The University Network

Summer Bucket List For Rising Seniors — Interview With Dr. Nicole Ditillo, Program Director, College Advising Corps at NC State

TUN sits down with Dr. Nicole Ditillo, the program director of the College Advising Corps at North Carolina State University, to discuss what high school students should do the summer before senior year to prepare for the college application season.

TUN: Dr. Ditillo, thanks so much for joining us. 

DR. DITILLO: Thanks, Jackson.

Let’s think about this in chronological order. What are some things that rising seniors can do in June, right after they start summer break, to set themselves up for a successful college application season?

I think one of the first things that [rising] seniors can do, if they haven’t done so already, is, start to create that college list. 

One of the things that we discuss quite a bit with the College Advising Corps is the match-fit between a student, their academic abilities and the institution that they’re looking to apply to. Students want to find an institution that fits their own interests. 

There are a lot of college search tools out there. In North Carolina, we use CFNC, which is associated with the state. But, the College Board and a number of other organizations have really great search tools as well. 

Students can look to see where their academic profiles fit. They can identify target schools,  where they align with the middle 50 percent in terms of GPA and admissions test scores. 

Also, they should be looking at schools that are going to be a reach for them, where they may be lower on the academic profile of the institution. They want to pick one or two schools that may fit within that range. 

They also want to pick one or two schools that are going to be considered safety schools, schools where they feel pretty confident that, if they apply, they’ll be accepted. 

I think for [rising] seniors, June is a great time to build this list. 

In addition to some of those academic components, students should also be taking into account the activities and experiences that they want to participate in. 

Is there a specific major? If I know that I want to major in, do I want to go to a large school? How far do I want to be from home? Do I want to study abroad? Do I really enjoy watching college sports, so I want to go to a school with a good football team or soccer team? 

Take some of those pieces and think, “Where can I use that in the college search process to narrow down this list of academic fit schools?”

There are also the financial pieces. College is a large investment, so June is a good time for students to have that conversation with their parents or guardians and talk about, “What are the expectations in our family about how we’re going to pay for college? How many loans do we want to take out? Who is paying for what portion?” 

That’s a good conversation to have before students even start applying. That way, they’re very clear about what kinds of institutions they should be looking at and how can they better prepare once it is time to actually put applications in. 

What’s the next step? What should rising seniors do in July to prepare for the college application season? 

I know that things are a little different now with COVID. There are components that a student can see just from the profile of an institution. 

So, once they’ve got that list, this is a good time to do a little more research into those schools. Maybe go from a list of 10 or 12 schools down to a list of about 5-7 schools. 

A good way to do that is to do [campus] tours. The good news is that you can do these in person or, now in COVID times, you can do a lot of these virtually. A lot of institutions have virtual tours on their websites. 

I think another way to learn about an institution is to connect with people who are alumni of that institution or who work at the institution. That way, you can try to get a sense of what the culture is.

“Is this a very highly academically competitive environment, and is that somewhere where I feel like I would be a good fit? Is this a school where sports are important?” Think about what’s important to you. Think about what will make you feel like, “Yes. I’m here. This is my institution.” 

I think students should really take the month of July and do a deeper exploration of some of the institutions where they feel like they are going to be a good fit. 

What about August? That is when the Common App is released, correct? What should rising seniors be doing in August to prepare for the college application season?

Yes, that’s correct. So, we talked about doing the college search. We talked about paring down that list. In August, it’s time for students to start pulling together some of the components that they’re going to need for an application. 

As you said, the Common App opens in August. With that, you can start to see some of the essay questions that are going to be available. Not all applications go through the Common App, but I still think they have some really great essay prompts to get you started. Your responses could even be used for applications outside of the Common App.

Another thing that students can start to get together are those recommendation letters. So, start to pull together a list of the people who really know you well and can speak to your ability to excel in college, whether that may be a teacher, a school counselor or sometimes even a coach who may be able to speak about your leadership abilities. If you’re part of any extracurricular activities, you could include someone who is part of that as well.  

So, start to pull together that list and the documents that you would want to provide to those recommenders so that they can write the best recommendation letter for you.

Many high school students may have resumes. So, this would be a good time to take a look back at that resume. Is there anything that could be updated? And then, provide that resume to your recommenders as well as a list of the institutions that you plan to apply to. 

The third piece would just be to do an audit of your own academic transcript. So, think about, “What are the academic requirements of the institution that I want to apply to? Have I taken the correct courses to prepare me so that I can apply for this institution?”

Senior year, before you jump into the classes, if there is an opportunity to work with your school counselor or if you are lucky enough to have a college coach or a college advisor, work with those individuals to figure out if your coursework is in alignment with the coursework that you need to apply or if you need to make any changes. 

I think those are three pieces that, if a student does that ahead of when a lot of these applications open, they’re going to save themselves a lot of stress in the long run. 

So, prepping for college applications is clearly important, but students have responsibilities outside of their college prep as well. So, do you have any advice to help students stay balanced and minimize the feelings of stress or anxiety that they may be experiencing?

Absolutely. The college application process can be very daunting. We know it’s time-consuming.

The best thing a student can do is to start early. You may not be able to actually turn in the application, but you can start to get a sense of the materials that you need to have ready so that, when the application does open, you’re ready to go. 

The college essay seems to be the thing, for our students, that takes the most time. I think it’s the most intimidating. If you can start to work on that college essay, even a rough draft, over the summer, I think that will be hugely beneficial and take some stress off of your plate once you get into the school year. 

The advantage of doing all these things early is that you get to actually enjoy your senior year of high school, which is a really important time in a lot of students’ lives. So, I cannot stress this enough. Starting to prepare early is really useful. 

And then, blocking out time in your schedule so that you are actually making time for some of these pieces, such as filling out applications or editing essays. 

Treat college applications almost like another class that you’re taking. Block out time on your schedule so that you have time to do those things. You don’t have to do it all at once. I love the adage, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. 

The college application process is a lot like that. One step at a time. Take one little piece and you’ll be amazed how much you get done over a period of time. 

Did we miss anything? Is there anything else that you’d like to add that would help rising seniors get ready for college applications in the summer? 

I think the biggest piece that I would add in is, there are a lot of different pathways to get to college. 

Many students apply to four-year institutions, but many students start their careers at a community college or somewhere closer to home and then transfer to a college further away. 

All of these pathways are valuable. I would just encourage students to think a little bit about some of the different options, not only what’s going to be the best option academically but also financially. 

This really is a family conversation to have. Although it is something that the student needs to take the lead on, it’s something that the family should really discuss as a group. 

So, just remember that there are a lot of different pathways and be open to a lot of those different pathways. 

You don’t need to make the decision when you apply. I think that’s the other mistake that students make is that they get very stressed out about where they need to go when they turn in those applications. The reality is, you should turn in the applications and then see what kinds of financial aid, grants, loans and scholarships come back to make the school that you want affordable. After that, you can make the decision. But, that stress doesn’t need to come early in the process. You can make those decisions a little bit later down the line.

Thanks, Dr. Ditillo, for joining us today.

Absolutely. Thank you.

This interview has been edited for clarity. Watch the full video here.