholarship from the institution as a result of earning an outside scholarship, there’s a chance that will result in paying significantly more over the four years at that school!

  • Understanding College Admission Decisions and Next Steps: As colleges and universities send out their admission decisions, it’s important to understand all of the nuances in decisions being made and the next steps you can take:​​

    • Accepted/Admitted: If you receive an acceptance letter, it means you’ve been admitted to the institution. Some letters will indicate that you’ve been admitted to your intended major, while others may say that you were admitted to a pre-major or admitted to the school but not the major you listed on the application. And yet, there are still other nuances in acceptances! Some letters might indicate that you’re admitted, but for a summer start, or a spring start. Still others may be offering conditional acceptance as a sophomore, if you complete your freshman year elsewhere (Cornell University is a primary culprit of this kind of offer). Be sure to read the letter in its entirety to understand your acceptance.​

    • Rejected/Not Admitted: This one is pretty self explanatory: the school has reviewed your application and were unable to offer you admission to their incoming class.

    • Waitlist: It’s becoming more and more commonplace for schools to admit students to their waitlist instead of deferring (which you can read about below), admitting, or rejecting an application. The waitlist is typically a list of students who they believe can be successful in their school, but that they don’t have space for in the incoming class until they know who else will choose to enroll. Some schools admit a large portion of students off the waitlist, while others don’t admit any, or just a select few. Colleges won’t tell you which position you are on the waitlist, because many schools only go to the waitlist to fulfill various institutional priorities after the enrollment deadline (May 1st for most colleges). Students can choose whether or not they stay on the waitlist–there’s no guarantee staying on will lead to an offer of admission.

    • Deferred: If you applied Early Action (EA) or Early Decision (ED) and subsequently received a deferral to the regular decision round, it means they haven’t made a decision yet about your application. This can happen for many reasons–the school may not have had time to read all of the early applications (like at University of Michigan), they may want to see the mid-year grade report to ensure that your positive grade trend is sustainable, or they may want to see your application in the context of the rest of the applicant pool. What’s most important to remember is that some schools only accept or defer in the early rounds, without sending out any rejections. In those cases, the deferral is typically a “soft rejection” and it’s best to focus your energies on the other school options you might have on the table. In the case of schools that defer a small portion of the early applicants, then it’s important to continue to demonstrate interest. Some schools report this data in their Common Data Set (which can be found by Googling “[Institution name] Common Data Set]”.

      • If you are deferred, many schools will request or allow you to submit a Letter of Continued Interest (LOCI). ​

    • Relevant Blogs:What is a Letter of Continued Interest -- What's Up with the Waitlists in 2022?

  • Making the Final College Decision: It’s almost time for seniors to make their final college decision, and some of you might already be in that position! If you have already decided on a college to attend, congratulations!! Your next step is to accept your offer of admission and start to complete the housing forms. Once you accept the offer, it’s safe to decline your other offers of admission. Most of these decisions can be made in the prospective student portal for each school, but if you can’t find the place to accept or decline the offer, you can always email admissions to keep them in the loop. If declining an offer of admission, don’t forget to thank them for their time and consideration and explain that you’ve chosen to attend a different institution.
    Most schools give students until May 1st to enroll, but there is sometimes a benefit to enrolling early (for example, if housing is limited and not guaranteed for freshmen, it makes sense to enroll as soon as you have been admitted to your institution of choice–but make sure that the financial offer is sufficient before submitting the enrollment deposit).
    For the students working with Virtual College Counselors, once you have your offers on the table, please don’t forget to schedule a meeting with us to help you make your final decision if you need!

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