This weekend I watched “American Underdog,” which is about former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner. Some football fans may remember he was undrafted coming out of college at the University of Northern Iowa. In his first shot with a pro team (the Green Bay Packers), he bombed. He was not ready or prepared. Over the course of the next few years, he played Arena League Football in Des Moines, Iowa. It was in those seasons that he studied, learned, grew, and realized what he wanted and why.
Now, I’m not saying you have to watch the movie, move to Iowa, or stock shelves in a supermarket the way he did. But, if you are a rising high school senior, I do believe his story is instructive. When Kurt Warner got his next NFL shot with the St. Louis Rams a few years later, he was ready and ultimately successful. That success, however, came through a process of examination and preparation.
You don’t have a few years before you apply to college—you have a few months. But that is enough because this is not about memorizing and executing a complicated NFL playbook. Instead, I’m boiling your summer college admission application playbook down to five steps.
GET STARTED. I am challenging you to create a Common Application or Coalition Application via Scoir by July 15. The odds are you are going to use one of these platforms to apply to at least one college, and sometimes just getting started is the toughest thing. Whether it be running or writing a paper or doing a chore, the first step is often the one that requires the most energy. But as you know, once the school year starts, you are going to have assignments, practice, work, and tons of other opportunities and obligations as a senior. Knock out the basic biographical information these applications will require now.
CREATE (or UPDATE). If you do not already have one, there are plenty of online templates and resume generators to help you. Again, the summer prior to senior year is the time to do this. Some colleges allow you to upload resumes directly into their application, and with AI tools you can take copy from your resume and easily reformat into the Activities section of college applications.
If you go for a campus visit this summer where an interview is offered, you will want to bring your resume, and ultimately if you are part of scholarship or honors program interviews, you’ll need a refined resume. In our first-year seminar at Georgia Tech, we help students refine resumes because employers, scholarship programs, and research opportunities all expect these. Get ahead when you have capacity this summer.
DRAFT and REVISIT. The Common Application essay prompts are posted. I know the weather is good and sitting in front of a computer is not the first image that pops up when someone says, “Summer.” But your goal in the fall is to be as far out in front of deadlines as possible.
Ultimately, you want to submit an essay that you believe tells more of your story and complements the other information on your application. That’s not going to be done in one sitting—even though we try to tell ourselves, “I do my best work when I’m under pressure.” I’m suggesting you pick a prompt (or two) and knock out a first draft by August 1. Under that timeline, you’ll have plenty of time to revisit your essay, run it by a teacher, counselor, or another trusted adult, and be completely set by October 1 at the latest.
READ and RESEARCH. Since you do not have actual school homework this summer, here is my assignment for the weeks ahead. READ. Think about the colleges you are currently considering and read more about them. Too many students build their list of schools based on rankings, football conferences, or the opinions of others. Read and consider what you learn about a few of the schools you are excited about. Check out their student newspaper, a recent alumni magazine online, or some of the latest stories featuring professors or students.
Ask yourself if what you are seeing excites you, encourages you, and gets you more motivated to apply… or not. This is a gut check. As you are reading, be honest with yourself about why that particular school is of interest and how it landed on your list of colleges to consider.
Extra Credit: Read something you actually want to rather than what has been prescribed to you in school. Take time this summer to check out an article or a book about a topic you want to know more about or understand more deeply. Or maybe an author or a subject you would normally not be interested in or generally disagree with. Too few of us are willing to explore “the other side.” A mindset of curiosity and a posture of willingness to consider will make you a better college applicant and ultimately a better college student.
EDIT and ITERATE. Your first essay draft will not be your best. You will improve your writing by coming back to it with fresh eyes in multiple sittings. Too many students do not look back over their entire application to consider what they have left out or how they can improve the overall submission. But if you follow steps 1-4, you’ll have time to do this. There will be time for a parent, friend, or another adult look over your entire app and ask you questions about why you either did or did not include particular elements. Iterate.
And your college list can (arguably should) be changing this summer too. We are too quick to believe changing our mind is a weakness. Instead, it means you are thinking critically, doing your research, and staying open to what you want, what you learn, and which colleges match and fit your goals and interests. Editing and iterating is a strength. Don’t believe me? Check out Adam Grant’s instructive book or podcast for more on this lifelong skill of re-examining or “thinking again.”
Two Thumbs Up- Another element I loved about the movie was it was clear that Kurt Warner was having fun playing football. There was pressure but he did not look at it like a job. Instead, it was a privilege and an opportunity. That’s what this is, my friends- a privilege and opportunity. My hope is you’ll have fun visiting, researching, and ultimately applying to college. Sound crazy? Sound impossible? See: Kurt Warner.