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College applications might not have gotten any easier in the last 12 months, but from an outsider’s perspective (i.e., someone who’s not a parent of a high school student), things seem to at least be settling into a new normal. This is my 22nd season as an admissions and test prep coach, and there seems to always be one constant:

It doesn’t need to be as complicated as it’s made out to be.

When the holiday season comes around, resist the temptation to use this break to play catch up on where you think your college-bound teen needs to be. They can be prepared to move into the new year on the right foot by planning – not stressing – now for what comes later:

Seniors in the home stretch:

By now many seniors have made it through the toughest part of the process – taking tests, drafting essays, and completing applications. They may have even heard from a school or two if they applied via Early Action or Early Decision. Next steps will be to start weighing financial aid offers. Others may be thinking about schools with rolling admissions deadlines, starting in the fall at a community college, going to trade school or the military or even straight to the job market. Whatever the plan, they should give themselves a holiday break and plan their steps for January – June, readying themselves to make the best decision possible when Graduation comes.

Juniors are just getting started:

Scores will be back soon from October’s PSAT, if they aren’t already. You can use that information to determine whether a March SAT or April ACT is the best option for the spring. (Many juniors might have also tried this month’s SAT or ACT, but I recommend counting the early spring tests as the first “real” attempt.) Beyond that, they’ll have options for a second test in May or June, and then, if needed, a third over the summer or even in October.

The idea here is not to stress out too early in the game – line up potential test dates with sports schedules and other considerations and put a few on your calendar. This simple act of planning out what’s to come can make the next 9-12 months remarkably less complicated and less harrowing. Can plans change? Of course. But in my experience, it’s better to change direction later than it is to move into the new year with no direction.

Remember too that test scores don’t have the same level of importance that they used to; even pre-pandemic, colleges were starting to take a more holistic approach to how they evaluate their candidates. “Test-optional” is always, well, an option. But since tests are often the most stressful part of the process, it’s helpful to remember that it’s a step over which you have total control.

Give yourself and your family the gift of peace of mind this holiday season. Lay out a plan for navigating the first half of 2022 and acknowledge that those plans can change. It’s my firm belief that every student who goes to college ends up attending where they were meant to be, and no matter how hectic the process can get, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

Happy Holidays!