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If you’re a senior who hasn’t thought much about college, you might just be beginning to think about what you’re going to do after graduation. Take heart: it is never too late to apply to college. There is still time to complete college admission requirements, and to show grade improvements that can help with admission in the spring. You might even consider a post-graduate or gap year to help you apply to college a year after high school graduation.

We are often asked, by seniors but also by concerned juniors and sophomores, about whether it is possible to overcome earlier poor high school performance and lack of focus in order to get in to college. The answer is absolutely “yes”! Let’s focus on seniors, for members of younger classes can learn from this discussion — and have much more time to take our advice to heart.

Testing is a key part of the college admissions process

The first thing you need to think about is standardized testing. Most students go through a regular college admission process; they apply to several colleges (8 to 10 or so) with deadlines that are typically in January. Rolling admissions present another option, though, one that anyone applying late should at least look into.

Schools with rolling admissions continue to accept applications into the winter and sometimes spring, depending upon whether or not those individual schools have their own deadlines. Seniors applying to these schools should file applications earlier rather than later, since odds of admission decrease during the year. Thus, making November, for example, a personal deadline for rolling admission universities makes sense and it allows students to take the SAT or ACT in October and/or November.

(If you’re interested in more information on rolling admissions, follow the link.)

But what if you’re not applying to a school with rolling admissions?

If you’re applying to a balanced list of colleges, following regular admissions deadlines, you can actually wait and take the SAT or ACT in December, or even as late as January, and still have the scores count. So, the first lesson is that it is not too late to prepare for and take (or re-take) these important tests. Diligent work on your part can improve your scores and your chances for admission. And, if you can’t bring those scores up, you can consider the growing list of colleges that do not require the SAT or ACT for admission.

Grades are also a factor in meeting college admission requirements

The second factor to work on this year is your grades and course selection. If you act before it’s too late and you think you can handle it, you can change into a more rigorous academic program. It is worth a discussion with your counselor to see if that makes sense. This is particularly important if it looks like you need to take certain courses, such as an additional year of science or foreign language, in order to fulfill college admission requirements that exceed your high school’s graduation requirements.

Even if you had a difficult first year — or three years — of high school, your senior year counts. Regular admission colleges will see your first semester, and possibly even winter mid-term, grades. Showing improved and consistent performance can make a difference, even at this stage in your high school career.

Identify schools to apply to
The next steps in the college admission process are to research a range of colleges, visit several to make sure they fit your preferences, and apply carefully. Put together strong applications, expressing your strengths and personality, and articulating why you believe certain colleges will work well for you. Also try to schedule on-campus interviews (where available), sign up for alumni interviews, and attend meetings with college representatives who might visit your school or community during the fall. Contacts that can assist you in telling your story can help, particularly at the smaller to mid-sized colleges.

Also talk with your guidance counselor and work with him or her to come up with an appropriate list. Your goal is to produce several admission offers in the spring. Then, you will have time to explore these schools carefully to make the best and most well-informed decision.

Keep in mind that you might be placed on waiting lists by some colleges. If you are, then you can pursue those schools by writing letters expressing strong interest and updating them on your grades and activities.

Ask for college admissions assistance

Throughout the year, work with your teachers to reach your goals. Explain that you are focused on college, identify which schools you are considering, and express that you are taking things seriously. Identify one, or preferably two, core academic teachers who can write good recommendations for you.

Have a backup plan
If you do not get into colleges that interest you, or find that you are not able to put everything together to complete the college admissions process this year, consider a gap or post-graduate (PG) year. Taking the extra year can be of great benefit — but you need to make that year work for you.

A gap year can entail work, community service, academic classes at a local college, and/or travel. You can pursue interests, save money, show academic determination and ability through community college classes, or volunteer in an area you are passionate about. You could even enroll full-time in a PG year at a boarding school where you can work on good grades in good courses, retake standardized tests, and enjoy access to professional college counseling and college admissions assistance. If you make good use of a gap year, you will appear more mature, ready, and qualified for college entrance and success.

You might also consider enrolling full-time in a local community college. There, you can pursue specialized interests or a balanced liberal arts curriculum. You can also pursue your associate (2-year) degree, or seek to transfer to a 4-year college or university after a year of study.

Meeting college admissions requirements is possible

Most importantly, remember that it’s never too late to make it to college. You simply need patience, determination, and both a short- and long-term focus on success.

By Howard and Matthew Greene, hosts of two PBS college planning programs and authors of the Greenes’ Guides to Educational Planning series and other books.