It’s gonna be a weird year (Sept 3, 2019)
So- it's going to be a weird year for college admissions. The "Aunt Becky" scandal has admissions officers spooked and looking over their shoulders. Admissions decisions for recruited athletes and for students with documented learning differences are liable to be more closely scrutinized than ever. The College Board both introduced and euthanized its Adversity Score before it could affect even one admissions cycle. The "top" thirty colleges have lower acceptance rates than ever (e.g., Duke has gone from accepting 21% in 2007 to accepting 8% in 2018), while thousands of terrific (but lesser known) colleges are facing financial crises because of declining enrollments. Lots of column inches are being given over to "why don't people just train to be plumbers" op-ed pieces lauding vocational training as a solution to student debt/underemployment. The whole world of college admissions (and general social attitudes about academia) is changing radically and rapidly.
Every bit of this is based in something real. Yes, we need to address how privilege helps guarantee acceptances; while the Adversity Score was all kinds of problematic, it was acknowledging real inequities. Yes, having a "name-brand" on your diploma does get you a certain amount of marketability, regardless of whether you've gotten a "better" education. And no, everyone does not need to go to college (nor incur massive debt) to have a fulfilling, useful, and lucrative career.
Having said all this, how are admissions going to be this year for you- the good student, hard worker, normal-to-high achieving high school student (or the parent of such)? Probably absolutely and completely normal. If you're not trying to cheat your way in by faking a learning difference, you're not pretending to be an athlete if you aren't, you're not going to "just die" if you don't get into Harvard/Stanford/Hogwarts, and if you're not secretly suppressing your electrician dreams to be an Art History major, you'll be fine! (If you are an athlete or if you have a learning difference, get your papers, documents, diagnoses in order.) If you're trying to get into a college because it's a great fit and not because it looks good on a bumper sticker, you'll do fine. Will you get in everywhere you apply? Probably not- if you do, you probably weren't ambitious enough in your list. But if you do things right (and yes, I can help with that), you will get into more than one school that's an intellectual, social, spiritual, and financial match, and you'll be left with a choice between terrific options! And all the Aunt Beckies in the world won't be able to take a thing from you!
Rising seniors, your time has come. . . (Aug 5, 2019)
Almost all of the college applications for fall of 2020 are open, with a few exceptions (I've noticed Princeton, Tufts, and Clemson so far). This means you can check on all the supplemental essay prompts (and get started on them), and even check to see what applications each college takes (Chapel Hill, for example, has added the Coalition App this year). This is also the time to be finishing up your main (650 word) essay and assembling your list of ten activities (only use activities from tenth grade and up, and be sure to rank them carefully). If you are assiduous about all this, by the time you submit your FAFSA (no sooner than October 1), you'll be ready to launch any applications you like.
In terms of whether to apply Early Decision, Early Action, Early Restrictive Action, or Regular Decision, make that decision carefully. Remember:
Early Decision: you are committing (in a legally binding way) to go to this school if accepted and may not apply Early Decision to any other school. This may increase your chance of admission by 5-8%
Early Action: you are merely asking for your application to be considered earlier
Restrictive Early Action: you are not constrained to go to this school if accepted, but you are not allowed to apply Early Decision or Early Action to any other schools (I've only seen this with Harvard so far, but I'm sure there are others)
Regular Decision: Good old-fashioned decision-making
Keep in mind that while Early Decision might be to your advantage in getting accepted, it decreases your power to compare and possibly negotiate